advertising influences familiarity induces preference

We probably like to think that we’re too smart to be seduced by such “branding,” but we aren’t. If you ask test participants in a study to explain their preferences in music or art, they’ll come up with some account based on the qualities of the pieces themselves. Yet several studies have demonstrated that “familiarity breeds liking.” If you play snippets of music for people or show them slides of paintings and vary the number of times they hear or see the music and art, on the whole people will rate the familiar things more positively than the unfamiliar ones. The people doing the ratings don’t know that they like one bit of music more than another
because its more familiar. Nonetheless, when products are essentially equivalent, people go with what’s familiar, even if it’s only familiar because they know its name from advertising

Barry Schwartz. ‘The Paradox of Choice’ (2004)

I think the essential point is correct, but there is a sort of sneaking condescension here: All of you people (the ‘test participants’) only like the things you like because you’re familiar with them, not because of any rational or emotional affection for them (that’s just ‘some account’). What’s more – we (the psychologists) have done experiments which show (admittedly only in some circumstances) that familiarity leads to liking; and from this we’re prepared to generalise to all other circumstances you’re involved in. I parody, but I’m sure you see what I mean.

The fact that we tend to like the familiar isn’t too surprising. There’s even a good evolutionary reason for preferring what worked before – if it didn’t kill you last time, why risk doing something else this time? The single most useful thing you can measure to predict what someone will do in the future is not what they want to do, nor is it what they say they’ll probably do, nor what their friends and family will do, but simply what they did last time – such is the power of habit (For more on this see Hack #74 in Mind Hacks).

But the interesting thing about advertising and branding is the process of it making something familiar to us and us taking this as an indication of preference. In other words, we don’t properly take into account that the brand is not familiar to us for any good reason.

Psychologically it’s not too surprising that this should happen. The study [1] which revived the subliminal perception field involved this mere exposure effect. Participants were shown meaningless shapes for time-spans below the perceptual threshold and subsequently they preferred those shapes to other not previously displayed shapes – even though they had not consciously perceived either set of shapes before.

However, is there any evidence that this kind of familiarity effect can be shown to compete with, or even over-ride, actual good reasons for liking or disliking a brand? Perhaps people are happy to use a fairly arbitrary guideline (familiarity) for unimportant decisions, or decisions where the choices are all pretty good, but when more is at stake familiarity is relegated down the table of influencing factors?


[1] Kunst-Wilson WR, Zajonc RB (1980). Affective discrimination of stimuli that cannot be recognized. Science, 207(4430):557-8.

2 thoughts on “advertising influences familiarity induces preference”

  1. Might it be that both the mere exposure account and the subjective account both have a grain of truth? Suppose I drink Coke more than Pepsi, and I explain this by saying I prefer Coke’s taste. It very well might be true that my greater familiarity with Coke underlies my preference. However, it just as well could be the case that subjectively, I do indeed experience the taste as being more pleasurable.
    Basically, I don’t see how a mere exposure effect invalidates subjective accounts of preference– it seems to me there’s room for the two to live happily side by side, rather than one having to knock the other out. Perhaps, for instance, my repeated exposure to Coke has somehow made it such that I now actually do subjectively experience a more pleasurable taste. The introspective, subjective account of all this would likely be:
    great taste -> preference
    (not aware of repeated exposure effect)
    And the position articulated by Schwartz:
    repeated exposure -> preference
    (rejects subjective account as superfluous or inferior)
    But maybe the most accurate picture is closer to something like the following:
    repeated exposure -> great taste -> preference

  2. Brian, i think you’re quite right. Another way it could work is this: There are two things (Coke and Perpse, Bach and Brahms, whatever), both of which you have the capacity to enjoy but which you have not yet discovered. With each exposure you discover more to enjoy (ie your preference increases), so that if you are presented with just one you will come to prefer that far more than the other, and this is *because* of the exposure, but it is still true preference.
    Part of schwatz’s arguement is, i think, that people fail to discount for the effect of the opportunities for developing other preferences that are forgone – ie our view of the world gets skewed by what we’ve done rather than what we didn’t do. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a way around that!

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