Subliminal Advertising and its Impact on Customer Engagement

Sure, subliminal advertising may have been officially banned in the late 1950s. But, duck! It’s still alive and well, and bypassing our senses when we least expect it. In conducting research for my recent book, Buyology, I carried out a series of scientific research experiments to uncover the ways advertisers burrow beneath rational customer minds to get the customers to pull out their wallets.

So be on guard! If you have any doubts about subliminal persuasion of the customer, take a trip to Las Vegas. There are no clocks anywhere, no way to know what time it is and there is distant rattle of coins spilling into a tray—and step forward to place your bet.

Here are five ways to know advertisers are messing with the mind of the customer.

1. Creating a Customer Ritual

Have you been subliminally persuaded that squeezing a lime into your Corona beer is a time-honored Mexican custom? Or that it came about because the presence of lime somehow enhances the beer’s taste?

The fact is, the Corona-and-lime ritual reportedly dates back to 1981, when on a random bet with his buddy, a bartender at an unnamed restaurant popped a lime wedge into the neck of a Corona to see if he could start a ritual. This simple act, which caught on like wildfire, is generally credited with helping Corona overtake Heineken as the best-selling beer in the U.S. market.

The more stressed-out the customer is (and these are financially fraught times), the more the customer unconsciously adheres to cozy, familiar, comforting rituals. Marketers know this customer-reality and exploit it.

2. The Customer’s Perception of Your Product

The feel of something in the hands of the customer has a powerful effect on whether or not the customer takes it seriously or not. Most customers prefer electronic gadgets to be small, compact and sleek. The tinier and lighter the digital camera or tape recorder is, the more cutting-edge the technology inside must be, right?

Yet here’s the thing: Many TV remote controls and Mp3 players on the market today (they know who they are) would weigh half of what they do if they weren’t stuffed with completely useless wads of aluminum. As a result, the customer believes they’re holding in their hands something substantial, sturdy and worthy of the high price.

Once, I did a test by giving consumers both a lightweight and a heavy TV remote control. The across-the-board response to the lighter-weight model? "It’s broken."

Even when they found out the lightweight remote was totally functional, customers still felt its quality was inferior.

3. A Case Study in Customer Preference

Stores know that if they play music with a faster tempo than the human heartbeat, it will cause customers to shop quickly—and buy less. The slower the musical beat, the more time customers will take, and the greater the chances are they’ll buy something. What’s more, many supermarkets and retail stores play tapes of jazz or Latino music containing subliminal messages designed to encourage shoppers to spend more money and in some cases, to prevent shoplifting.

Among the messages: "Don’t worry about the money" and "Imagine owning it" and "Don’t take it, you’ll get caught." According to one vendor, in stores that broadcast these tapes, overall sales are up 15 percent, while store thefts have fallen by 58 percent.

Music can even determine what kind of wine we pick up from the shelves. In one experiment, over a two-week period, two U.K. researchers played either accordion-heavy French music or a Ferman Bierkeller brass band over the speakers of the wine section inside a large supermarket. On French music days, 77 percent of consumers bought French wine, whereas on Bierkeller music days, the vast majority of consumers picked up a German selection.

Intriguingly, only one out of the 44 customers who agreed to answer a few questions at the check-out counter mentioned the music as among the reasons they bought the wine they did.

4. Cities of Light

A product’s country of origin can subliminally influence what we buy. Let’s say I offered you a choice of two new cars (my treat). They’re the same model, the same make, the same color, and both are decked out with the same accessories. There’s only one difference: one is made in Turkey, and the other is manufactured in Switzerland. My guess is you picked the Swiss model, since you associated it with superb craftsmanship and high standards.

A few years ago, I was helping a struggling perfume maker regain its footing in the market. When I glanced at the perfume bottle to see where the fragrance was manufactured, I saw that instead of the typical glamorous cities (New York! London! Paris! Rome!) most perfume-makers print on their bottle, the company listed a series of local cities.

Now—Milwaukee and Dallas may be great places to live, but I’m not sure they’re dream destinations for most customers. Since the perfume company did have offices in Paris, London, New York and Rome, I convinced them to place these names prominently on the perfume bottle. Once the switch was made, perfume sales shot up almost instantly. Milwaukee and Dallas, I still love you.

5. Product Design and the Shape of the Customer’s Heart

Even the design of a product can have a subliminal effect on what we buy. A large food manufacturer once tested two different containers for a diet mayonnaise product aimed at female shoppers. Both containers held the exact same mayo, and bore the exact same label.

The only difference? The shapes of the bottles.

The first was narrow around the middle, and thicker at the top and on the bottom. The second had a slender neck that tapered down into a fat bottom, like a genie bottle. When asked which product the customer preferred, every single subject—all diet-conscious females—selected the first bottle without even having tasted the stuff. Why? The researchers concluded that the subjects were associating the shape of the bottle with an image of their own bodies.

And what woman wants to resemble an overstuffed Buddha, particularly after she’s just spread diet mayonnaise on her turkey and alfalfa sandwich?

First published on Call Center IQ.