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.

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One reply on “advertising influences familiarity induces preference”

Really interesting. I can’t help but think, though, that my “good reason” for this choosing the brand that rings the bell of familiarity is like a subconscious they-can’t-be-too-crap-or-they-wouldn’t-be-successful-enough-to-afford-the-flashy-ad-campaign…(not that I think this is actually a good reason.)

Also, it’s just so sad to read the bit about the most useful measure in predicting our behavior. so sad.

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