If you have ever walked through a supermarket, fast-forwarded through commercials or surfed the Web, you’ve probably been bombarded with more subconscious advertisements than you can imagine.
In recent years, many businesses in the U.S. and around the world have turned to new and unusual marketing techniques. Their aim is to influence customers’ purchase decisions with music, metaphors, flash advertising and other tricks that can affect us without even knowing it. While these advertisements are not considered subliminal — particularly because subliminal ads are banned in several countries and frowned upon in the U.S. — they do rely on many of the same tactics.
“Companies are reaching a point where conventional advertising no longer works,” says Martin Lindstrom, a branding consultant and the author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. “Our attention is just gone. People don’t look at a full TV ad anymore, so companies need to find other avenues to stand out.”
According to Lindstrom, retailers are beginning to rely on subtle cues, like inserted sounds and other sensory information. Fast food and beverage companies, for example, are more likely to include the sound of a sizzling steak or a beer can popping open in order to impose a more visceral desire in the viewer’s mind.
“These sounds generate cravings, and cravings are one of the most powerful factors you can activate in our behavior,” Lindstrom says. “If you can put cravings into commercials strategically, people won’t even hear what you’re talking about, they’ll just go out and buy.”
Likewise, Lindstrom notes that some flower shops in Europe will play old love songs to make shoppers feel nostalgic or guilty enough to buy a dozen roses, while supermarkets in the U.S. often pick music with a certain beat that causes the consumer to want to keep shopping.
But the subconscious cues don’t end there. Even when you fast-forward through television commercials, you are likely influenced by advertising without being aware of it.
“You’ll have a brand logo pop up as you fast-forward through the commercials, and we have found this does actually change your purchase behavior,” says Gavan J. Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University. “I can say with certainty that firms are very much aware that people are fast-forwarding past these spots and trying actively to figure out how to have an impact.”