Skip to contentSkip to navigation

The Psychology of Consumer Choice

Advertisements can subconsciously condition consumers to associate products with a certain feeling, which can affect the decision to buy.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: The Influence of Implicit Attitudes on Consumer Choice when Confronted with Conflicting Product Attribute Information (Subscription or fee required.)
Authors: Melanie A. Dempsey (Ryerson University) and Andrew A. Mitchell (University of Toronto)
Publisher: Journal of Consumer Research
Date Published: June 10, 2010 (online version)

Have you ever purchased a product simply because buying it made you feel good, even though you had no real interest in its features? If so, you may be a victim of subconscious manipulation by marketing images associated with that product. This paper calls the phenomenon the “I like it, but I don’t know why” effect, and it can be triggered by everything from television commercials to product packaging to corporate logos. Indeed, the authors found that even the most discerning consumers often make irrational choices, buying products not because of their attributes but because of emotions stirred by brand imagery.

To prime the study’s participants to be open to subconscious brand associations, the researchers began by presenting a steady flow of hundreds of on-screen product images. (At no point were participants aware that they were being tested on their feelings about a particular product.) The researchers were specifically interested in how subjects would respond to two hypothetical brands of pen — items that the authors felt consumers would be unlikely to carry strong opinions about. One pen was objectively superior to the other; for example, it had a better grip, and its ink was less prone to smearing. The authors wanted to see if they could use effective marketing to convince participants to choose the less-effective pen. To do this, they buried positive and negative imagery linked to each brand of pen in the barrage of images subjects were exposed to at the beginning of the experiment. They purposely connected 20 positive images to the inferior pen, whereas the superior pen was associated with 20 negative images.

Next, participants were shown a series of advertisements, which included ads for these pens as well as ads for different products. The pen ads were designed to make it clear that one of the brands was highly superior. Half of the subjects were asked to evaluate the products (pens and others) based on the claims made in the advertisements. The other half were asked to assess the clarity and quality of the ads themselves and not to rate the products. When each group was then asked which pen they would purchase, members of the first group chose the superior pen 75 percent of the time, and members of the second selected the inferior pen 70 percent of the time. The authors argue that those in the second group chose the worse pen despite having knowledge about its failings because their minds had been conditioned to think positively about the item during the first phase of the experiment. Unless product attributes are top of mind, as they were for subjects in the first group, people will rely on subconscious associations when choosing which product to buy.

For advertisers, the findings point to the importance of connecting brands to consumers’ emotions through positive imagery. Unless consumers are explicitly focused on product features, they are unlikely to recall negative product attributes if they have already been “hooked” by a brand’s emotional appeal.

Bottom Line: Consumers’ purchasing decisions are driven in large part by implicit associations with the imagery connected to a brand — and rely on the subconscious emotional appeal of a product much more than consumers may suspect.

Author profile:

  • Matt Palmquist was a founding staff writer and is currently a contributing editor at Miller-McCune magazine. Formerly, he was an award-winning feature writer for the San Francisco–based SF Weekly.
Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.