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The Power of Ads on Social Networks

Bonding by proximity to personal information on the Web.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: Implicit Self-Referencing: The Effect of Non-volitional Self-Association on Brand and Product Attitude (Fee or subscription required.)

Authors: Andrew W. Perkins (University of Western Ontario) and Mark R. Forehand (University of Washington)

Publisher: Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 39, no. 1

Date Published: September 2011 (online), June 2012 (print)

As marketers search for ways to exploit the rise in social networking and Web 2.0 usage by consumers, this paper finds that people closely identify with brands that promote themselves alongside the personal information on their Facebook page, even when they’re barely paying attention to the advertisement. But the same ad has less impact when viewed on a stranger’s or a generic Web page, suggesting that when brands are connected to consumers’ concepts of themselves, positive feelings can rub off on the brands — and even affect buying decisions.

The findings are important, the authors argue, because marketers work hard to get consumers to actively engage with and consciously relate to their brand — even though most consumers are exposed to ad campaigns online when they aren’t paying much attention. Advertisers already spend more than US$3 billion a year to reach Facebook’s 845 million users, according to the company’s recent high-profile filing for an initial public offering. This study suggests that the mere positioning of ads next to consumers’ personal information — such as a list of the hobbies they enjoy or information about their friends, work, and education — has enough emotional resonance to link brands to people’s identity and subconscious.

The authors call the concept “implicit self-referencing,” which holds that consumers don’t need to own, use, or endorse a brand to identify with it. But their research suggests that should a link form, a “positive attitude toward the product or brand would be the result.”

In the first of three experiments exploring the theory, the authors presented 36 students with a set of fictitious automobile brand and sub-brand names, which lingered on a computer screen for 30 seconds. As they flashed across the screen, the brands were also subliminally associated with terms relating either to self or other. After completing several tasks where they were asked to categorize and identify the brands, the participants reported more positive attitudes toward the brands linked to the “self” concept and said they would be more likely to purchase them.

The second experiment sought to expand this concept to examine the role played by self-esteem in brand–consumer connections. This time, 121 college students examined product categories rather than fictitious brand names, sorting digital and analog clocks in an experiment otherwise identical to the first. The authors replicated the findings from the previous experiment, but also found that the effects of subconscious brand–consumer bonds were even stronger for people who reported higher self-esteem.

The third experiment tested these findings in the real-world context of social networking websites, which have become highly appealing to advertisers. Eighty participants were told they would be comparing two sites, Facebook and, which is very popular outside North America. None of the participants in the study had a Hi5 account, which allowed the researchers to cloak their experiment as a comparison of Facebook and Hi5, when they were really examining the impacts of advertising.

Randomly assigned to compare the Hi5 interface to either a generic Facebook page or their personal Facebook page, the study subjects were told they would later evaluate each service’s functionality, user friendliness, and features. Meanwhile, at the top of both the Facebook page and the Hi5 page, an embedded banner ad featured a series of promotions for fictitious car brands. Each banner ad showcased a single family of auto brands, so that the brands on the Facebook pages were never featured on the Hi5 site and vice versa.

After answering a series of questions about both sites, the participants completed two surveys, one that measured their level of self-association with the two brand families and one that measured their implicit attitudes toward them. They were also asked to choose which of the cars they would most like to receive as a prize in a lottery. Consistent with the first two experiments, participants chose automobiles that had appeared in the banner ads embedded in their personal Facebook pages significantly more often than those featured on a generic Facebook or Hi5 page.

The experiment demonstrated that the effects of subconscious connections between brands and consumers’ self-identity can occur even in “completely passive contexts,” the authors write, which involve no deliberate attempts by consumers to understand or bond with a brand. “Social networking naturally encourages the development and maintenance of self-related information, and this creates a fertile ground for the cultivation of implicit self-referencing.”

Because consumers are increasingly willing to provide a wealth of personal information online, “such digital extroversion certainly creates opportunities for marketers to effectively target and embed their appeals,” the authors write, by focusing on stated preferences for certain types of products or services.

Bottom Line:
Social networking websites such as Facebook hold tremendous potential for marketers because consumers subconsciously identify with brands advertised on their personal pages. Objects and brands that are intertwined with a person’s self-identity can create a bond without the consumer actually using, owning, or even paying much attention to the product being advertised.

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