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Does Sex Really Sell?

April 6, 2009
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Which works better in advertising: Paris Hilton in a bikini or a cute baby? Is there really such a thing as subliminal advertising and does it work? Are logos worth the cost?

Which works better in advertising: Paris Hilton in a bikini or a cute baby? Is there really such a thing as subliminal advertising and does it work? Are logos worth the cost? If Pepsi won the “Pepsi Challenge” back in 1975, why is Coke still the dominant cola?

Well all of these questions and many more are answered in Buyology – Truth and Lies About Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom. Buyology is based on a three-year, $7-million neuromarketing study. Previously marketers would bring in focus groups to help analyze how and why people choose products or services. Unfortunately these groups gave marketers poor information because what a consumer says and what they do may be totally different.

Lindstrom bypassed the focus groups and used a $4-million fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine to get to the truth about how people buy. The fMRI machine measures the amount of oxygenated blood throughout the brain and can pinpoint an area as small as 1 millimeter. When the brain is working there is a greater flow of oxygenated blood to that area. Neuroscientists can track this to determine which part of the brain is working. This information then can determine what part of your brain lights up at different scenes in a commercial.

So let’s answer the title question: In 2005 Paris Hilton was featured in a skimpy bathing suit washing a Bentley automobile in a very suggestive manner. When she was done she lounged across the Bentley and took a bite out of a hamburger. The company that sponsored the commercial was a major fast food company. Now place a guy in an fMRI machine and watch what part of his brain lights up. It won’t be the food craving portion of the brain. Most guys will remember the ad but are hard pressed to name the hamburger chain.

On the other hand, babies’ faces have a big effect on the brain. When tested in the fMRI machines a picture of a smiling baby lit up the part of the brain linked to detection of rewarding stimuli. This means that if you are trying to decide whether to place a picture of your new van or a baby in your ad, go for the baby. Additional testing proved that smiling faces on your technicians will lead to increased future business.

Subliminal advertising story lines in TV programs like Columbo and The Twilight Zone have given subliminal advertising an undeserved reputation. People became so paranoid of mind control that in 1974 the FCC proclaimed any TV station using subliminal advertising could lose its license. Because tobacco companies cannot advertise on TV or radio, they use a modern and very effective version of subliminal advertising. Marlboro uses the color red in many different ways, such as NASCAR and Ferrari Formula 1 race cars. When smokers are exposed to Marlboro red in fMRI machines, their minds generate the same cravings as if for a pack of Marlboros. The subliminal images didn’t show any visible logos, so the smokers weren’t consciously aware that they were viewing an advertising message and they let their guard down. Today logos get lost in the maze of advertising messages.

The use of color as branding works well for UPS as they market everything today with the slogan “Let Brown Do It.” Color has been shown to increase brand recognition by up to 80 percent. A carpet-cleaning company may do the same thing by using purple trucks and using the slogan “Ask for the purple truck.” As a matter of fact, we know that works well in Detroit.

One other area more effective than a logo is connecting a particular fragrance to a product. This is the power of sensory association. One of the best loved-fragrances across the world is Johnson & Johnson’s Baby Powder. You can see the white bottle in your mind when you smell vanilla but you can’t remember their logo. Vanilla is the most popular scent in the United States due to primal childhood associations, and because it is the scent of a mother’s breast milk. Why do you think Coca Cola brought out Coca Cola Vanilla (formerly Vanilla Coke)?

This may be a great opportunity for a cleaning company to use a delicate vanilla fragrance during cleaning and also to incorporate it into any marketing materials. When the customer receives a postcard reminder in the mail with embedded vanilla in the card it will bring back a flood of pleasant memories from the last cleaning.

Why does Pepsi win every taste test against Coke and yet Coke always outsells Pepsi?

In 1975 Pepsi beat Coke quite easily in the original Pepsi Taste Test Challenge. Malcolm Gladwell in his 2005 book Blink proposed that the reason consumers chose Pepsi was due to it being a “sip test” as opposed to drinking a full can. Pepsi being the sweeter product wins in a sip taste but a full can overwhelm with sugar, which is why Coke still dominates the market. Nice hypothesis Malcolm, but as Buyology proves, science beats speculation every time.

In 2003, 67 people were given the test again, but this time they used the fMRI machine. The results were the same as twenty-eight years earlier. Pepsi was again the champ. The subjects were tested again but first they were told which product they were drinking. The results showed 75 percent of the tasters picked Coke. While the doctor watched the brains of the respondents during the fMRI he noticed two different areas of the brain light up. The rational side of the brain chose Pepsi because it tasted better. The emotional side of the brain had all the years of Coke’s branding: the history, color, design, fragrance and even childhood memories of polar bears, Santa Claus and Coke. Sorry, but Pepsi using Michael Jackson in their commercials can’t compete with Santa.

Emotions are the way in which our brains encode things of value, and brands or companies that engage us emotionally will win every time. Most market research is based on the idea that people behave in a predictable rational way. This was disproved in Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

The field of neuromarketing is the long-awaited marriage of science and marketing. The dominant idea in Buyology, Predictably Irrational, and Habit by Neale Martin is that 90% of consumer buying behavior originates in the unconscious mind. Your company must build consistent, pleasant memories in your customer’s emotional brain. The fastest way to do this is through the senses.

Look at each part of your operational and marketing systems and determine how you can improve the sensory components.

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