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Marketing messages may backfire for consumers in uncommon situations

A favorite technique in the marketer’s playbook is “priming” consumers with subtle messages to encourage consumption. For example, the suggestion of thirstiness embedded in a Coca-Cola advertisement is intended to activate a desire to drink a Coke. Or the spraying of fragrances throughout department store cosmetics departments to prime a goal of increased beauty.

Goal priming can be a powerful marketing tool.  But a surprising new study by researchers at the University of Washington Michael G. Foster School of Business, the University of Miami and the University of Florida reveals that goal priming can often backfire, especially when consumers encounter uncommon situations.

This unintended result is known as “anti-priming,” according to Marcus Cunha, Jr., an assistant professor of marketing at the Foster School of Business and co-author of the study.

“A priming effect occurs when active information activates a goal and the pursuit of this goal influences people’s behavior,” Cunha explains. “For example, a consumer exposed to information related to impressing others (such as a brand slogan containing the word ‘excellence’) may become more likely to buy expensive products that are symbols of status. Anti-priming effects occur when the use of goal primes backfires and lead to effects that are opposite of those intended by the priming cues.”

In one experiment, Cunha and co-authors Juliano Laran and Chris Janiszewski asked undergraduate students to unscramble sentences that were embedded with two different primes—each intended to stimulate specific actions. Some of the students worked with words related to having fun. Others encountered words related to impressing others. Afterward, the participants were asked to perform the seemingly unrelated task of choosing a place to eat from a list of ten restaurants, half being casual establishments and the other half offering fine dining. When participants were told to plan a dinner for that night (a common situation), they chose restaurants consistent with the primed goals. That is, those who unscrambled the “having fun” sentences chose the casual restaurants; those who unscrambled the “impress others” sentences went for fine dining. But when the subjects were asked to choose a restaurant for dinner a month in advance (a less common situation), they chose the establishments opposite to their prime.

Subsequent studies yielded similar results: in familiar situations, priming goals worked. In uncommon situations, the goal priming backfired.

“Our findings suggest that retailers should understand the amount of experience consumers have with certain choice situations before using priming as a marketing tool to influence consumers,” Cunha says.

The paper, “Context-Dependent Effects of Goal Primes,” appears in the December 2008 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.