social sciences

Producer’s influence #1 Priming

You might have heard about it before, subliminal priming. You’re in the movie theater, and for some reason, randomly in the middle of the movie you get this uncontrollable, unexplainable craving for some Cola and popcorn.  They primed you! They flashed the words ‘Hungry? Eat popcorn!’ in the middle of the movie! But the duration of this was so incredibly short that you couldn’t even consciously register the secret message. And guess what happened next? The popcorn and cola sales at the movie theater went up! (O’Barr, 2013).

Sorry. That wasn’t actually true. It was something Mr Vicary in claimed all the way back in 1957. We know now that it’s actually not that easy to secretly trick people into buying things.
Sadly, priming is not that exciting. It works a bit differently, for example, if you see the word ‘spoon’, you will be faster at recognizing words like: ‘fork, knife, plate, cup’. Because those words are all linked together in a semantic network in your brain, and once you are confronted with ‘spoon’, other words will also be activated (Ratcliff, & McKoon, 1988).

Holland and Hendriks  (2005) conducted an interesting experiment on this topic, where they looked at the link between priming and behavioral outcomes. Participants were placed behind a desk and had to fill in a survey, while they were given a biscuit. They were asked to eat this biscuit, which would cause a lot of crumbs to fall down on the desk. And unbeknownst to the participants, a bucket with water mixed with a cleaning product was placed in the same room. The experimenters looked at whether the participants would dust off the desk or not. Of course, they also looked at a different group of participants, this group was not exposed to the cleaning product scent. The participants who were placed in the clean smelling room were more likely to dust off their desk, as opposed to those who were not.

So when can we actually manipulate consumers’ behavioral outcomes? We have already found out that subliminal messaging, as suggested by Vicary, does not work in real life. But actual experimenters have found effects in this department. But! Apparently it should be possible to flash people with subliminal messages, and get them to perform behaviors…. but only if they already had this intention. Strahan, Spencer, and Zanna (2002) found that those who were already thirsty were more likely to drink after being primed on thirst-related words. This is compared to those who were also thirsty and primed with neutral words and those who weren’t thirsty but also primed with thirst-related or neutral words. So in conclusion, when you already have a goal (to drink when your thirsty), and you’re primed, your more likely to go out and achieve this goal. So only those who have an objective can be successfully influenced.

But there is more to subliminal messages than just quick flashes of commands ordering you to get popcorn. There is a new method that many movies and TV series happen to use nowadays. It’s called product placement. This is a form of advertising. A famous Dutch TV drama, called Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden, likes to include this in their episodes. For example, a yogurt brand will pay a sum of money so that the TV show will have your favorite characters eat this particular type of yogurt. Or, Korean dramas will coincidentally have all characters carry around the same type of phone. Chances are that a smartphone company has payed for product placement.
Liang, Hsiao, and Cheng,  (2015) found that urban romantic dramas (compared to mafia dramas) reflect our daily lives more, and therefore a higher placement effect will be created. Being able to identify with the characters’ lives will also increase this effect. So if you really like a specific character and you can identify with their life, you might end up buying the same popcorn that they were eating in that one episode.


Holland, R. W., Hendriks, M., & Aarts, H. (2005). Smells Like Clean Spirit Nonconscious Effects of Scent on Cognition and Behavior. Psychological Science, 16(9), 689-693.

Liang, A. R. D., Hsiao, T. Y., & Cheng, C. H. (2015). The Effects of Product Placement and Television Drama Types on the Consumer Responses of College Students. Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research, 20(11), 1212-1233.

O’Barr, W. M. (2013). ” Subliminal” Advertising. Advertising & Society Review, 13(4).

Ratcliff, R., & McKoon, G. (1988). A retrieval theory of priming in memory.Psychological review, 95(3), 385.

Strahan, E. J., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2002). Subliminal priming and persuasion: Striking while the iron is hot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(6), 556-568.

Photo by Ricardo Benardo 

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