Category Archives: Sensory

New perfume darling… or is it just my wine?

man-sniffing-wineThe human sense of smell is quite amazing.  We can distinguish the distinctive odour of our blood relations in a room full of strangers, for instance, and we can out-perform the very best mechanical nose in distinguishing between a huge range of scents.  But are we using this amazing ability as well as we could?

New research by Endevelt-Shapira and her colleagues, however, suggests we may not be even coming close to maximising our sense of smell – but a drop of the hard stuff can help!  In a series of experiments looking at olfactory performance at increasing rates of blood-alcohol content (BAC), the researchers found that our skill at identifying a variety of odours improves after a glass or two of wine. The reasons for this remain unclear, but it seems the effects of alcohol on the brain’s prefrontal cortex plays a significant role.  The prefrontal cortex “dampens” our sense of smell under normal circumstances to avoid us becoming over-whelmed with inputs, but this suppression is impaired by rising levels of BAC so our sense of smell improves.  

So, next time you feel your partner is wearing a new brand or perfume or cologne, pause a moment – it may be just that glass of Shiraz you’ve consumed and it’s the regular brand after all – useful advice if, like me, you have a tendency to get into those “you never notice what i’m wearing” conversations!

Want people to ‘share’ more on Facebook? Scare them, turn them on, or take them jogging

frank-arousedIt’s a basic fact of social media marketing…the more your content is shared, the more likely it is people will buy.  We’ve known for some time that content that connects with a viewer in some way is more likely to encourage them to hit the ‘share’ button, as does amusing or novel content.   A recent paper by Jonah Berger in Psychological Science  gives us a deeper insight into how this all works, however.  Here’s the thing, it seems to be all about how aroused we are at the time we originally view the content.

In a series of experiments, Berger found that participants in an aroused state are more likely to share content on Facebook and other social media channels than members of a control group who are less aroused.  For instance, those shown a stimulating video hit the ‘share’ button far more often than those who’d viewed a more neutral  or calming video.  Similar results were obtained for participants who’d just finished physical exercise in comparison to  couch potatoes who’d just been relaxing with their feet up.  So, what’s going on here?

Cortical arousal is beneficial (like stress) up to a point.  If we weren’t aroused when crossing the road, for instance, we’d get hit by a truck pretty quickly!  Arousal keeps us alert and, in small doses, is a crucial survival mechanism.  As the literature on stress and illness tells us very clearly, however, sustained arousal can be damaging and emotions soon become harmful.  Raised levels of cortisol and adrenaline secretion, for instance, can seriously impair the immune system if left unchecked.

In the case of Berger’s sharing experiments, this is a classic demonstration of the psychological need to disperse arousal and allow the brain to “settle down” again.  Prolonged arousal in uncomfortable, so we engage in a behaviour designed to relieve the discomfort.  Berger’s experiments suggest that ‘sharing’ in part serves this function because, subconsciously, we feel we are transmitting some of our current arousal to other people in the process.  This explains why emotion-inducing content (e.g. funny advertisements) are shared at a much higher rate, something we’ve known for a very long time, but also – crucially – why seemingly neutral content can be too.  If we are aroused by something else (e.g. a good workout), we still ‘share’ even if the content in itself is dull-as-dishwater!

Ok, what’s the rub for marketers here?  Well, content that induces states of high cortical arousal promotes sharing, so carry on making those funny, sexy or scary ads, but remember too that people aroused by something totally unconnected will also be more likely to share your content.  My advice, if you want to improve your sharing rates on Facebook, find a way to target users just after they’ve seen the latest horror movie or, better still, while they’re out jogging – in Berger’s experiments, the latter worked best of all because joggers share content at three times the rate humble couch potatoes like me do!


Disney’s Indecent Enterprise?

subThe phenomenon of subliminal advertising has long been a contentious issue in consumer psychology.  Nice play on words here from Subway to illustrate the point.

Around 75% of the population believe we are regularly exposed to hidden messages, some 50% going so far as to insist they have been “coerced” into buying a product as a result of such influences.  But is this a real effect and, if so, are we perhaps being tricked into purchasing products we don’t want against our will?

A recent Psychology Today post from Ian Zimmerman succinctly sums up the current state of research in this area.  First and foremost, while a general consensus has developed in the literature that certain words loaded with evolutionary significance will subconsciously raise our attention levels (can you spot two in this post’s headline?), the degree to which such factors might then trigger an involuntary behaviour remains is a much more contested issue.  So what do we actually know  for sure about all this?

Experiments show that we can be influenced by subliminal stimuli, at least up to a point.  Exposing thirsty people to the hidden word “cola”, for instance, will trigger an increase in subsequent volume consumed compared to those not exposed to the stimulus.  In a similar vein, playing German background music in a  liqueur store will encourage an increase in sales of German wine, while the word “sex” hidden on the packaging of a well-known brand of candy has reputedly worked wonders for sales of a well-known confectionary product (clue: think ten-pin bowling).

Does all this mean we have been subject to cynical manipulation by advertisers since the 1940s after all?  Well, not quite… although such effects certainly exist, their magnitude is far less than most of us believe.  Exposing thirsty drinkers to the subliminally-presented word “cola” may well increase subsequent consumption, but it will have no effect whatsoever on people who aren’t thirsty.  Similarly, if we tell liqueur store customers that the German music playing is designed to boost sales of Liebfraumilch, they will actually buy less simply because they’ve been made consciously aware of it.

In other words, as Zimmerman rightly concludes, subliminal messages can increase or decrease a behaviour that is likely to happen anyway (e.g. prompting a hungry person to eat more chocolate), but it can’t trigger a totally unwanted behaviour, and simply paying more attention to our environment can eliminate such effects anyway.

So what of my headline for this post?  The word “indecent” is, of course, a very significant word in Darwinian terms, associated as it is with sex, and the initials of the three words also spell out the equally important trigger word “die”.  Oh…and for those of you who think I may be being unfair to Disney here, check out this image over on the site to see why the DVD release of The Rescuers was delayed due to the subliminal sabotage of three frames of footage.  Other strange-but-true examples also on show there – but be warned, some are a little naughty in more ways than one!

Why advertisers don’t like popcorn

popcorn11A common tool in advertising involved the use of the “mere exposure” effect to increase awareness of a brand/product.  This works particularly well when consumers are repeatedly presented with a brand name or slogan, which they sub-volcalise when silently reading it to themselves.

In relatively quiet relaxed environments such as the cinema, this is almost irresistible to audience members passively awaiting the start of the main feature and, indeed, advertisers are well aware of this – next time you go to see a movie, just watch out for the high levels of repetition among commercials, you’ll see what I mean!

Because the mere exposure effect is a function of sub-volcalisation, psychologists have long been interested in the accompanying potential for “oral interference”.  Basically, if you give the mouth something else to do, the theory goes that this will make sub-vocal reading/repetition much harder and so the potency of the mere exposure effect will be blunted.

An interesting series of experiments conducted by Sascha Topolinski and her colleagues, reported in latest issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, has taken this line of reasoning a step further.  In the first stage of the experiment, consumers eating recalled less brand names than their fellow movie-goers who weren’t eating; no real surprise there.  However, what sets this study apart from most others is the observation that some foods are more effective at blocking mere exposure advertising than others.  Specifically, while chewing gum is a better “vaccination” against advertising than a sugar cube, Topolinski et al found that popcorn had the strongest oral interference properties of all the cinema snacks available.

Mmmnnn….. given this is probably the best-selling food product in movie theatres across the globe, I wonder how long it will be before popcorn vanishes from sale and we go back to the days where good old ice cream was often the only choice available – easier to eat, so better for the advertisers!


Bottoms up!

wine_coupleEver wondered why the wonderful Shiraz you sipped a few weeks ago in that Paris hotel doesn’t taste quite the same when you buy the same brand in the supermarket back in Pimlico?  Could be the quality for export isn’t quite as good, I guess, or maybe it just doesn’t travel well.

Or perhaps there’s a more complex scientific reason for the change it taste… Having proved that food and drink taste sweeter under red lighting and more sour under green lighting, Oxford academic Charles Spence has turned his attention to the art of wine tasting and, in particular, the effect of cues in the environment on perceptions of taste.  It appears that context is everything and, more importantly, the experience of taste is multi-sensory in character. When we initially enjoy a glass of wine in the lounge, the surroundings are important dimensions of the overall tasting experience, whether we are talking about the lighting levels, room temperature, background music that’s playing or the scent of the flowers on the table.  Research by Spence suggests that removing any of these elements can result in a change in consumer taste perceptions/satisfaction of anything up to 20%.  So, to recreate the taste, we also need to ensure that we also recreate the sensory environment too.

Ah well, this week end, I’ll be enjoying another bottle of the Merlot I discovered in Sainsbury’s last week that was so good I went back and bought more.  To make sure it’s as nice, though, guess that means I also need to wear the Chanel Blue aftershave and sit through Britain’s Got Talent on TV yet again!