Rational consumer decision-making is often characterised by phrases such as opportunity cost, willingness to pay and cost-benefit principle, words that you should be sick of (or will be soon) as you gear into hyperventilating-exam-hermit mode. Marketing and psychology papers in the past have posited explanations for consumer behaviour based on rational, conscious and effort-ful information processing, yet just how much of consumer behaviour can really be accounted for within the domain of conscious thinking? More and more research continues to reveal the significance of unconscious dynamics underpinning consumer choices.
Psychologists often set the benchmark for unconscious decision-making as a decision for which the person fails to describe how they made. But to understand how consumer behaviour can be manipulated at an unconscious level, we first have to introduce a network association model of memory: the mind is represented as a network with each node representing a concept that is linked to others. Potency of links is determined by how frequently the individual has an experience where the two concepts are paired, as well as personal significance attributed to relevant past events. An example is the word ‘dog’ often linked strongly to ‘cat’. A common method to test this link would be to prime someone with images of dogs and then see how quickly they respond to the word ‘cat’. People should respond to ‘cat’ faster than other unrelated or fictional words since the activation of one node automatically spreads to activate joint nodes. Neurological studies have shown that this takes place effortlessly, automatically and unconsciously, by virtue of being involuntary.
This leaves consumers vulnerable to marketing calculated to provoke such automatic processes, and thereby bypassing controlled decision-making. To the extent that this automaticity inhibits autonomy, consumers can be said to be in thrall of advertising bodies. Various field studies and experiments have shown how this automatic activation alters consumer behaviour. One classic stereotype-priming experiment revealed how participants, believing they had finished the experiment, walked slower to the elevator upon exiting the lab, after being primed with stereotypes of elderly people. Applied in a commercial setting, we find that playing slow store music retains customers longer and hence impacts on the total volume of sales. Another variation on this theme has customers buying more French or German wine depending on whether French or German music was playing in the background. Priming stimulus (old people, slow music for example) can therefore automatically activate relevant conceptual nodes which change a person’s behaviour.
The danger is that most people are either unaware of these effects, or if they are, believe that they are redundant against the overestimated stout consumer mind. Since advertising is no longer concerned with overtly presenting product information, and increasingly relies on indirect product exposure or some sort of evaluative conditioning, concerns over how people can arm themselves with cognitive defences against subliminal marketing messages has culminated into a debate on ethics. People fear that they leave themselves vulnerable to product manipulation when they are not aware that information can be biased. This is the rationale behind why the EU in particular has considered prohibiting advertisements during children’s programs – children are particularly susceptible to the influence of biased information because they are unable to discern the motives behind ads, and are still developing a defensive cynicism.
When advertising bodies fail to give consumers a chance to process product information consciously and rationally, it borders on an attempt to manipulate behaviour through preventing autonomic control. Of the many ethical dilemmas, one of them is how much we are responsible for the automaticity of our behaviours, and how much can we blame external bodies for provoking them. Regardless, consumer behaviour will likely remain a complex interplay of several motivations, inevitably encapsulating those that are fleeting and prone to environmental influences and cues.