Consumer Psych 8: Three Quirky Ways to Reduce Marketing Influence

•March 22, 2014 • 1 Comment

One of my favourite psychologists is Professor Richard Wiseman; a psychology lecturer, magician and the author of “Quirkology.” There are several things I admire about Professor Wiseman; namely that he has worked hard making psychology more accessible to the public, so much so that he is the only person in the UK to have his doctorate in the public understanding of psychology. He has worked with Derren Brown… Derren Brown! But, most importantly, his research focuses on the quirkier side of psychology. Some of his hypotheses include exploring the correlation between luck and the month in which we were born (Chotai & Wiseman, 2005) and testing the scientific validity of psychic mediums (O’Keefe & Wiseman, 2005). It is this quirky side of psychology that interests me and is the inspiration behind this blog post.
So, ever wanted to find quirky ways to make yourself less susceptible to those tricksy marketers? I may have the answer:

1) Be Macho: Flex Those Muscles!
Ok, so posing as a superhero in a supermarket may not be the most socially acceptable way of exerting control over consumer decisions, but evidence suggests it’s certainly a successful one. Hung and Labroo (2011) found that there is a correlation between flexing muscles and willpower which in turn leads to heightened self control and improves consumer decision making!

2) Go Wild In The Aisles With A Trolley Not A Basket!
Think of the contestants on Dale Winton’s Supermarket Sweep and you’ll be close to the level of trolley dashing required to resist marketing manipulations. I, of course, jest but evidence suggests that the cleverest shoppers always pick a trolley over a basket (Bergh. Schmitt & Warlop, 2011). The increase in bodily tension caused by carrying a shopping basket is nearly 7x more likely to lead to individuals choosing vice products that are instantly gratifying!

3) Change Your Surname
Anyone familiar with the quirkier side of psychology will be aware of aptronyms; a curious effect where an individuals surname matches their careers. The term aptronym or “nominative determinism” was created by Hoyland after finding a scientific journal on incontinence written by Splatt and Weedon (1977). It seems a similar effect can be found in Consumer behaviour. Individuals whose surname begins with letters that appear later in the alphabet; such as X, Y or Z tend to take more risks, make more purchases and faster decisions (Carlson & Conard, 2011 ). Although no theory was given to explain this phenomenon, researchers have hypothesised that it goes back to the school register and dinner queue. Individuals with surnames beginning with letters near the end of the alphabet always were the last names to be read out in the school register and often were on the receiving end of inequitable treatment by being the last people in the dinner queue. When these individuals are older and have the freedom to exercise choice and control they may be more likely to seize opportunities, take risks and act more impulsively (Carlson & Conard, 2011).


Bergh, B.V.D., Schmitt, J., & Warlop, L. (2011). Embodied Myopia. Journal of Marketing Research. Retrieved from:

Carlson, K. A., & Conard, J. M. (2011). The Last Name Effect: How Last Name Influences Acquisition Timing. Journal of Consumer Research, 38(2), 300-307. Doi: 10.1086/658470.

Chotai, J., & Wiseman, R. (2005). Born Lucky? The Relationship Between Feeling Lucky and Month of Birth. Personality and Individual Differences, 39(8), 1451- 1460.

Hung, I.W., & Labroo, A.A. (2011). From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower: Understanding the Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(6), 1046-1064. Doi: 10.1086/657240.

O’Keefe, C., & Wiseman, R. (2005). Testing Alleged Mediumship: Methods and Results. British Journal of Psychology, 96(2), 165-179. 

Splatt, A.J., & Weedon, D. (1977). The Urethral Syndrome: Experience with the Richardson Urethroplasty. British Journal of Urology, 49(1), 173-176.




Consumer Psych 7: Does Sex Sell?

•February 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In 2005 figures suggested that around 20% of advertisements used openly sexual content in order to sell their products (Reichert & Lambaise, 2005). From perfumes, to cars, to well known food chains, sex plays a huge part in all types of advertising. But does it sell?

The Research
1) Parker and Furnham (2007): The study aimed to test how well young people recall adverts with an underlying sexual nature. The participants were split into 4 groups:
Group 1: Watched a saucy episode of Sex and the City followed by a range of overtly sexual adverts.
Group 2: Watched a saucy episode of Sex and the City followed by advertisements which had no sexual content
Group 3: Watched a distinctively unerotic episode of Malcolm in the Middle followed by a range of overtly sexual adverts
Group 4: Watched a distinctively unerotic episode of Malcolm in the Middle followed by advertisements which had no sexual content.
The results showed that individuals who were exposed to the sexual content had poorer recall of the products in the adverts than the control group which led to the conclusion that “sex does not sell anything other than itself” (Parker and Furnham, 2007).

2) It seems women are a lot more sensitive, in a negative way, to sex in advertising than men. If the advertisement depicts a very attractive, sexually provocative woman, the females rate the adverts a lot more negatively than depictions of a more natural woman. It is argued that this has something to do with authenticity and being able to identify with the main protagonist (Goodman, Morris & Surtherland, 2008).

So the evidence overwhelming suggests that sex does not sell, but why is this the case? One reason is that gratuitous depictions of sex could cause offence. Ever since the 1980’s Calvin Klein has caused controversy for its often provocative “soft-porn-esque” advertisements. This sparked a feud between the company and various activist groups such as the Women Against Pornography group and even the U.S Department of Justice. Furthermore, a neuroscientific explanation has been forwarded which involves mirror neurons. This is best explained via the example of an Italian campaign to target women at risk of anorexia. The Italian company Nolita used an advertisement which showed a very thin young woman who weighed under 70 pounds and it included the phrase “No. Anorexia.” Sadly, the advert had the opposite effect, rather than warning young girls away from the damage of dyslexia, they wanted to emulate her.

Unfortunately sex is becoming dangerously more accessible and the more we see the more desensitzed we get. Yet, this is bad news for marketers as the more desensitized we get the more they will have to push the boundaries to get our attention. The science shows sex does not sell so why is it still flaunted in our faces?


Goodman, J. R., Morris, J. D., & Sutherland, J. C. (2008). Is Beauty A Joy Forever? Young Women’s Emotional Responses To Varying Types of Beautiful Advertising Models. Journalism & Mass Communication, 85(1), 147-168. DOI: 10.1177/107769900808500110

Parker, E., & Furnham, A. (2007). Does Sex Sell? The Effect of Sexual Programme Content On The Recall Of Sexual And Non-Sexual Advertisements. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 21(9), 1217-1228. DOI: 10.1002/acp.1325

Reichert. T., & Lamboise, J. (2005). Sex In Advertising: Perspectives On The Erotic Appeal. United States of America: New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Consumer Psych 6: Neuro-marketing, My View…

•February 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

“They are probing the human psyche for the purpose of influencing it. At its best, neuromarketing would make advertising more effective. At its worst neuromarketing could make propaganda more effective, potentially leading to new totalitarian regimes, civil strife, genocide and countless deaths.” (Ruskin, 2012).

The Research

1) Eye tracking: Apparently focus groups and self-report methods are not profitable or reliable enough for marketers and so new methods are being used to capitalise on our human nature. Many companies, such as Inviva BVA, have asked participants to wear specialised infra-red glasses whilst shopping in order to correlate eye gaze movements with consumer behaviour. These results are influencing how products are packaged and sold, whether it be in the local supermarket or from online stockists. (Van Cleave, 2012).

2) Increase in fMRI scanning: By using brain scanning techniques it is possible to see what is happening in the brain every 30 milliseconds. By putting participants through a fMRI scanner whilst watching adverts, it is possible to see which areas of the brain are activated and therefore deduce the success of the advertisement as a whole and component parts. These studies are increasing the power of advertisements and making us more susceptible to buying the product (Goddard, 2014).

3) Tools to measure emotional responses to adverts: Millwood and Brown have secured $6 million funding to develop new ways to measure the consumer’s emotional responses. One product that has been launched is the “Q sensor” which is a wristband device that measures electro-dermal activity, providing a measure of stress, excitement and anxiety. Our emotional responses are crucial components in brand loyalty and consumer decisions. If one of our basic human systems is being manipulated, a lot could go wrong. (Friedman, 2011).

4) Politics: Testing into the brain activity of American citizens in response to political advertising took place and provided intriguing results. The areas of the brain that were activated in individuals who supported the Democrats were different to the brain activation patterns of Republican supporters. Political scientists could potentially use these findings to their advantage by creating advertisements that influence or even change our cerebral responses surrounding politics and voting. (Tierney, 2004)

I’m of the opinion that neuro-marketing is overwhelmingly unethical. Whether it is tracking our behaviour without our consent, taking advantage of our human nature to produce profit or manipulating our political opinions, no good can ever be a by-product of neuromarketing.


Friedman, W. (2011). WPP Funds Emotional Response Measuring Tools For Ads. Retrieved from:

Goddard, J. (2014). This Is Your Brain On Advertising – Neuromarketing Lets Marketers Get Inside Your Head. Retrieved from:

Ruskin, G. (2012). Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert. Retrieved from:

Tierney, J. (2004). Using MRI’s To See Politics On The Brain. Retrieved from:

Van Cleave, K. (2012). Eye-tracking Technology Helps Marketers and Medical Professionals Alike. Retrieved from:


Consumer Psych 5: What The Toblerone?!

•February 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

When shopping this week I proudly cashed in on the Valentine’s Day buzz and treated myself to this tasty mountain shaped treat. To me, the packaging defies most of the psychological research behind packaging design so I was intrigued how Toblerone remains such an iconic brand in the lovely world of chocolate.

It is often assumed that colour is one of the most important aspects of packaging as it is the first visual cue that grabs our attention. Research suggests that we link colours with certain emotions. For example, green is associated with health and the environment, whereas red is associated with love and romance (Tilbury, 2006). If you head into the sweet and confectionary aisles in your local supermarket, I bet you will be surrounded by immense colour and variety. Yet, in comparison Toblerone is a bland shade of beige. It is perhaps this modest and unique colouration that makes it stand out from the brightly coloured crowd and makes it more appealing to the consumer. Furthermore, Marshall, Stuart and Bell (2006) found that brightly coloured packaging appeals to preschoolers but necessarily an older target market; arguably, a more suitable target market for the product.

Jiska, Siegfried and Luk (2013) suggest that motor fluency is a very important factor in consumer decision making. In other words, consumers favour products which are accessible, grab-able and familiar. However the iconic triangular tube doesn’t really fit these criteria! There are a couple of potential explanations of why this packaging is still successful. Firstly, it stands out from the conventionally square/ rectangular crowd that floods the shelves. The triangular shape is unconventional, intriguing and unique. Also, the triangular shape has a stylistic iconography in that it is shaped like a mountain – perhaps the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps – and is thus a symbol of Switzerland, promoting the branding of the Swiss chocolate and giving it some personality and oomph!

It is also rumoured that Albert Einstein allowed the patent for the unique Toblerone recipe. You can’t go wrong!


Jiska, E., Siegfried, D., & Luk, W. (2013). Situated Embodied Cognition: Monitoring Orientation Cues Affects Product Evaluation and Choice. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 23(4), 424-433.

Marshall, D., Stuart, M & Bell, R. (2006). Examining The Relationship Between Product Package Colour and Product Selection In Preschoolers. Food Quality and Preference, 17(8), 615-621.

Tilbury, C. (2006). Product Packaging. The Psychological Influences Behind Our Purchasing Decisions. Retrieved from:


Consumer Psych 4: The Infamous Pepsi Challenge Experiment

•February 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The Pepsi Challenge was a world-wide experiment that asked members of the public to blindly taste two soft drinks: one was Pepsi, the other Coca-Cola and rate which one they preferred. The results found that Pepsi was preferred by over half of the participants yet Coca-Cola still dominates the industry. Various scientists have tried to get to the bottom of these results. For example, Gladwell (2005) noted that there is a big difference between taking a sip of the drink and having the whole can. Pepsi is thought to be sweeter and therefore would be sicklier in higher quantity. But is there more to it?

In search for a more neuroscientific explanation, Montague (2004) replicated the study using an fMRI scanner. Initial self reports and brain scan supported the original finding that consumers have a preference for Pepsi. The cerebral area thought to be involved in reward behaviour – the putamen – was 5x more active during Pepsi consumption. The second time round Montague (2004) aimed to test brand influence by not running a blind test. Therefore, participants knew which drink they were tasting. 75% of participants showed a preference for coke and the cerebral activity changed to also involve the medial prefrontal cortex which is thought to be involved in cognitive processes and mediation. It seems that the branding of Coca-Cola: the sentimental advertising and logo had a greater effect on our preference than the taste!

Consumer Psych 3: La Musique

•February 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

When I think back to the promotional writing module I did during my English GCSE I remember having to watch a number of advertisements and evaluate them. In the blur that is my memory, one advert sticks in my mind: the first iPod Nano advert which was released in 2007. It was a new, cool product that all the kids were talking about but it wasn’t this that caught my attention, it was the music. The advert has nearly 3 million views on Youtube but it is perhaps telling that the main search is “Feist: 1, 2, 3 advert,” rather than simply the “iPod Nano advert” which is probably what you would expect. This shows that although the music is an important weapon to get the advert to stick in our minds, sometimes the product being advertised can be lost in the melody.

Scientists from Emory University in America believe that you can predict a song’s success by looking at cerebral activity. When we listen to music the amount of neural activity in the synapses varies, and it is this information that can tell us how rewarding and enjoyable a song will be to listen to. Berns (2006) invited 27 teenagers to take part in an fMRI study where he monitored their brain activity whilst listening to 120 unknown songs. A couple of years later he heard one of the songs on television and went back to re-analyse the results. The participants likability rating of the song did not correlate well to commercial success, however, brain activity did.

Consumer Psych 2: Spirituality and Branding

•February 11, 2014 • Leave a Comment

My blog this week revolves around a simple experience that got my lovely brain cogs whirring. Anyone who knows me will be, perhaps too aware, that my favourite band is 30 Seconds To Mars. Thus, I can often be found wearing their triad symbol as a pendant around my neck. Whilst I was out in town I spotted a young guy wearing exactly the same pendant. We both shared a smile as we noticed this similarity. I’d never met or seen this guy before but I automatically felt an affinity with him and a sense of belonging. It struck me that this feeling of belonging can influence both our consumer behaviour and our religious beliefs, so I was curious to explore these connections.

Religion, for better or for worse, can be seen as a business. Products that have some spiritual significance like Holy water, rosary beads or spiritual healing services make millions of pounds per annum. Most individuals that are part of a religious community are enthusiastic about what they do and have an exact idea about what they want to achieve. Back in the 1980’s the creators of Apple also set out the basis of their mission. Steve Jobs himself stated: “Man is the creator of change in this world. As such he should be above systems and structures, and not subordinate to them.” So spirituality and companies share a similar drive and vision about what they want to achieve.

Lindstrom (2008)identified ten key premises underlying most religious groups. These are a sense of affinity and belonging, having a clear mission of what they want to achieve, having power over competitors or enemies, appealing to the senses, good storytelling, grandeur and power, evangelism, symbolism and identity, mystery and rituals. Lindstrom (2008) pointed that these 10 qualities have an awful lot in common with consumerism. This view is supported by the psychological research of Dr Gemma Calvert who used an fMRI study to examine cerebral responses to religious stimuli and products. Participants entered the scanner and were exposed to a number of images which alternately depicted a religious stimuli, such as The Pope or products like an iPod. When well known products or brands were shown there was greater cerebral activity in the caudate nucleus and areas associated in decision making processes, memory and emotion. However, when the participants viewed the images with religious significance the exact same brain systems were activated. Participants brains reacted the same way to brands and religious stimuli!