marketing, psychology

It’s Prime Time: Psychology of Priming

As a business owner, you’re already priming your customers — whether you’re aware of it or not. And what you’re currently using to prime your customers has a MAJOR impact on your brand. That’s why it is crucial that you are aware of it. You need to actively work to make sure the priming effect makes you look good instead of, well, not good.

So what exactly is priming? More importantly, how are you using it as a business owner?

Priming is one of the most basic advertising tactics used in marketing, and a lot of marketers don’t even know they’re using it. Priming is generally accepted as a truth in social psychology, and it’s backed by behavioral research studies.

Priming is the idea that one thing affects your reaction to another thing that seems unrelated. Here’s an example:

Imagine you’re at a nice restaurant. You hear some Italian song playing — you know, When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie, that’s amore

You look at the wine list, and you notice an Italian wine is being featured. You look at the price and think, “Seems reasonable.”

And you say to the waiter, “I’ll take a bottle of the featured Italian wine.”

According to this idea of priming, you were primed by the Italian song to buy the pricier wine just because it was Italian.

Notice that you didn’t really think about the connection to the song and the wine — on some level, yes, you knew they were related, but you didn’t sit down and make a list of all the things associated with that Italian song (like pasta, cheese wheels, gondolas, and wine).

A key part of this idea of priming is that it actually occurs outside of conscious awareness. Sneaky, sneaky

You might be thinking that priming is all BS and that you wanted to buy the wine because you love wine and Italy produces great wine — the song had nothing to do with it. Okay, sure…

Well, what does the research say about priming?

A group of researchers actually took images of the brain and examined movement patterns during a brain task. Scientists assigned participants a thinking task and hooked them up to brain imaging equipment. They gave them instructions, saying something like, “Do X on number A.” But what they didn’t tell participants was that they also flashed a number in front of them for just a fraction of a second — so quickly that participants didn’t even know they saw it. This type of prime is called a masked prime. Scientists found that the people who saw the masked prime actually moved differently — as in, they did X (their task) on not only number A, but they moved to do that task on the masked prime too. And they had no awareness that they’d even seen this masked prime number.

Honestly, that’s pretty freaky… Does that mean that film editors can add a microsecond of a screen that says “buy stock in Ford Motors!!” and then BOOM, you’re primed to go buy stock in Ford Motors??

According to market researcher James Vicary, flashing ads for coca-cola and popcorn increased those sales in movie theaters, even though the ads were so quick the audience never registered them. Vicary is considered one of the leaders in the study of subliminal priming. Vicary’s findings have never been repeated, and it’s generally accepted that they were a hoax.

Now, an ethics question for you… Is priming manipulative?

On the surface, it’s quite obviously manipulative, right? Upon a closer look at the research, we can see that it may not be. In my opinion, priming is not evil or slimy for two reasons:

  1. The first reason I think it’s generally fine is because there would not be an effect of priming if there was not already an association formed in whosoever brain was being primed. In fact, research that shows that subliminal priming only has an effect on participants who already have a need/want for the product. Researchers showed that people only wanted the drink (for which they were shown subliminal messaging) when they were already thirsty.
  2. The second reason I think priming is not necessarily awful is because businesses with truly stellar products really should do everything they can to sell their products to improve their customers’ lives. You could even argue that great businesses are doing the world a disservice by not priming their customers to buy their great offer. If you’re selling anything less than top-notch products, then yes — priming your audience to buy your just-okay products is not good. And if that’s the case, you’re going to have to improve your product.

But regardless of whether priming is evil,  ALL businesses are already doing it— all the time.

Literally anything can prime customers for or against your brand, and many of those things are outside of your control. For example, if you’re trying to sell your online course, and your audience sees an ad about why online courses are better than books, you might have gotten lucky! That ad may have primed your customer to buy your course.

While SO many factors account for how your audience sees your business, here are few primes you can control that can seriously help shape your customers’ experience:

  • Word choice. As a copywriter, I am constantly thinking about the the effect words have. Put another way, I’m always considering how customers can be primed (in a positive or negative way) depending on my word choice. All copywriters should do this, but having a deep understanding of priming allows me to be extra careful with every word I write. I may be biased, but words are possibly the best way to prime your audience for higher sales.
  • Colors. What colors are in your logo, your website, or your store? Do they inspire the desired mood you want customers to have? There’s a whole sector of research devoted to color psychology that demonstrates how colors affect our emotions and behavior. Choose your colors wisely.
  • Logo. What does your logo look like? I deliberately chose a simply drawn ram as my logo for two reasons. First of all, I wanted site visitors to remember my name (RAMsey, get it?). Secondly, I chose the ram because I consider the ram to represent power. I want to show that my work is powerful in that it can ramp up your sales, increase conversions, and ultimately change the face of your business if employed properly. I’m confident that all these things can happen for your business with the marketing psychology techniques I know. I choose to showcase that to help clients get to know me better.

I know that you know colors, word choice, and logo are important for selling your brand. I didn’t need to tell you that. But it’s important to know just how crucial all of these things are for your business. So, choose your brand image wisely, and if you’re using your own DIY copy, try to get a second set of eyes on your work. While you can’t control people’s perception of your brand entirely, you can certainly put your best foot forward.

How can you showcase the best of your brand using the psychology of priming?

Let me know in the comments below how you use (or want to use) priming in your business!


Is marketing evil?

Don Draper sits with his arms crossed across his chest, thinking of ways to sell tobacco. He’s just been notified of new research that shows that tobacco is unhealthy, but he doesn’t want to lose this account. He has bills to pay, and he needs to find a way to sell tobacco regardless of its dangers.

Don Draper is exactly who we DON’T want selling our products to us. He is cunning, smart, and ruthless. His goal is to sell, not to necessarily to help.

Yet Don Draper is exactly the type of copywriter all businesses want in their marketing department. Businesses want long-term clients and customers. They want their customers’ hard-earned money. And Don Draper knows how to get money into their clients’ hands.

Is marketing manipulative? Is it evil?

Honestly, maybe. The answer depends entirely on the business and product being marketed. Let’s look at two real-life examples of “evil” marketing being used to sell a dangerous product: tobacco and alcohol.

It’s no secret that tobacco is bad for you. And you can debate whether red wine is good for the heart (or whatever that claim is), but alcohol can certainly be dangerous. In fact, our government mandates that the Surgeon General’s Warning is clearly displayed on the package or bottle to discourage its sale and use.

In 1971, cigarette advertisements were banned from TV and radio. In 1998 a lawsuit resulted in new bans on tobacco advertising on billboards, cartoons, and advertising designed to appeal to kids younger than 18 years old.

In 2006, it was determined that Big Tobacco had violated racketeering laws by marketing “low tar” and “light” cigarettes. They claimed that these low tar and light cigarettes were actually less harmful than normal cigarettes. They knowingly misrepresented these products, and Big Tobacco paid the price.

In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act granted the FDA power to regulate marketing of tobacco. This allowed the FDA to restrict sale of tobacco in retail where customers could buy it face-to-face. It also banned the sale of tobacco through vending machines. 

A few ways Big Tobacco use sneaky and mega effective marketing tactics to sell harmful products:

A. They target vulnerable populations to sell more tobacco. It is well known in marketing that you need to target your audience to sell your product. For example, selling clothes to the geriatric population is very different from selling clothes to teenagers. Teenagers are more likely to care about style, what their friends are wearing, and the latest trends. In contrast, older populations are more likely to care about being comfortable, having easy clothes to put on, and feeling their best. Different populations warrant different marketing, and Big Tobacco knows that. Tobacco was marketed to specific audiences to sell better. 

B. They use experiential marketing. Experiential marketing is a tactic used by marketers to get their audience to associate the promoted product with a certain activity. Ideally, that activity is something the audience LOVES. 

For example, Big Tobacco used the below packaging to get people to associate hip hop with tobacco.

C. They use familiar-looking products in e-cigarettes’ package designs. The names and images below elicits nostalgia for products like Vanilla Wafers, Sour Patch Kids, and Whipped Cream.

Wait, aren’t there rules against using marketing like that? How are they able to do this? 

Well, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act actually does not apply to the e-cigarettes. Big Tobacco is well within their legal rights to market these products—even though we have scientific literature on the dangers of e-cigarettes AND they blatantly exploit people’s fondness of childhood treats (to sell e-cigs). 

Another potentially harmful and addictive substance is alcohol. 

College students, open minded and ready to make friends, are major targets for Big Alcohol. Marketers use prototypes (or avatars) of their ideal customer to sell their products. They say, “who would want to buy this product?” and “what can I promise them that will sell the product?”

College students have a wide range of interests, many of which can be exploited by companies who want to sell them stuff— like alcohol. According to research published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, alcohol companies know this and use it to sell alcohol to college kids. They know that not all college students are the same. Some prefer to be seen as more free-spirited. Others want to be known as great athletes. For example, Coors is targeted at the chill, easy-going ones. Budweiser is targeted at the athletic ones. 

Think about the famous slew of Budweiser SuperBowl ads. Maybe without you even knowing, an association was formed: Budweiser + Football = Good time. BOOM. 

Consider the Coors “Made to Chill” campaign. It targets millennials who are staying at home, chilling— with a beer (in the shower, apparently). Coors wants to attract those go-with-the-flow types to buy Coors.

These target advertisement campaigns work. Coors and Budweiser are popular with college kids, and I think that’s due to a concerted effort of the companies.

Sounds slimy, right? Marketing can definitely be manipulative, but it can also be immensely helpful. Now that you know the dark side of marketing, see my article here on nudging to see why and how it can be helpful.

So, is marketing evil? It absolutely can be. Business psychology in advertising is incredibly powerful. That’s why, as writers, we need to be careful who we work for. If you’re a freelancer, you need to be extra vigilant. Don’t work for businesses whose products don’t TRULY benefit the consumer. ONLY work for those businesses that you can proudly support with your well-crafted words. 

Thanks for reading! Do you love it? Hate it? Let me know below!