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How your friends change what you buy

Without being paid, other people promote brands to us everyday. Our friends might wear T-shirts bearing a little man riding a horse. Our colleagues carry back sandwiches in a bag which says ‘M&S’, ‘Paul’ or ‘Upper Crust’. Their coffee cups are marked ‘Starbucks’ or ‘Caffe Nero’. At the gym, trainers are patterned with a large ‘N’, a swoosh or three stripes.

Brands are so ubiquitous in our lives that we barely notice them. Could they influence our choices whilst we’re ignoring them?

An American group thought that they might. They showed a hundred and twenty-six Maryland students a series of twenty rather boring photos. In each photograph was a person going about their everyday business: having lunch, waiting at a bus-stop, working on a laptop. The researchers told the participants that they would be questioned on the photos afterwards, and asked them to focus on the facial expressions of the people in the pictures.

In some of the photos, there was a bottle of Dasani water. (Dasani is a popular water brand in the US.) In others, the bottle had been airbrushed out. Some students saw the bottle in twelve photos, others in four, and others in none of the pictures.

After looking at the photos, the students chose a bottle of water (Aquafine, Deer Park, Poland Spring or Dasani) as a gift for taking part. They also answered questions on whether they’d noticed any brands in the photos, and specifically whether they’d seen any Dasani bottles. Most students didn’t notice the product placement at all. Only 27% of those who’d seen twelve Dasani photos and 12% of those who’d seen four were able to recall doing so.

But even amongst the students that had completely missed the manipulation, the effect on their choices was strong. 17% of students who had seen the sequence of photos without any product placement chose Dasani. But amongst the students who’d seen four Dasani photos, but not noticed the brand, 22% chose Dasani. Twelve unnoticed exposures and 40% of participants wanted Dasani water.

The most effective adverts can be those we don’t notice, carried by people who don’t know they’re advertising.

Dr Chris Paley is the author of Unthink, which has been published in six languages.

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