Marketing

Unconsciously Affected by the Rijksmuseum

priming
Still Life with a Lobster by Adriaen van Utrecht, 1644

Who wouldn’t want to sit on this table? How the Rijksmuseum is priming you.

This luxurious still life with a lobster is exposed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Downstairs, museum restaurant ‘Rijks’ serves dishes made from Dutch ingredients and inspired by the old master paintings. Lobsters and langoustines, for instance. I think this a very elegant example of what in marketing is called ‘priming’.

Stimulus and Response

Say what? Priming works as follows: You are exposed to a stimulus. For example, you are visiting the Rijksmuseum and you see this beautiful still life with juicy fruits and a fresh lobster (first stimulus). Next, this exposure to a stimulus will affect how you react to another stimulus. You are heading for the exit and your stomach is grumbling (another stimulus). Unconsciously, you think back to the tasty lobster in the still life painting (old stimulus). Suddenly the Rijksmuseum restaurant seems like the perfect option (response).

Positive associations

Priming is influencing the unconscious. We think we make rational decisions, but a big part of the day people are functioning on autopilot. We are guided by our positive and negative experiences. Marketers deliver positive experiences that will result in us making certain decisions when on autopilot. Marketers don’t even have to create the experience itself. They just need to pass on a positive association. A picture of Italy can make you crave for pasta.

Controversy

In science, priming is kind of a controversial subject. Social psychologists acknowledge the existence of priming, but in experiments, it’s hardly possible to define which variable is causing what effect.

Priming Experiment

Take the legendary experiment by John Bargh in the nineties. He asked groups of students to make sentences out of five words. Some groups received words that are easily associated with old age: wrinkles, forgetfulness, Florida. Other groups of students were given five neutral words.

Next, the students had to walk to a different room. What happened? The students that had made sentences in the elderly-theme, walked more slowly to the next room in comparison to the neutral group. Were they primed by the words? Or did this group of students suffer from a party the night before?

Not all unnecessary variables can be excluded from the experiment. That’s what makes this research so difficult.

In the past, social psychologists have been tempted to make bold statements, because science journals wish for exciting articles. Priming experiments are often not easy to reproduce by other scientists. Kahneman (Thinking Fast & Slow) stated in an open e-mail that a lot of famous experiments in social psychology are not valid and must be redone. See this recent article. 

Temptation

Perhaps as a marketer, it is better to stop looking for a secret formula. (Red vs green packages, the smell of coffee or lavender?) Leave general conclusions to the scientists and focus on what is working for your target audience. Besides, I don’t think people like to be secretly harassed by subliminal messages anyway.

People do like to be inspired. You can take care of that with great music, design, and symbols.

Still, I believe a relevant product, an inspiring mission, and a satisfying customer experience must be the key elements of marketing.