The Mere Exposure Effect: Advertising to the Subconscious

Wayne's World screen capture

A recent Adweek column bemoaned the absence of brand names from the first 29 seconds of many 30-second ads. It advised introducing the brand earlier and mentioning it more often, as the author explained that otherwise people forget the name of the brand.

The author offered the right advice but for the wrong reasons. He also made two serious mistakes in his assumptions. One was asserting that brand recall is key to purchase; the second was that product placement in a show is ineffective because it is “cheesy.”

Problems with Conscious Recall

Let me begin with the mistakes. Conscious recall is not proof that an ad is effective. Although this flies in the face of common sense, not realizing that something was presented can be more effective than explicit recognition. Research shows that the more often something is presented to people, the more they tend to like it (within limits and certain technicalities): a well-established phenomenon in psychology called the mere exposure effect. The reason is that the more often something is presented, the easier it becomes to mentally process or—in the terminology of the science—the more ‘fluent’ it becomes. People like fluency; they like easier and quicker processing. That’s where the Adweek article has it right: multiple presentations of a brand or product do lead to better results.

But here is where the column got it wrong: this is not because of better recall but because of the greater fluency from the mere exposure effect.

More Exposure vs. Mere Exposure

Here is the counterintuitive rub and where the article is dead wrong. The mere exposure effect is stronger if the person is not aware of the stimulus or experience being repeated, which was clearly shown in a review of studies (called a meta-analysis) conducted by the psychologist Robert Bornstein. Moving to an ad, the mere exposure effect is stronger when the person does not know that the brand or product has been repeated. So conscious recall is not a valid measure. This also explains why product placement does work—and works best when it is subtle.

Why does this happen? How can we like things better when we don’t know we have seen them? Professor Bornstein explains that when we are aware, we can discount the effects of mere exposure because we know what is going on. When we are not aware, we cannot discount the effects; we simply experience greater fluency, which results in greater liking. Mere exposure works in both instances. But it works better in the case where we cannot discount the effects and that is most likely when awareness is lacking.

An Issue of Measurement

This leads to a measurement problem. If recall is not the best outcome, then what is? We can’t ask people because their conscious responses won’t capture the process. But there are two scalable answers:

  1. Presenting the brand/product too quickly to be processed consciously, but slowly enough to be processed emotionally, and then measuring the reaction.
  2. Using reaction-time technology that examines attention to aspects or associates of the product/brand. The specifics are technical and beyond the scope of this column but they have been empirically supported and the studies can be conducted online, with large numbers of people to examine the outcomes for different segments of the population.

The mere exposure effect shows that repetition of an experience (e.g., ad, brand, product) increases liking and preference for that experience. This effect is stronger when the experience occurs out of our conscious awareness. This means that recall is not an optimal measure of an ad’s effectiveness. It also means that product placement is likely to be effective, especially when it is done subtly. And, finally, repetition of product/brand in an ad is a powerful strategy, not because it increases recall, but because it increases the fluency that underlies the mere exposure effect.

Joel Weinberger, a founding partner of Implicit Strategies, is a professor at Adelphi University, a judge for the Ogilvy Awards, and a practicing psychologist. Joel helps political campaigns, non-profits and commercial companies discover what consumers really think and feel about their candidate, product, or brand.



  1. Lisa Morgan says:

    There’s one qualitative method that explores unconscious awareness – hypnotic trance. It reveals how emotions ‘anchor’ people to brands.

Speak Your Mind