False memories, cont’d

Posted by Rob Walker on December 10, 2008
Posted Under: Consumer Behavior

Lurking in my bookmarks is this article summarizing recent research on false memories and consumer behavior. I’m not sure where I got it from — I’ve forgotten! — and it looks like it was posted in October and has gotten around, so maybe you’ve seen it.

Still, this is an area of great interest to me, so I thought I’d pass it along just the same. The piece describes a study with two phases. First, subjects answered questions that supposedly created a “food and personality” profile related to childhood eating experiences.

A week later two-thirds of the participants were told in this profile that they had got sick after eating egg salad at an early age, while the remainder — the control group — were not. … Using questionnaires [researchers found] that almost half of the experimental group had taken the bait and created a false memory. …

Then, phase two: Four months later, participants were contacted by a different researcher. (Who was actually working with the original researchers, but the participants were led to believe there was no connection.) This study was supposed to be about food preferences, and involved some sandwich-choosing.

The folks who had accepted a false memory of childhood illness from egg salad sandwiches tended to avoid such sandwiches in this study.

What this study clearly shows is that not only is it possible to instill false memories in a significant minority of people, but that these false memories can have a marked effect on behaviour.

I’m not sure that’s actually news, but it does seem in line with other research I’ve read about false memories, whether in the realm of consumption or elsewhere. More on false memories and consumer behavior in this article about retro-branding that I did for the Times Mag, and also of course in the third chapter of Buying In. You may have known that but I’m just … reminding you. (Also: You really liked what I had to say and resolved to tell all your friends — remember?)

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

I’m concerned here about the ethics of putting someone off an egg salad sandwich. It doesn’t seem fair, really…

Written By cousin lymon on December 11th, 2008 @ 12:56 am

That’s a good point, lymon. On the other hand, reading about the study actually made me crave an egg salad sandwich. So maybe it all balances out.

Written By Rob Walker on December 12th, 2008 @ 10:50 am

I’m currently in an Introduction to Marketing class, and Buying In is one of the texts we read every week (great stuff, btw), so I am familiar with Chapter 3. Also, I have just read your article in the NYT, Can a Dead Brand Live Again?, I am extremely intrigued by these further correlations of the human brain and how they- false memories, specific triggers, or “buttons”, like jingles and scents and appealingly authentic products- all directly relate to consumer behavior.

Trying to piece together all this research I wonder if, using the Disney experiment results of the people who claim to remember the “What’s up, doc?” encounter with Bugs Bunny as a platform, creating a mimicked advertisement of a popular product aired in the 70’s but replacing the authentic product with a modified one would create more consumption of the recreated product by both the loyal consumers of the 70’s and my newer generation.

Answering this question with two different examples, one being Nair, a product with several variations for hair removal that exploded in the 70’s and 80’s, might be appropriate.

The company somewhat recently “modified” the product slightly and obnoxiously airs this one commercial all the time on channels like MTV and VH1 combining clips from old advertisements with the ever so catchy jingle “Who wears short shorts?” with four booty shaking women with abnormally killer legs.


Though I wouldn’t consider myself too main stream (who does?), at least not like their assumedly younger niche market of stereotypical, avid short-shorts-wearing teenage girls that tune into these channels, I, though fitting into the same demographic as most of them, not to mention just about all of my friends in the same position as me, have absolutely no desire to ever invest money into the product.

I will admit to have using their plastic razor shower gel thing that “penetrates the hair follicle” and mysteriously removes it once, before this unappealing advertisement was made (it was my 16-year-old sister’s and I was kind of curious). It turned out to be smelly, messy, and overall inconvenient because of amount of time you have to wait while your leg feels like acid is burning it off before you can remove it.

Obviously, none of these effects are particularly appealing, and my hair grew back at the same rate as it would have had I used a razor, contrary to their claims of longer grow-back periods (tmi?). I would imagine that my generation and the 70’s and 80’s generations would be turned off by this product, unless the latter had already established a brand or product loyalty and recognition of its “brand equity”.

Other products of Nair include microwaveable do-it-your-self wax kits, and a mysterious green sticky serum that requires no heat to use. Regardless of this advertising technique, I would never be interested in buying the product, not just because the idea of painfully ripping out my hair with some unimaginably sticky, microwaveable, mystery substance, and applying a messy and smelly serum that removes my hair with some unknown chemical, the second part of the advertisement with modern women with even shorter hem lines and embarrassingly tragic hip hop dance moves is annoying and doesn’t take away the my view of the product as being ineffective and passé.

Their new slogan is also incredibly lame- “Like Never Before”. Technically, isn’t everything we do “like never before”?

One of Paul Earle’s professors at Kellogg, John F. Sherry said, and I quote, “There’s no real reason that a brand needs to die [unless it is attached to a product that] functionally doesn’t work. [That is, as long as a given product can change to meet contemporary performance standards,] your success is really dependent on how skillful you are in managing the brand’s story so that it resonates with meaning that consumers like.” Maybe this tactic works on older, already loyal customers, but I would think that Nair wouldn’t “work” for my generation who has other, more covenant substitutes like disposable razors and professional, less painful wax jobs that are functional and contemporary. I don’t care what the story behind Nair is, I’m not interested.

Regardless of my opinions, Nair is still kickin-it (no pun intended). I have no visibility on their most successful target market, so I can’t really conclude that it is affective or ineffective for either niche. I can only be a representative of my demographic/ generation and reflect on my own experience and thoughts I guess.

The whole retro thing is appealing, and given the right product it may be successful in attracting young adults like myself.

Coke has a similar marketing style on occasion, selling old advertisements of the products on things like post cards, posters and tee-shirts and remaking their original tiny glass coke bottles. Maybe in my generations, the decision to buy a something mostly depends on product because the demand for coke products is a pretty inelastic on a large scale, and I see kids sporting coke gear (shirts, pins etc.) fairly often.

Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll do a little more research and get back to you. Hopefully my results wont take me a novel to explain like this response has. Sorry about that. This is being graded after all. ?


Written By Morgan May on December 12th, 2008 @ 10:04 pm

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