When my son was six, we once encountered a sign in a public park that suggested "Please! Enjoy walking on the grass!" His face lit up for a few milliseconds, and then fell. "I don't want to do it if they tell me to," he muttered darkly, and his feet remained planted on the pavement. Which made me wonder, of course, if the sign had been put up there in an innovative attempt at reverse psychology.

Six-year-olds and adults alike seem prone to going to some lengths to resist persuasion, and with the swell of advertising we're faced with nowadays in a world bursting at the seams with choice, we ought to have lots of practice at it by now. What if the adult version of my son's response is to spend more money when exhorted by Walmart's to "Save money! Live better!" (Incidentally, nice marketing strategy.)

A recent study by Juliano Laran and colleagues suggests that people automatically activate a defensive system whenever they detect persuasive intent. The work builds on some fascinating results involving commercial brands in a phenomenon known as implicit priming, in which a seemingly irrelevant word or image can trigger behaviors that are somehow associated with that stimulus. For example, previous work has shown that subliminally flashing the Apple logo can spur study participants to think more creatively, and that presenting a Walmart logo can encourage frugal behavior whereas presenting a Nordstrom logo leads to greater indulgence. In other words, the brands activate a set of associations that in turn trigger certain behavioral goals.

But brands, argue Laran and colleagues, are different from other commercial messages in that they're not necessarily perceived as inherently persuasive—at one level, they're simply identifiers of a particular product, equivalent to say, your name. But slogans are transparently persuasive. Perhaps people react to these in reverse-psychology manner by blocking and even countering the typical brand associations.

The researchers found that when they had people look at cost-conscious brand names like Walmart in an alleged memory study, and then take part in an imaginary shopping task, they were able to replicate the implicit priming effect: people were willing to spend quite a bit less than if they'd seen luxury-brand logos. But when people saw slogans instead of the brand names, there was a reverse priming effect: now, the luxury brand slogans triggered more penny-pinching behavior than the economy-brand slogans.

The reverse-psychology effect really does seem to hinge on detecting the persuasive intent on the message. In another version of the study, if people were told to focus on the creativity of the slogans (presumably making their persuasive intent less "visible"), the reverse effect evaporated, and they now treated them just as they had the brand names; that is, the economy-brand slogans led to less spending than the slogans for luxury brands. And if the persuasive nature of brands was highlighted, the brand names triggered the reverse priming effect, just as the slogans had previously.

You might think that resisting persuasion takes some measure of skeptical awareness, that you have to deliberately arm yourself against the perceived persuasion. Certainly, I had thought that the best defense against implicit forms of persuasion might be greater mindfulness and critical thinking. Not necessarily so, it seems.

In a particularly ingenious variation of the study, the researchers tested to see whether the defensive system could be unconsciously turned on by some form of subliminal messaging. They showed subjects sentences such as "Don't waste your money" or "Always try to impress." After each sentence, either the word "slogan" or the word "sentence" was flashed too quickly to be seen by the subjects. When the sentences had been identified neutrally as "sentence," subjects' spending decisions aligned with the content of the sentences. But when they were identified by the word "slogan," they showed a reverse priming effect—the mere activation of the construct of slogan (subliminally, no less) was enough to send them scurrying in the opposite direction.

The study suggests that advertising messages could in theory have very different effects depending on whether their persuasive nature is highlighted. This, incidentally, is the logic behind the recent French decision to ban the uttering of the brand names Facebook and Twitter on broadcast television, a move that had many Americans shaking their heads and mumbling about anti-American sentiment. But the premise is not unreasonable: that uttering a brand name outside of the clearly persuasive context of a commercial doesn't allow consumers the opportunity to activate their defense shields. The same line of thinking applies to some countries' decisions not to allow advertising aimed at children, because young kids don't always get that advertising is a form of persuasion.

The study also provides a potential answer to a question that has been in my mind since I first heard about the implicit priming effects with Apple and Walmart logos: could you nudge yourself towards creativity or financial prudence by plastering the appropriate logos around your house or workspace or in your wallet? Perhaps not—you'd always be aware of your intent to persuade yourself. Maybe unconscious persuasion tactics are a bit like tickling: it doesn't work if you try to do it on yourself.

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Copyright © 2011 Julie Sedivy, All Rights Reserved


Laran, J., Dalton, A.N. & Andrade, E.B. 2011. The curious case of behavioral backlash: Why brands produce priming effects and slogans produce reverse priming effects. Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 999-1014.

Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T.L. & Fitzsimons, G.J. 2008. Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: How Apple makes you "Think different." Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 21-35.

Chartrand, T.L., Huber, J., Shiv, B. & Tanner, R.J. 2008. Nonconscious goals and consumer choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 189-201.

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