The Power of Pairings: How Marketers Make Us Like Products

How marketeers make you like their products.

Posted Nov 20, 2020

Ekaterina Belinskaya / Pexels
Source: Ekaterina Belinskaya / Pexels

By Tal Moran

Marketing ads often present new products together with positive events. For example, in YouTube commercials, a new toilet paper brand may be presented with playing puppies or a new car may be presented with a beautiful woman posing in it.

The idea behind this strategy is that the pairing of the new products with positive events will result in a positive evaluation of these products. Indeed, extensive research has found that when a neutral object (e.g., a new toilet paper brand) is repeatedly paired with an already evaluated object (e.g., puppies), the evaluation of the neutral object changes, usually toward the evaluation of the object that was paired with it (e.g., the new toilet paper become positive like the puppies). This effect of pairing on evaluation is called “evaluative conditioning.”

Evaluative conditioning has been investigated for almost four decades now. So, what interesting things have we learned about this effect? 

One of the early claims about the effect of pairing on people’s evaluation was that it sometimes occurs without people’s awareness of the pairings. So, the claim was that people could start liking the toilet paper due to its pairing with the puppies, even without knowing or remembering that they saw the toilet paper together with puppies. However, more recent research from our and other labs failed to find convincing evidence that the effect of pairing can occur without awareness. 

Still, pairing may affect evaluation even when one would not expect such an effect. For example, recently published research from our lab found that pairing influences evaluation even when people can use different, more diagnostic evaluative information. So, the pairing of the new toilet paper brand with puppies might influence people’s evaluation of the new brand (they will perceive it as more positive) even if they can base their evaluation on more relevant information such as other consumers' ratings of the new toilet paper's quality.

A related and unpublished finding from our lab is that pairings influence people’s evaluation even when people are quite explicitly told that the pairings are not informative. Imagine that, before they see the new toilet paper brand presented with puppies, people are told that there is no real relation between the puppies and the toilet paper because the decision to show them together was made randomly. Or, that people are explicitly told that the fact that the toilet paper is presented with puppies does not indicate anything about how good or bad the new toilet paper is.

Under these conditions, one might expect that pairings would not influence people's evaluations. However, they still do. Even in these circumstances, people would perceive the toilet paper as positive due to its pairing with the puppies.  

Even more counter-intuitive is the finding that pairings influence evaluation even when the relation between the two paired objects indicates that they are opposite in valence. Imagine a doctor who cures people of cancer. This doctor does positive things and, therefore, should be evaluated as positive.

However, this doctor also consistently co-occurs with cancer (which is negative). Would the pairing of the doctor with cancer reduce its positivity? The evidence from our research suggests that the answer to this question is yes. People or products that are paired with negative objects because they stop, prevent, or fight them (e.g., medicines prevent illness and Batman fights crimes) will be perceived as less positive than people or objects that have a positive impact but are not paired with something negative.

The researchers who study the effect of pairings on evaluation still debate which mental processes are responsible for it. Some argue that this effect is caused by an inferential reasoning process: people would infer from the pairing of the toilet paper with puppies that their evaluation of the toilet paper should be similar to their evaluation of the puppies. According to this view, such inferences can occur automatically and are not always accurate, which can explain the occurrence of the “non-logical” effects of pairing described above. 

Others claim that this effect is caused by the automatic formation of mental associations that link the two objects. So, due to the exposure to the pairing, a mental representation of the new toilet paper becomes associated with a mental representation of the puppies, and, therefore, every time we see the new toilet paper brand we automatically think about puppies.

Regardless of which of the two perspectives is correct, the examples described above clearly illustrate the power of pairings in shaping our evaluations of the objects and people around us. So, next time a commercial interrupts your YouTube playlist, remember the great potential of this simple marketing technique.     

The author wishes to thank Jan De Houwer and Yannick Boddez for feedback on an earlier version.

References

De Houwer, J. (2018). Propositional models of evaluative conditioning. Social Psychological Bulletin, 13, e28046. 

Gawronski, B., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2018). Evaluative conditioning from the perspective of the associative-propositional evaluation model. Social Psychological Bulletin, 13, e28024.‏

Moran, T., Bar-Anan, Y., & Nosek, B. A. (2016). The assimilative effect of co-occurrence on evaluation above and beyond the effect of relational qualifiers. Social Cognition, 34, 435-461.

Moran, T., Van Dessel, P., Smith, C. T., & De Houwer, J. (2020). Can (instructions about) stimulus pairings influence automatic and self-reported evaluations in the presence of more diagnostic evaluative information? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220964638

Moran, T., Hughes, S., Hussey, I., Vadillo, M. A., Olson, M. A., Aust, F., Bading, K., Balas, R., Benedict, T., Corneille, O., Douglas, S. B., Ferguson, M. J., Fritzlen, K. A., Gast, A., Gawronski, B., Giménez-Fernández, T., Hanusz, K., Heycke, T., Högden, F., … De Houwer, J. (in press). Incidental attitude formation via the Surveillance Task: A Registered Replication Report of Olson and Fazio (2001). Psychological Science