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Why Image Is Everything

Recent research reveals that image and emotion beat fact and logic

Caleb Ekeroth/

If you think you purchase the goods and services you do based upon rational thinking, think again. Have you ever wondered why ads feature beautiful models, adorable puppies, cute babies and hilarious gags? Recent research reveals, we make brand purchase decisions based on the associations and feelings as opposed to the facts and stats. This conditioning can happen without your knowing. And it is a tendency so strong that it can make you purchase products that are actually inferior to the competition.

To demonstrate this effect Melanie Dempsey of Ryerson University and Andrew A. Mitchell of the University of Toronto conducted a remarkable experiment that randomly presented several hypothetical brands with hundreds of images and words on a computer screen that were either negative or positive. After seeing a long series of the images and brands, participants were not able to recall which associations were connected to which brands – but they developed a preference for the brands that had been positively emotionally conditioned. The researchers called it the “I like it, but I don’t know why” effect.

"On any given day a consumer is repeatedly exposed to brands that are paired with various images in one form or another -- from logos on the sides of buildings to televised commercials," write Dempsey and Mitchell, the authors of the research study. "Although the consumer may not be able to recall brand claims or even the brand name itself, the consumer might have been left with a positive feeling, one which he or she may not even be consciously aware."

In subsequent research these participants were shown rational information to contradict the prior conditioning -- logical evidence that indicated that their brand preferences were, in fact, inferior. But they still choose the brands that they had been conditioned to like by pairing the brand with positive imagery. Even those participants that were highly motivated were unable to undo the prior conditioning.

The authors of the study concluded, "Choice decisions of consumers are not only determined by evaluations of rational information (product attributes) but are also driven by forces that are generally outside of rational control."

Every day our decisions are being molded by our media environments. There is an increasing number of on-screen images, words and pictures that sometimes even follow you around the Internet. Some of these associations you may not remember but they are busy influencing your purchases, especially in the face of more and more information online that is sometimes conflicting. The tendency to make knee jerk shortcuts based on feeling is tempting and easy, but it also can be deceptive and costly. Becoming more aware of the “I like it, but I don’t know why effect” in everything we encounter in our daily lives, is the first step to making better purchase decisions.

To learn more about the many ways you are being swayed without your knowing, check out my book Unconscious Branding or my other articles, and follow me on Twitter. is external) is external)