Introduction to the special issue: Implicit measures of consumer response—the search for the Holy Grail of marketing research



The advent of measures of implicit cognition provides marketing researchers with tools they can use to probe automatic processes that do not rely on conscious deliberation. Attempts by marketing researchers to probe unconscious or automatic processes underlying consumer attitudes and purchase decisions date back at least as far as the work of motivation researchers in the early to mid-twentieth century. These newer methods, principally the Implicit Association Test, emerged from work of psychologists concerned with studying implicit attitudes toward the self and social issues. These measures have more recently been applied to marketing studies of implicit attitudes of consumers toward particular brands and products. This special issue of Psychology & Marketing features contributions in which contemporary researchers in the field review applications of implicit measurement to consumer cognition, consumer persuasion, and nonverbal communication in the retailing context. © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

In the landmark book The Hidden Persuaders, first published in 1957, Vance Packard began by noting that large-scale efforts were under way to chart the territory of unconscious motivations that influence purchasing decisions and thought processes. He added that many of us are influenced and manipulated (“far more than we realize”) by persuaders seeking to exploit our hidden motives and desires. Grounded in Freudian psychoanalytic theory, sociological analysis of social class, and social anthropology, the motivation research approach to marketing took root in the 1940s with the contributions of early influential figures such as Ernest Dichter, W. Lloyd Warner, and Burleigh Gardner. Motivation researchers believed that to be effective, marketing efforts must tap into underlying emotional and motivational factors. Packard quoted Dichter, who famously said of selling shoes: “… to women, don't sell shoes—sell lovely feet!” (cited in Packard, 1957, p. 53). The focus of motivation research was to explore why people bought what they did, not how much they would buy.

Probing the unconscious mind took the form of indirect approaches to marketing research, including the so-called depth interview and projective methods developed by practitioners of psychodynamic therapy, such as the Rorschach inkblot test, sentence completion methods, and storytelling techniques such as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). Investigators recognized then, as now, that direct inquiries may be biased by social desirability responding, that is, by tendencies to give socially acceptable responses to direct questions. Moreover, many consumers may not be aware of their underlying attitudes or even know their own product preferences. More direct means of determining consumer preference, such as interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups, suffer from similar limitations of relying on expressed opinions and stated preferences. Indirect measures offer the promise of overcoming subjectivity by invoking memory processes that do not depend on conscious effort and may not even be consciously accessible. Eliminating subjectivity in favor of more objective indices of consumer preferences and attitudes that bypass conscious evaluative processes constitutes a kind of “Holy Grail” of marketing research. Still, the value of indirect measures may lie in enhancing direct measures of consumer response, rather than simply replacing them. This special issue of Psychology & Marketing examines the developing research basis and applications of indirect measures of consumer responses.

Scientific research has made important strides in the development of indirect measurement of attitudes, preferences, and emotional responses. Investigators have moved from projective instruments and depth interviews to implicit measures and even brain scans. Currently, efforts are under way on various fronts to drill down not only to the unconscious level but to even deeper brain processes involved in regulating emotional responses. The emerging field of neuromarketing seeks to measure brain activity as an indication of underlying responses to commercial products such as movie trailers and brand identities.

Cognitive scientists draw a distinction between two basic types of memory systems, explicit memory and implicit memory. We rely on explicit memory to recall facts (“What's the capital of Finland?”) and episodic life experiences (autobiographic memory). These processes require conscious effort to bring information to mind, and they are invoked when consumers are directly asked to state their opinions or preferences. Implicit memory (sometimes called procedural memory) is invoked when performing many different automatic or nonconscious responses, including motor behaviors (e.g., riding a bike, tying shoes, etc.) and applying rules of grammar and syntax when writing or speaking conversationally. Implicit memory does not require deliberate effort to recall information and often involves memory of well-honed skills and abilities that are difficult, perhaps even impossible, to put clearly into words (e.g., try using words and not your hands to describe how you ride a bike without falling or tie a knot).

Implicit cognitive processes are involved in muscle memories needed to ride a bike or walk up a flight of stairs—processes that don't rely on conscious awareness of the many discrete muscular contractions needed to accomplish these tasks. Consider the implicit cognitions involved in the challenging task of catching a fly ball. The baseball fielder needs to apply complex geometric rules—literally “on the fly”—to determine the likely landing point of the ball (Shaffer & McBeath, 2005). The ballplayer doesn't consciously think through these computations and may not even begin to understand the complex geometric rules needed to compute a ball's trajectory. Even as I'm typing these words, my thoughts are focused on what I am trying to say rather than the movements of my fingers on the keyboard. The common forms of learning referred to as Pavlovian or classical conditioning operate implicitly, without conscious mediation. We may hear a familiar melody and feel sentimental, a result of past associations evoked by mere exposure to the melody. Applied to attitude measurement, implicit responses invoke automatic processes based on associations held in memory that do not rely on conscious awareness (Gawronski & Bodenhausen, 2006).

Psychologists are focusing greater attention on automatic or implicit processes believed to govern a wide range of behaviors. Numerous examples show the effects of unnoticed or subtle cues on ordinary behavior. For example, Lawrence Williams and John Bargh at Yale University examined whether simply warming the hands would serve as a cue for “warming the heart” (Williams & Bargh, 2008). The investigators first primed participants by having them hold either a cup of hot coffee or a cup of iced coffee for a few seconds while they were on their way to the lab. To disguise the intent of the study, each participant was escorted to the lab by a female assistant who was holding a coffee cup (hot in one condition, cold in the other). The assistant then asked the participant to momentarily hold her coffee cup to allow her to free her hands to record their name and time of participation. The assistant then took back the coffee cup. Participants who had momentarily held the hot drink later rated a target person as significantly warmer on a composite warmth measure than did those who had held the cold drink. Warm hands may well make for a warm heart.

In another recent example, investigators demonstrated how behavior could be influenced by subtle exposure to odors that lie outside conscious awareness (Holland, Hendriks, & Aarts, 2005). Participants were unaware that they had earlier been exposed to a citrus-scented all-purpose cleaner. Later, when these participants were again exposed to the scent, in a word identification task in which the task was to identify cleaning-related words, they showed faster reaction times than did controls who were exposed to the scent for the first time. The experimental subjects also kept their immediate environment cleaner during an eating task than did control group participants. In other words, prior exposure (or priming) to the scent affected later behavior, even though individuals were unaware of having been exposed to it.

Studies of implicit responses in advertising research have begun to emerge. A key area of focus involves applications of associative learning or evaluative conditioning, which entails repeated pairings of objects (e.g., product brands) with affectively laden (positive or negative) stimuli (Gawronski & Bodenhausen, 2006). The aim is to elicit more positive implicit responses to particular products, such as feelings of warmth or liking. In one recent research example, investigators found that pairing a brand with an amusing cartoon in a digital magazine format enhanced implicit attitudes toward the product (Strick et al., 2009). Moreover, enhancement of implicit associations mediated the relationship between the use of humor and explicit product choice. Relatedly, evaluative conditioning was shown to change implicit attitudes and brand choice between two mature brands, Coke and Pepsi, for individuals who did not have any clear initial preference between the brands (Gibson, 2008). Importantly, evaluative conditioning altered implicit attitudes toward these brands, but not explicit attitudes. Awareness of the contingency was unrelated to changes in brand attitudes. This suggests that affective responses to products may be influenced by associative learning processes without the consumer being consciously aware of it. Brand choice was affected by implicit attitude change, but only under conditions of high cognitive load. Thus, implicit attitudes may be more potent determinants of product choice or preference in situations involving impulse buying or when consumers are distracted or need to make quick decisions and so may be less able to deliberate about their decisions.

In a broader context, recent popular books such as Malcolm Gladwell's Blink (Gladwell, 2005), Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational (Ariely, 2008), and Ori and Rom Brafman's Sway (Brafman & Brafman, 2008) have drawn attention to the powerful effects on behavior of automatic cognitive processes such as intuition. The belief that humans are “predictably irrational” draws on the growing scientific literature on the role of implicit memory processes in social perception and interpersonal behavior. In his book, What the Dog Saw, Gladwell (2009) cites evidence showing that observers can form impressions of target persons based on but a “thin slice” of behavior (e.g., a fifteen-second video clip of someone entering a room, shaking hands with an interviewer, and sitting down for an interview) that are similar to those formed by skilled interviewers after conducting full-length interviews. In a laboratory experiment, Princeton researchers found that undergraduate students formed trait impressions based on a 100-millisecond (one-tenth of a second) exposure to pictures of people's faces that were consistent with those of raters who had no time limitations imposed on viewing the faces (Willis & Todorov, 2006). Other investigators compressed the time limit for making automatic judgments by showing that research participants were able to form impressions of personality traits simply by glimpsing faces flashed at even more blinding speeds (as low as 39 milliseconds) (Bar, Neta, & Linz, 2006). In the consumer arena, investigators report that shoppers sometimes make better decisions about products they choose when they let their intuition guide them rather than after careful deliberation (Dijksterhuis et al., 2006). The relevance of “thin-slicing” to advertising research may be seen in the effects of brief exposures to consumer products in product placements in movie or television scenes or by mere exposure to ads that flash by on Web pages or other media.

Questions remain about whether explicit and implicit processes operate independently or in parallel fashion. What is clear is that conflicts between these cognitive processes can interfere with skilled performance. Arguably the greatest risk to skilled performers is to consciously think about the quality of their performance while they are performing. In basketball or football games, for example, teams will routinely call time-outs at critical times when an opposing player is set to take a crucial free throw or attempt a field goal. The added time allows the opposing player to “think” about the upcoming shot or play rather than simply performing it, which opens the window for conscious evaluative processes to interfere with muscle memory.

The developing scientific literature on implicit processes leads to a general conclusion that we are conscious beings but are not consciously aware of everything we do (Bargh & Williams, 2006). The featured articles in this special issue of Psychology & Marketing examine applications of automatic cognitive processes to advertising and marketing research, as well as nonverbal behaviors of consumers in the retailing context. As a group, these articles are defined by the application of indirect or implicit measures that attempt to circumvent the inherent limitations or response biases affecting explicit responses to direct questioning or survey measures.

In the first of the articles in this special issue, Claudiu Dimofte provides an overview of implicit measures of consumer cognition (Dimofte, 2010). He focuses on the most widely used measure of implicit responses, the Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998). He also reviews evidence supporting the predictive validity of implicit measures beyond that of explicit responses and examines conditions under which implicit measures may be most valuable to marketers, such as when consumers engage in impulsive behaviors, are pressured to rely on more automatic evaluation processes (Friese, Wänke, & Plessner, 2006; Friese, Hoffman, & Wänke, 2008), or when they hold ambivalent attitudes that may attenuate the value of explicit self-reports (Maison, Greenwald, & Bruin, 2001). Dimofte also reviews findings from his own research lab that may raise alarms among advertisers. For example, he reports how polysemous (multiple-meaning) product slogans (e.g., “Raising the Bar”) may engender unintended negative implicit associations not revealed by direct questioning (Dimofte & Yalch, 2007a, 2007b).

The second article, by Javier Horcajo, Pablo Briñol, and Richard E. Petty, explores relationships between persuasive messages and automatic (implicit) associations (Horcajo, Briñol, & Petty, 2010). In a series of empirical studies, they demonstrate how explicit persuasive arguments affect automatic associations and how these changes reverberate to related associations within a spreading activation model. The first study demonstrated how arguments favoring the category of vegetables led to more positive implicit associations to the object category. They then demonstrated that exposure to arguments favoring the color green increased favorable implicit associations to a product associated with the color (Heineken beer). In the final studies, they examined the spreading activation model in the context of implicit associations about the self and its relationship to an attitude object (vegetables) and how spreading activation conforms to Heider's (1958) balance principle. In this paper, which has both strong theoretical and empirical foundations, the authors demonstrate that explicit advertising messages cross boundaries between explicit and implicit cognitive processes, affecting automatic evaluations that can spread to related associations. An important issue for future research is whether changes in automatic associations affect purchasing behaviors. The authors also offer the conjecture that people who resist persuasive messages, such as those in advertisements, might still show evidence of hidden persuasive effects in underlying automatic associations. The allusion to Packard's hidden persuaders bears mentioning here, as it is conceivable that researchers may be able to demonstrate hidden persuasive effects that are not captured by explicit attitude measures.

In the third article, Nancy Puccinelli, Scott Motyka, and Dhruv Grewal provide valuable insights into nonverbal communication in the retail context (Puccinelli, Motyka, & Grewal, 2010). Salespersons attempt to read nonverbal bodily signals of customers to gauge their level of interest and excitement relating to purchasing a particular product. These attempts are guided more by implicit processes or intuition than by a theoretical understanding of the factors influencing nonverbal behaviors. Puccinelli and her colleagues present a set of nine propositions supported by empirical findings and provide a conceptual framework for determining conditions in which retailers may be more confident in trusting a customer's nonverbal expressions as indications of true sentiments.

The final article in this series features a study I conducted with graduate student Nate McClelland that examined implicit and explicit attitudes toward then–presidential candidate Barack Obama based on a sample of college students from a large, urban, northeastern university (Nevid & McClelland, 2010). Participants rated Mr. Obama on a set of personality traits and completed the Single Category Implicit Association Test (SC-IAT) (Karpinski & Steinman, 2006), which we used to measure implicit associations to photographs of Mr. Obama. We also manipulated skin-tone darkness of the photographs of Mr. Obama by creating darker and lighter versions of the same images as target stimuli. In addition, we examined the role of an individual difference variable, self-identified political ideology (conservative vs. liberal), in relation to measures of explicit and implicit attitudes toward Mr. Obama. The results showed that darkening Mr. Obama's skin tone in the target images had a marked negative effect on implicit responses of conservative, but not liberal, students, which underscores the importance of taking individual differences into account in measuring implicit responses of target groups. We also showed significant relationships between implicit and explicit measures and between implicit measures and modern racist attitudes.

As Dimofte notes in this issue, the use of implicit measures in marketing and advertising research is still in its infancy. Though implicit measurement may still be an infant, we can trace its intellectual roots to much earlier contributions of motivation researchers who probed unconscious processes operating below the surface of awareness in order to better understand consumer behavior. Today, marketing researchers are more likely to speak about automatic processes than unconscious mechanisms as determinants of attitudes and behaviors. Still, like those of the Vance Packard generation, they seek reliable and valid measures of implicit cognitions that offer the promise, perhaps the “Holy Grail” itself, of quantifying underlying consumer responses unfiltered by conscious awareness and free of response biases. This infant is likely to grow at a prodigious rate in the near future, and as it matures, it is likely to provide various means of assessing implicit or nonconscious consumer responses, not only to brands and products but also to celebrities, politicians, and social issues.

As guest editor of this special issue of Psychology & Marketing, I would like to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of the editor-in-chief, Dr. Ronald Jay Cohen. Dr. Cohen recognized the increasing importance of implicit measures in marketing research and spearheaded the development of this special issue as a forum for highlighting the contributions of leading researchers in the field. I am indebted to him for his many insights into this emerging field, as well as his encouragement and support in bringing this special issue to fruition.