Even if you don’t click on the sneaker ad that’s been following you around the internet all week, the fact that you’ve had repeated encounters with it — even if you register it only cursorily — means you’re more likely to reach for it than its competitors on equal footing. That’s because of a psychological phenomenon called the mere exposure effect.
Popularized by Robert Zajonc’s landmark 1968 study, the mere exposure effect refers to the way that people tend to have a more favorable view of things they’re familiar with as a result of repeated exposure to them. Unsurprisingly, this has massive implications for marketing and advertising, as brands try to break through, stand out and reach consumers in a cluttered digital environment.
Even if their advertisements are only noticed briefly, brands still get value out of being noticed at all, according to Anthony Grimes, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Sheffield who wrote his doctoral thesis on the mere exposure effect.
“These fleeting, repeated encounters can nonetheless create a warmth toward the brands,” Grimes told Built In, which is “factored into consumer judgments and behavior down the line.”
What Is the Mere Exposure Effect?
The mere exposure effect is a psychological term that describes the preference people have for things they have been repeatedly exposed to, even if the exposure is fleeting and doesn’t ever hold the person’s full attention.
“This effect is most likely to occur when there is no preexisting negative attitude toward the stimulus object, and it tends to be strongest when the person is not consciously aware of the stimulus presentations,” according to a definition from the American Psychological Association.
What Is the Mere Exposure Effect?
The mere exposure effect is a phenomenon in which people like something more as a result of repeated previous exposure to it, however brief and fleeting.
The earliest known research into the mere exposure effect dates back to the 19th century work of Gustav Fechner, who pioneered the field of psychophysics, which focuses on the relationship between physical events and mental sensations or perceptions.
The effects of mere exposure are subtle. But in marketing and advertising, it can be put to work to encourage consumers to develop a favorable attitude toward brands or products.
How Does the Mere Exposure Effect Work in Marketing?
A brief single exposure to an ad is enough to get someone to view it more favorably, but studies reveal that repeated exposures are even more effective, Grimes said.
This repeated exposure effect finds an obvious application in online retargeting efforts, and marketers can also keep it in mind as they create integrated campaigns across multiple channels by using consistent visuals and messaging.
Every impression, no matter how fleeting, can help increase favor.
“You are not going to turn brand hate into brand love by mere exposure alone,” Grimes said. However, if consumers have to choose between two brands, each with comparable brand equity, mere exposure to one might “tip the balance from 50/50 to 55/45 (maybe even 60/40) in its favor,” he added.
A possible explanation for this is that humans are risk averse: New means dangerous, familiar means safe. So reaching for the brand they have had some prior exposure to feels like less of a gamble.
“Your advertising can still be working for you in subtly positive ways, even when traditional metrics might suggest otherwise.”
While mere exposure to one brand won’t necessarily peel consumers away from the industry leader they’ve been buying from for years, it can help the brand separate itself from the pack. And over several years, on a global scale, those tiebreakers can add up.
It’s natural to doubt the impact of marketing activities whose primary aim is to generate brand awareness. After all, you can’t measure that as easily as clicks or other performance metrics. But what the mere exposure effect suggests is that marketers might be placing too much emphasis on click-through rates.
“Your advertising can still be working for you in subtly positive ways, even when traditional metrics ... might suggest otherwise,” Grimes noted.
While marketers shouldn’t stop trying to optimize click-through rates for digital ads, they can trust that top-of-funnel campaigns designed to generate flyby impressions, rather than conversions, are still effective. They just may not pay off until later down the road.
Examples of the Mere Exposure Effect in Marketing
In 2007, researchers led college students into a computer lab and asked them to read a web article about online education. The students were told that, once finished, they would be asked about the article. But what the researchers really wanted to know was how the students felt about the advertisements displayed above it.
As students read, random banner ads rotated above the article every five seconds. One group of students was occasionally served an ad promoting a digital camera from a made-up brand. A second group (the control group) never received it.
Later, when students were asked to evaluate some of the ads, the students from the first group rated the digital camera ad much more favorably than the students from the control group. Neither group recalled having seen the ad before.
To be “merely exposed” to an object, a person has to at least perceive it. Their attention is usually aimed elsewhere though — like the students in the above experiment who noticed the ads, but didn’t really focus on them, because they were reading.
“Even when there is no overt sign of effectiveness, such as recognition or click through, the banner ads may still impact ad liking,” the researchers wrote.
Among the findings of the banner ad study is the suggestion that “consumers tend to have a relatively high level of tolerance for repeated exposure to banner ads,” the researchers wrote. “The wear-out effects of banner ads did not kick in even after 20 exposures in this experiment.”
In other words, the students never showed signs of getting sick of seeing the same ads. So if marketers are worried about overexposure, they really needn’t be.
But while the mere exposure effect works even if people don’t consciously remember having seen the target stimuli before, marketers shouldn’t try to sneakily pepper audiences with subliminal messages.
“There is evidence to suggest that, where audiences pay enough attention to these to at least remember having seen them before, the effect can be slightly stronger; so this is not about hiding messages or presenting them subliminally,” Grimes said. “That is an important point, not only from an effectiveness perspective, but also from an ethical one.”
How to Use the Mere Exposure Effect in Marketing
Angela Lee, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who specializes in consumer psychology, said repeated mere exposure to an object doesn’t always and infinitely result in an enhanced liking for it.
There is a point, she said, where the mere exposure effect can hit diminishing returns — backfire, even. It’s when the stimulus gets stale.
“Sometimes it plateaus and comes back down,” she told Built In. “And that is caused by boredom.”
If audiences keep seeing the same exact image or slogan over and over again, they will eventually get bored. The trick is to stay exciting, by making subsequent ads slightly different and more complex, Lee said.
“You repeat the same concept, but in a very different operationalization. ... If it’s complex, it takes longer for people to get bored.”
Is there a magic number of exposures marketers can make sure they never cross? Just to be safe?
“Identifying an optimum number of exposures is likely too difficult,” Grimes explained. “So long as participants are not exposed to them in a very boring, monotonous way, they are likely to remain effective.”
“So long as participants are not exposed to [ads] in a very boring, monotonous way, they are likely to remain effective.”
Marketing that engages audiences and forces them to pay attention and process the brand or product are, in most cases, likely to be more effective than the brief, hurried ad encounters, Grimes said. So marketers shouldn’t ditch the former in order to focus on the latter.
Instead, they should consider marketing activities that reach audiences at both high and low levels of attention. Common marketing activities that demand relatively higher levels of attention include case studies, blog posts, white papers and product demos. Ones geared toward low levels of attention could take the form of banner and native ads, out-of-home advertising like billboards and benches, as well as television commercials.
In Grimes’ view, it’s important for marketers to make sure audiences in these environments can still recall if they’ve had previous exposure to the brand or product. So consistent, cohesive copy and design — not subliminal messaging — is key.