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Mind Control: Why the Power of Suggestion Works

By Harper Willis
Consumers don't always behave rationally when it comes to how they spend their money, a fact that marketing firms have been trying to exploit for decades. Of all the tools in their marketing toolbox, one of the most effective is the power of suggestion: If an A-list celebrity uses a product, it must be good.
A new study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology investigated how the psychology of suggestion works based on a series of experiments. Here's what they found:

The right suggestion can make products seem more valuable
By associating certain concepts with a product, it's possible to manipulate a shopper's assumptions about how valuable it is. Consumers who viewed images of Ferraris and antiques and then priced products that fell under either the category of "foreign" or "old," tended to inflate the prices of the products they saw. Consumers who didn't see the images tended to price the products lower.

Not all suggestions are created equal
Several experiments, including the one above, revealed that "foreign" and "old" tend to carry stronger value associations for customers than "domestic" and "new." The strength of the association varied, too, depending on how much emphasis it was given.

To get a better understanding of how this information can be applied in the real world of marketing and advertising, BNET spoke with George Cook, professor of marketing at the Simon Graduate School of Business at the University of Rochester. Cook also spent 10 years in marketing and advertising at Ford Motor Company.

"It's true that using foreign-sounding words and images in ads can increase consumers' perceptions of the value of the product in the ad," says Cook, although he admits that it's not a one-size-fits-all approach. "Using association to sell products is most effective with luxury items, like jewelry and sports cars, when the utility of the product isn't the primary focus of the consumer."

One of the most effective ways to use association is to set a stage for your product. "In car ads, when you see a car driving down a European motorway with a voiceover in a foreign voice, that's what's going on," explains Cook. "The marketers are creating a stage for the product."

Right now might not be the best moment to explore this type of marketing -- luxury markets took a huge hit during the recession and the audience for this type of ad has shrunk. "But the luxury markets are starting to show some early signs of recovery," says Cook.

And when they do, it'll be open season.

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