Brief encounters with the discarded, degraded and different: The attitudinal effect of incidental exposure to degraded brand litter

Anthony Grimes, Stuart Roper, Tom Stafford

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Purpose The mere exposure effect (hereafter, MEE) is a robust psychological phenomenon whereby judgments of a stimulus are improved simply by incidental and unreinforced exposure to it (Zajonc, 1968). These conditions are common in the contemporary marketing environment, and thus the MEE is relevant to understanding, explaining, and influencing the effects of marketing communication (Bornstein and Craver-Lemley, 2004). On the assumption that the effect is a product of enhanced perceptual fluency (Bornstein & D’Agostino 1992, 1994), marketing-specific mere exposure research has universally employed perceptually identical stimuli at exposure and test. However, psychological (lab-based) evidence for the structural MEE and the generalised MEE suggests that the effect may be robust to some violations in perceptual matching between exposure and test/judgment (Gordon and Holyoak, 1983; Winkielman, Halberstadt, Fazendeiro and Catty, 2006; Zebrowitz, White and Wieneke, 2008). This is of great importance to marketing, as brand stimuli are often subject to minor changes in their perceptual form (both planned and unplanned) over time and space. For example, brand logos might be altered between executions while brand packs are encountered in various forms of natural degradation (e.g. litter) in public spaces. This study tests the proposition that the MEE for brand stimuli will be resistant to minor changes in perceptual form between exposure and the point of consumer choice. Theoretical background The MEE has been the subject of over 300 experimental demonstrations, usually with respect to unfamiliar stimuli (e.g. Kimura figures and irregular polygons) that are presented fleetingly and in isolation (for reviews see Bornstein, 1989; Bornstein & Craver-Lemley, 2004). The vast majority of these studies have focussed upon improving affective response (e.g. liking or preference), although there is some evidence to suggest that mere exposure can also influence cognitive response to the stimulus when it is subsequently encountered (Mandler et al., 1987). In the marketing literature, demonstrations of the MEE have been extended to products, brand names and brand logos, which are encountered in isolation or peripherally as part of a wider scene (e.g. Janiszewski, 1993; Shapiro, 1999; Vanhuele, 1995). Furthermore, marketing studies of the MEE have found that the enhancement of attitude extends beyond liking for the stimulus to factors such as brand liking, brand choice, and inclusion in a consideration set (e.g. Janiszewski, 1993; Lee, 2002; Shapiro, 1999). Mere exposure has also been identified as a possible means of influencing product quality perceptions (Moorthy and Hawkins, 2005). The most prominent theoretical explanation of the MEE is that it is a product perceptual fluency and misattritribution (Bornstein and D’Agostino, 1992, 1994). That is to say, the perceptual features of the stimulus are rendered fluent (i.e. easier to process) by prior exposure, and this ease of processing is misattributed to other qualities of the stimulus when it is subsequently encountered (e.g. that it is more likeable). The implication here is that ‘perceptual matching’ (i.e. ensuring equivalence in the perceptual features of the stimulus) between exposure and test is a necessary condition for the MEE. However, the perceptual fluency/misattribution account is not a universally accepted theory of mere exposure, and not the only credible explanation (Bornstein and Craver-Lemley, 2004). There is comparable empirical support for the uncertainty reduction hypothesis; whereby mere exposure is presumed to passively increase familiarity, reduce uncertainty and thus increase positivity towards the stimulus in question (Lee, 2001). Furthermore, the effect has been found to be robust to violations in perceptual matching between exposure and test during laboratory-based experimentation. That is to say, mere exposure to a stimulus in a partial or perceptually similar (but different) form might be sufficient to enhance judgments of it (e.g. Gordon and Holyoak, 1983; Winkielman et al. 2006; Zebrowitz et al. 2008). On this basis, there are theoretical grounds to assume that the MEE will be resistant to minor changes in the physical form of the brand stimulus between exposure and the point of consumer choice. This might occur, for example, when discarded brand packs become degraded (e.g. crushed, crumpled or smeared) and are then subsequently encountered as intact merchandising. Taking this as our context, we thus derive the following hypotheses: H1: Mere exposure to a naturally degraded brand pack in a public environment will increase liking of the untarnished brand pack when it is subsequently presented. H2: Mere exposure to a naturally degraded brand pack will lead to greater perceptions of brand quality when it is subsequently presented in untarnished packaging. H3: Mere exposure to a naturally degraded brand pack will lead to a greater willingness to try the brand when it is subsequently presented in untarnished packaging. Methodology/approach: Participants: 123 adult consumers drawn from a large US panel. Stimuli: Eight brand packs were selected from familiar product categories (chocolate bars, soft drinks, fast food, and snack bars), and pretested to ensure they were not familiar to participants (removing any influence of prior brand experience on our measures). Each of the 8 brand packs was photographed as a piece of isolated, discarded and degraded litter in four different naturalistic street scenes. By degraded it is meant that the packs were crumpled, crushed and/or smeared; damaged to a greater extent than that which would be necessary for the product to have been consumed, but not to the extent that it would render the stimulus unidentifiable as the packaging for a particular brand (e.g. a wrapper that has been torn, screwed up and tossed aside). Procedure: Participants were presented with three repetitions of four different street scene photographs (in random order), each photograph visible for 7-seconds. Each of the 12 photographs contained one of four brand packs. Two were depicted as isolated, discarded and degraded litter in three different photographic scenes, and two were depicted relatively intact and in-use by a consumer. The frequency with which each pack was exposed as degraded litter, in-use or not at all was balanced across the sample. The sole purpose of the ‘in-use’ photographs was to better disguise the purpose of the study and thus reduce the risk of demand effects; it thus constitutes a decoy rather than a treatment condition. This crossed-design allowed all participants to contribute data to the treatment and control condition. The conditions for incidental exposure were created by the adoption of a paced visual search task during the short time for which each photograph was presented (e.g. identify the number of people in the picture). This allowed for exposures to brand litter that were repeated, brief and incidental (i.e. ‘mere’); the target stimuli being repeatedly presented for a limited time, outside of the participant’s focal purpose but within their visual field. Following an unrelated 5-minute filler task, participants were presented with pictures of all 8 packs, untarnished and in isolation on a shelf. For each in turn they indicated the extent to which they liked the pack, how willing they would be to try the brand, and their perceived quality of the brand. They then reported whether they remembered seeing any of the 8 brands earlier in the experiment (following Stafford & Grimes, 2012), whether they believed they had consumed any of the 8 brands previously, and whether they perceived the packs they had seen in the photographs to be ‘degraded litter’. Findings The mean judgments made in the treatment and control conditions were analysed by way of t-tests, the results of which are presented below. Figure 1: Evaluations of target brands (low numbers more positive) Table 1: Comparison of means (no exposure versus degraded exposure) Dependent variable Mean t df Sig. (2-tailed) Pack liking 0.25 2.526 122 0.013 Willingness to try 0.15447 1.616 122 0.109 Perceived quality 0.29675 3.211 122 0.002 The sample means indicate that all three judgments (brand pack liking, perceived brand quality and willingness to try the brand) are more positive following prior exposure to a discarded and degraded version of the brand pack. These differences are significant with respect to brand pack liking and perceptions of brand quality, but non-significant for willingness to try the brand. The data thus support the hypotheses that repeated mere exposure to naturally degraded brand packs improves pack liking (H1) and perceptions of brand quality (H2), but not necessarily willingness to try the brand (H3), when the pack is subsequently encountered in an untarnished form. Theoretical implications The findings extend the applicability of the MEE in applied marketing settings. The weight of evidence suggests that the MEE for brand stimuli is robust to some violations in perceptual matching between exposure and brand judgment/choice, at least to the extent that the stimulus remains identifiable as being substantively the same as that which has been previously encountered. These findings are important because they indicate the potentially widespread nature of the MEE, specifically with respect to unplanned, uncontrolled marketing communication. Furthermore, they reinforce the conclusion that mere exposure might positively enhance both affective and cognitive consumer judgments of brand stimuli (Bornstein, 1989; Bornstein and Craver-Lemley, 2004); even when these stimuli are encountered in a perceptually altered form. Practical implications The overarching implication for marketing practitioners is that they can expect to benefit from the positive influence of mere exposure to brand stimuli more often and in a wider set of circumstances than previously assumed. If the brand stimulus remains identifiable it will lead to an MEE, even as it undergoes unplanned and uncontrolled degradation as part of the full cycle of consumption (e.g. brand litter, faded logos and torn advertisements); and even when these changes are visually unappealing and unattractive. As an empirical demonstration of the structural and/or generalised MEE, it also implies that the effect will be robust to minor planned alterations to brand stimuli between time and place. From a public policy perspective, the findings detract from the simple commercial case for organisations to produce less litter, and to quickly clean up that which they do produce, on the basis that exposure to it will inevitably prime negative consumer judgments of the brand (e.g. Keep Britain Tidy, 2013b). A more convincing commercial case is thus likely to lie outside of the priming paradigm; e.g. the long-term reputational benefits of being seen to be a good corporate citizen (see Hillman and Keim, 2001). Limitations This study focussed on perceptual changes in brand packs via natural degradation. Future research might seek to specifically test the degree to which the MEE is robust to the perceptual alteration of other brand stimuli (e.g. outdoor advertising), and to intentional changes, such as the refreshment of brand logos between executions and contexts. Research might also usefully seek to test the boundaries within which the MEE is robust to violations in perceptual matching (i.e. how perceptually different the stimulus can become before the influence of mere exposure is eliminated). Originality/value: This original study provides new insights into the impact of mere exposure on attitudes to brand stimuli that are naturally encountered frequently and incidentally. Specifically, it provides the first marketing-specific demonstration that the MEE is resistant to violations of perceptual matching between exposure and test. Keywords: Brand, Attitudes, Mere Exposure, Perceptual Fluency References: Bornstein, R.F. (1989). Exposure and affect: Overview and meta-analysis of research, 1968-1987, Psychological Bulletin, 106, 265-288. Bornstein, R. F. and D' Agostino, P. R. (1992), “Stimulus recognition and the mere exposure effect”, Journal of personality and social psychology, Vol. 63 No. 4, pp. 545. Bornstein, R. F. and D' Agostino, P. R. (1994), “The attribution and discounting of perceptual fluency: Preliminary tests of a perceptual fluency/attributional model of the mere exposure effect”, Social Cognition, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 103. Bornstein, R.F. & Craver-Lemley, C. (2004). Mere exposure effect. In Cognitive Illusions: A handbook on fallacies and biases in thinking, judgment and memory, Edited by R.F. Pohl, pp. 215-233, Hove , UK: Psychology Press Gordon, P. C., and Holyoak, K. J. (1983), “Implicit learning and generalization of the mere exposure effect”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 45 No. 3, p. 492. Janiszewski, C. (1993). Preattentive mere exposure effects. Journal of Consumer Research, 20 (3), 376-392. Lee, A. Y. (2001), “The mere exposure effect: An uncertainty reduction explanation revisited”, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 27 No. 10, pp. 1255-1266. Lee, A.Y. (2002). Effects of implicit memory on memory-based versus stimulus-based brand choice. 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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 26 Apr 2017


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