Other-Than-Conscious Consumer Information Processing: Empirical Examinations of an Emerging and Controversial Topic

Susan E. Heckler, University of Arizona
Stewart Shapiro, University of Baltimore
[ to cite ]:
Susan E. Heckler and Stewart Shapiro (1995) ,"Other-Than-Conscious Consumer Information Processing: Empirical Examinations of an Emerging and Controversial Topic", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 318.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Page 318


Susan E. Heckler, University of Arizona

Stewart Shapiro, University of Baltimore

While nonconscious processing has been an important topic in the psychology literature for decades, it has to date received relatively little attention in the marketing discipline. The goals of this double session were to (1) introduce some of the recent research being conducted on the topic, (2) provide empirical evidence that nonconscious processing does affect different aspects of consumer behavior, and (3) stimulate discussion and encourage future research in this important domain of study. The session provided a broad overview of "other-than-conscious" processing by investigating situations in which consciously encoded information was retrieved nonconsciously and those in which nonconscious encoding of stimulus characteristics or relational information occurs.

The first paper by Ronald C. Goodstein and Ajay Kalra investigated the controversial topic of subliminal advertising. Noting that those studies dismissing the effects of subliminal processing had examined cognitive responses to the stimuli, this paper investigated whether subliminal messages can, instead, influence affective responses. Their study compared affective reactions to print advertisements which either contained sexually-suggestive embeds (not consciously detected by subjects) versus no embeds. The results of the research showed that subliminal embeds significantly affected the levels of upbeat and negative feelings evoked from the ad and suggested that such opposing feelings may explain the results of previous studies which found no effect on attitude.

Luk Warlop and Chris Janiszewski investigated the mere exposure phenomenon which suggests that exposure to a stimulus can cause the stimulus to be more familiar during later judgments, and thus, bias such judgments toward the familiar object (when subjects are not consciously aware of the previous exposure.) Their study manipulated the level of ad exposure to determine if mere exposure could bias judgments of brand name memorability and attribute superiority when consumers did not consciously attempt to use brand familiarity as an input to brand judgment. Results indicated that subjects were more likely to judge a more frequently seen brand name as being more memorable and, additionally, to judge the brand as superior on an attribute which had not been previously advertised.

Carol Pluzinski and Shanker Krishnan presented a paper which extended research in the implicit memory literature by investigating whether nonconscious retrieval of consciously encoded brand information can affect actual choice behavior. Their study manipulated exposure to brand attribute information (exposure/no exposure) and brand prominence (dominant/weak) and measured the probability of choice and brand attribute memory. The results of the study suggest that under certain conditions prior exposure to marketing information can affect subsequent choice, without conscious recollection of the encoding episode.

The paper by Susan E. Heckler and Christopher P. Puto furthered research in the implicit learning literature by investigating whether subjects could nonconsciously process product covariation information, and further, whether this information would then be used when making attribute and preference judgments. Utilizing a methodology introduced in social cognition research, stimuli were presented which demonstrated relationships between physical characteristics (bottle shape) and product attributes not consciously identifiable by the subjects. Despite the subjects' inability to identify the relationships when consciously observing the stimuli, measures of memory and preference support the fact that the memory for the covariation had been developed nonconsciously.

Arthur S. Reber and Diane Zizak also focused on implicit learning. The purpose of their paper was to examine the robustness of implicit learning effects by using completely novel stimulus and by altering the stimulus set between study and test. Previous research has consistently shown that subjects can implicitly learn an artificial grammar of letter strings, use the implicitly learned rules in subsequent tasks and indicate a preference for the grammatically correct forms in subsequent judgments. Reber and Zizak showed that the robustness of these results depended upon the subjects being familiar with the characters in the string (e.g., letters of the alphabet). When totally unfamiliar Chinese characters were used, the grammar rules were learned implicitly, but preference judgments were not affected.

Finally, Stewart Shapiro, Deborah J. MacInnis and Susan E. Heckler examined the effect of nonconsciously encoded advertising information on consideration set formation. The study used a computer-based magazine to both occupy and track subjects' attentional resources while simultaneously exposing subjects to advertisements in their periphery. Results indicated that advertising information outside of the primary visual field can be processed nonconsciously and that the information can subsequently be used in the formation of consideration sets, despite the subjects having no conscious memory of seeing the ad.