The mere exposure effect refers to situations where people develop a preference for something simply because it is familiar. It is sometimes referred to as the familiarity principle.
The more frequently a person is exposed to something, the more likely it is that they will begin to prefer it.
This is based on a cognitive heuristic wherein we tend to see familiar things as safer and more trustworthy than unfamiliar things.
It can be used, for example, in advertising, where excessive exposure to advertisements from a particular restaurant might make people more inclined to go to that restaurant next time they are choosing where to go to eat.
Mere Exposure Effect Definition
The term mere exposure effect is usually associated with the research of Robert Zajonc (1968), who stated that:
“…the mere repeated exposure of an individual to a stimulus object enhances his attitude toward it” (p. 23).
More recently, Montoya et al. (2017) defined the mere exposure effect as:
“…the observation that liking for a stimulus increases on repeated exposure to that stimulus” (p. 459).
According to Zajonc (2001), the individual exposed to the stimulus does not need to engage in any behavior, experience positive or negative reinforcement, and the stimulus may be presented outside of conscious awareness.
Research has demonstrated the mere exposure effect across a wide range of domains, such as in interpersonal attraction, consumer behavior, and politics.
Mere Exposure Effect Examples
- Preference for Music: People tend to prefer the music they grew up listening to. One reason is because people simply prefer music that is familiar. So, instead of always listening to new music and changing with the times, most people get stuck in a certain decade of music that was popular when they were becoming young adults.
- In Advertising: A key principle in advertising is that repeated exposure to a commercial increases liking of the product advertised, which then leads to increased sales. This is why people see the same commercials over and over again. Companies have a lot of faith in the mere exposure effect.
- They’ll Grow on You: Even when someone might come across as annoying in the beginning, sometimes we get used to them and actually end up liking that person.
- When Making a Purchase: Many factors can come into play when making a purchase, especially a large one such as buying an automobile. However, a lot of times people prefer to stick with a brand they are familiar with. Uncertainty is unpleasant, so, go with what you know is a sage operating principle.
- Choosing a College: When choosing among several universities, the mere exposure effect can push your choice towards one over the others. Even though other, lesser-known schools might actually be better, the familiarity of the one you have heard about the most can be the deciding factor.
- Location, Location, Location: These are the three keys to having a successful business. In addition to other factors, one reason why location is so powerful is because the same people walk past the business over and over again. Eventually, they will go inside and become a customer.
- In Evolutionary Theory: From an evolutionary perspective, referring individuals that look like ourselves has survival value. Those that are unfamiliar and look different might pose a risk, therefore people have an innate biological predisposition to prefer others with which they are familiar.
- In Altering Race Relations: Research has shown that the more frequently an individual is exposed to photos of people that differ from their own race, the more likely they will develop positive feelings for people in that racial category.
- The Eiffel Tower: Originally, the Eiffel was met with great disdain. The negative reaction was apparently so intense and pervasive that the creator, Gustave Eiffel, considered scrapping the whole project half-way through. Fast forward to today and the Eiffel Tower has become one of the most beloved and famous landmarks in the world. Some have suggested that this is due, in part, to the mere exposure effect. Seeing the structure day in and day out led to most Parisians beginning to appreciate its magnificence.
- The Stray Dog: At first, the mere sight of a stray dog makes the family cringe. It’s dirty and scraggly fur looks disgusting. But, over time, and after seeing the pitiful creature so many times, their feelings begin to change. Eventually they take the dog in, clean it up, and give it a nice home.
Applications of the Mere Exposure Effect
1. In Advertising
The mere exposure effect in advertising refers to the phenomenon where repeated exposure to a product or brand increases familiarity and subsequently enhances consumer preference and likelihood of making a purchase.
Nearly every consumer product company utilizes advertising to increase sales. Although there is a firm belief that advertising works, there are differences in opinion as to how and why it works.
MacKenzie et al. (1986) proposed a dual mediation hypothesis which incorporates attitude change and brand cognition. Pleyers et al. (2007) suggested an evaluative conditioning mechanism, while Lee et al. (2002) demonstrated a self-referencing route applicable to certain advertising scenarios involving the racial and ethnic profiles of viewers.
Cacioppo and Petty (1984) created the Elaboration Likelihood Model of persuasion which identifies message characteristics and individual differences that affect attitudes towards products.
Research on the mere exposure effect (Zajonc, 1968) has also demonstrated a role in shaping attitudes towards advertised products. This theory states that simply being exposed to a brand or its product is sufficient to increase favorable attitudes toward that item.
Fang et al. (2007) replicated mere exposure effects in banner ads, while Yoo (2008) also replicated mere exposure effects extended to Web-based ads in general.
Yagi and Inoue (2018) included an attractive female model in advertising clips and found attenuated mere exposure effects. These results suggest that in some scenarios, diverted attentional resources may interfere with the usual results of repeated presentation of stimuli.
Schmidt and Eisend (2015) conducted a meta-analysis of 37 studies and found a linear relationship between repetition and positive effects, up to a point. Because most studies in their analysis only contained between eight and ten exposures, a thorough test of the inverted U-shaped pattern was not possible.
Montoya et al. (2017) also conducted a meta-analysis, involving 81 articles and found a pattern consistent with an inverted U-shaped curve. Moreover, the findings were consistent when involving “different stimuli, different measurement instruments, modes of presentation, and exposure durations” (p. 477).
2. In Product Placement
Ginosar and Levi-Faur (2010) define product placement as the purposeful incorporation of commercial content into non-commercial settings. This usually involves a product being placed in a television program or movie scene, which can lead to the mere exposure effect.
Based on the mere exposure effect, the presence of a product should increase viewers’ positive impressions of the product, which should then lead to increased sales.
The practice has turned into a multi-million-dollar industry with over 1,000 agencies specializing in product placement (Galican, 2004).
In a fairly typical study, Ruggieri and Boca (2013) showed various movie excerpts to high-school teenagers with products placed in various scenes.
The results revealed that:
“the mere placement of a brand in a film tends to generate a positive attitude in an immediate post-test designed to evaluate how well subjects like the product, regardless of whether the product is recognized or not” (p. 252).
Similar results have been found in numerous studies. Auty and Lewis (2004) demonstrated mere exposure effects with children ages 6–7 and 11–12 in a classroom setting. Their choice of Pepsi or Coke was affected by whether the product appeared in the movie watched.
van Reijmersdal et al. (2007) conducted a product placement study involving students at the University of Amsterdam. Their results found that brand image became more favorable with increased exposure regardless of whether the research participants remembered the brand placement or not.
Law and Braun (2000) had undergraduates watch clips of Seinfeld which contained various products placed in different scenes. In line with other studies, participants showed a preference for products seen in the clips over products not seen. This effect was facilitated by a lack of memory of the seen products.
The lack of memory for the product placement may be the key. As numerous researchers have suggested, product placement which is too obvious may have an opposite effect on viewers’ attitudes towards the product (van Reijmersdal et al., 2007; Law & Braun, 2000).
The mere exposure effect is a theory which states that the more times we see a stimulus, the more favorable our attitudes toward that stimulus become.
Research has demonstrated mere exposure effects in advertising. For example, the more times viewers see a particular commercial, the more likely they will develop a favorable attitude towards that product. That leads to increased sales for the company.
In a similar vein, product placement involves placing a product in a movie or television program’s scene. There is not need to make a direct reference to the product in order for it to have an effect. In fact, it seems that the less attention directed towards the produce, the more likely the mere exposure effect will occur.
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