The Mere Exposure Effect

[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
The familiarity heuristic suggests that we prefer things that are familiar to us. The mere exposure effect builds off this and suggests that the more we have been exposed to a stimuli, the more we will like it. In this respect, it does not matter if we have interacted with the stimuli, formed an opinion about the stimuli, or even directed conscious attention to it. Zajonc (2001) provides a relatively good summary of this effect including a discussion of the mechanisms thought to drive it. For a more technical understanding that explores various theories, Montoya et al. (2017) is suggested as a starting point. Some research has suggested that the mere exposure effect can occur at an unconscious level through subliminal exposure (Bornstein & D’Agostino, 1992; Monahan et al. 2000), while other research has suggested that some level of conscious awareness is necessary (de Zilva, 2013; Fox & Burns, 1993). As the evidence in this area is somewhat lacking and there are ethical concerns in respect to subliminal messaging, we suggest focusing on utilizing supraliminal stimuli.

Applying The Mere Exposure Effect to Marketing

The most common way to leverage the mere exposure effect is to run a lot of advertisements. This is a tactic that many businesses with large budgets use prior to the launch of new products to generate buzz and attract early adopters. For example, most mobile games start their advertisements a year ahead of launch to convince users to preregister the games on App stores, Epic, or Steam, and familiarize their target market with their brand/product. Similarly, existing brands often run advertisements even if they don’t directly lead to conversions, as they recognize the importance of brand recognition. This in turn takes advantage of the mere exposure effect and can increase preference for the brand. However, Brooks & Highhouse (2006) argue that this technique may not work for well-known popular brands with high name recognition as individuals may hold pre-existing opinions about said brands, which influence how they perceive their advertisements. For example, consider a game advertising for pre-registration six months before launch. If individuals had a negative experience with a previous game from the same developer, being spammed with ads for this new game may lead to more negative feelings towards the brand, such as beliefs that the company is trying to scam people into purchasing a badly developed game once again. As such, using the mere exposure effect as a strategy may be safest for newer or less-known brands.

Startups often do not have the budget to spam their target market with advertisements. Thus, to take advantage of the mere exposure effect, multi-pronged diverse advertisement campaigns can be effective. This requires the use of social media, influencers, in-person events managed by brand ambassadors, and advertisements, to all be used in conjunction so as to compliment one another. For example, advertisements and influencers can be utilized to grow a brand’s social media following rather than to instantly generate sales. Social media can then be used to remind potential customers of the brand, and to promote in-person events that attract media attention and garner social media shares. For example, creating a unique branded selfie booth can promote brand dissemination across social media platforms, which in turn grows the brand’s social media, creating the potential for an ongoing feedback loop. It is important to recognize that this type of brand growth often requires sacrifices in respect to the prospect of immediate sales/profit. For example, it might be difficult to create a social media ad that leads individuals to both follow your social media and immediately visit the website, except in a few cases such as unique handmade products/art. Thus, it is important to balance your brand growth with immediate sales/profit to meet any financial needs.

Practical Examples of The Mere Exposure Effect

Exposure through Niche Influencers

When on a budget, one of the most efficient ways to take advantage of the mere exposure effect is to focus on a specific niche target market and gain a deep understanding of related influencer culture. Most individuals watch content from more than one influencer, and that content is often related in some way. For example, someone might be interested in “BookTok,” a TikTok subculture/community focused on reviewing and discussing books. If your product is relevant to this target market, you can work with numerous key influencers in the space to ensure that individuals within this niche are exposed to your brand multiple times, through multiple similar influencers. If you focus on smaller niche communities, you can often find numerous small influencers who will be grateful for a partnership (especially if you send them some free merch). As influencers are one of the most efficient ways to market, this technique can help build brand awareness quickly while also driving sales/profits.

Exposure through Prodcut Placement and Sponsorships

Product placement in popular media is a classic and effective way to leverage the mere exposure effect. For example, if you sell drinks, having that drink appear on a popular tv show or online video is a great way to generate familiarity. Further, if characters or participants in the tv show use or consume your product, you are also promoting the belief that consumption/use of your product is socially normative, which likely enhances familiarity and exposure. You also gain benefits from pairing your brand with content that generates positive emotions. Conversely you want to avoid your brand appearing alongside content that might elicit negative emotions. This is partially why the YouTube adpocalypse occurred in 2017 where inappropriate videos such as PewDiePie joking about antisemitism led to mass ad withdrawals from the platform.

Re-Targeting Advertisements for Exposure

As a result of the familiarity heuristic and the mere exposure effect, customers will likely choose more-familiar brands over newer brands. This can be a problem for startups who are trying to generate search engine traffic where their ads appear alongside more familiar brands. To counteract this, it can be helpful to re-expose the same potential customers to your ads multiple times. One way to do this is to focus on a very specific demographic targeted by few others, which ensures that the same individuals will be continuously exposed to your ads. This can also be accomplished through the use of retargeting services, or retargeting alternatives, where you send ads to users who have visited your website in the past, or logged into the internet in a specific geolocated area (such as a convention). It is important to understand any advertisement frequency caps in place to use these strategies effectively, as it is not helpful if a platform only presents your ad to a user a single time. Additionally, it can be beneficial to use PPM ads instead of PPC ads, as they may present a lower-cost solution to exposing a target audience to your brand. To determine which of these two methods is more cost-effective, you will want to examine and compare cost to overall impressions (how many times the ad has been seen) and unique impressions (how many individuals have seen the ad). You also need to consider the conversion rate and subsequent profit resulting from the ads.

Research Example of The Mere Exposure Effect

Familiar Classmates

One famous study demonstrating the mere exposure effect comes from Moreland & Beach (1992) who used four female students of similar appearance. Three attended a psychology class without interacting with anyone a different number of times (5 sessions, 10 sessions, or 15 sessions) with the fourth attending zero classes. At the end of the term, students from these classes were asked to rate the attractiveness of these women in respect to various personality and physical characteristics, as well as how likely they would want to spend time or work with the women. In line with the mere exposure effect, students rated women that had attended more often as more attractive. Further, they also rated these women as more similar to themselves in respect to personality, social background, and life goals. For example, on an overall attraction index where ratings occurred on a Likert scale of 1 to 7, mean rating was 3.62 for 0 sessions attended, 3.88 for 5 sessions, 4.25 for 10 sessions, and 4.38 for 15 sessions. Similarly, when asked to estimate the probability of becoming friends, mean probability was 41% for 0 sessions, 43% for 5 sessions, 57% for 10 sessions, and 60% for 15 sessions. Other results were similarly impressive.

Works Cited

Bornstein, R. F., & D'Agostino, P. R. (1992). Stimulus recognition and the mere exposure effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(4), 545–552.

Brooks, M. E., & Highhouse, S. (2006). Familiarity breeds ambivalence. Corporate Reputation Review, 9(2), 105-113.

De Zilva, D., Vu, L., Newell, B. R., & Pearson, J. (2013). Exposure is not enough: Suppressing stimuli from awareness can abolish the mere exposure effect. PLoS One, 8(10), e77726.

Fox, S. E., & Burns, D. J. (1993). The mere exposure effect for stimuli presented below recognition threshold: a failure to replicate. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 76(2), 391-396.

Monahan, J. L., Murphy, S. T., & Zajonc, R. B. (2000). Subliminal mere exposure: Specific, general, and diffuse effects. Psychological Science, 11(6), 462-466.

Montoya, R. M., Horton, R. S., Vevea, J. L., Citkowicz, M., & Lauber, E. A. (2017). A re-examination of the mere exposure effect: The influence of repeated exposure on recognition, familiarity, and liking. Psychological Bulletin, 143(5), 459–498.

Moreland, R. L., & Beach, S. R. (1992). Exposure effects in the classroom: The development of affinity among students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28(3), 255-276.

Zajonc, R. B. (2001). Mere exposure: A gateway to the subliminal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(6), 224-228.

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