Home Marketing The Double-Edged Sword of Priming

The Double-Edged Sword of Priming

When Your Marketing Nudges Backfire


Have you ever tried to nudge someone subtly toward doing something, like when you strategically place the candy bars near the checkout so people throw them into their carts while waiting in line? Ah, the good old psychological trick known as “goal priming”—a staple in the marketer’s toolbox. But wait, before you get too comfortable with your Jedi mind tricks, let’s take a pause. Sometimes, these nudges can backfire spectacularly, especially in unfamiliar scenarios. Intrigued?

What Exactly is Goal Priming?

Goal priming is like giving your customer a little nudge in the direction you want them to go. In marketing jargon, it’s about “activating a certain goal in the consumer’s mind, making them more likely to engage in behavior that fulfills that goal.” Think about ads that show an ice-cold soda popping open; they activate your thirst, making you more likely to grab a drink. Simple, right? But things can get a bit complicated, as researchers Juliano Laran, Chris Janiszewski, and Marcus Cunha, Jr. found out.

Enter Anti-Priming

Okay, time for a reality check. You know how Spider-Man learned that “with great power comes great responsibility”? Well, the same goes for goal priming. There’s a dark side to it known as “anti-priming,” where your well-crafted nudges end up leading people in the opposite direction of what you intended.

How Priming Goes Right (Or Wrong)

The researchers found that goal priming works like a charm when it comes to familiar or common situations. For instance, when you’re planning dinner for tonight, and you see an ad for a cozy Italian restaurant, you’re more likely to choose pasta over sushi. But here’s the kicker: In less common scenarios—say, planning a dinner a month from now—the primed goals might not lead you to that Italian eatery after all.

Why is that? Well, it has something to do with our cognitive structures. In uncommon situations, our brains are not on “autopilot,” and we tend to be more analytical. This disrupts the unconscious processing that priming relies on. So, remember: context is key!

The Science of Words

Now, before we go on, you’re probably asking, “How did they even figure all this out?” The researchers primed their study participants using scrambled sentences. Some were fun-oriented, some were about impressing others, and some were neutral. Then, they had the participants choose restaurants, without revealing the true purpose of the activity. Fascinatingly, priming worked only in immediate, familiar situations but failed in unfamiliar ones. Talk about a plot twist!

Why You, As a Marketer, Should Care

Here comes the million-dollar question: How do you use this newfound knowledge to your advantage? Firstly, get to know your audience. Are they familiar with the kind of decision you’re nudging them toward? If yes, proceed with the priming. If not, be cautious. You don’t want your subtle “buy me” nudge to become a “stay away” push, do you?

Practical Tips to Make Priming Work for You

  1. Know the Terrain – Before you roll out a goal-priming campaign, get the lay of the land. How familiar are people with the choice you’re presenting?
  2. Quality Over Quantity – Don’t overuse priming in the hopes that if you throw enough mud at the wall, some will stick. The reverse may happen: people might get turned off.
  3. Test the Waters – As with any marketing strategy, testing is crucial. Run smaller campaigns to see if the priming is effective before going all in.

You, The Consumer – Don’t Be Played!

Yep, you’re a consumer too. Have you ever made a purchase that you later wondered why you even considered? That could have been goal priming at play. Being aware of these psychological tactics not only makes you a better marketer but also a smarter consumer. Talk about a win-win!

To Prime or Not To Prime

So, after all this, you might be a bit leery about using goal priming in your marketing strategy. And that’s a good thing! Being cautious means you’re absorbing the complexity and the ethical considerations of using psychological tools in marketing.

So there you have it, folks! Goal priming is a potent tool, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all magic wand. It’s essential to know when to use it and when to keep it in your marketing toolkit for another day. Keep questioning, keep testing, and remember, the goal isn’t just to get a consumer to act but to engage them in a meaningful way.

Written by
Madelyn Barrett

Madelyn Barrett is an accomplished reporter with a focus on entrepreneurship, startups, and business innovation. With more than a decade in the industry, Madelyn's writing has illuminated the path for many aspiring business owners. Her unique perspective stems from her experience as a former startup founder and her academic background in Business Administration. Currently residing in New York City, Madelyn remains immersed in the pulse of the business world, dedicated to bringing our readers the most relevant and impactful startup news.

Related Articles


Why A Little Negativity Could Boost Your Sales

Today we’re diving into something that might sound like a total paradox....

Digital MarketingMarketing

Talk or Type? How Voice Tech is Changing What We Share About Ourselves

Remember the days when you had to type out your queries on...


How Ethical Claims Boost Sales in Surprising Ways

You’ve probably found yourself standing in a store aisle, staring at two...


The Link Between Price and Quality

Have you ever wondered why you sometimes opt for that slightly pricier...