The fad cycle

Here’s a fearless prediction for 2009: sometime, somewhere, something is going to become a hot new fad.

It’s a cycle as old as…well, as old as me, anyway, and I suspect a good deal older. Since I was a teenager in the 1970s, I think in terms of Rubik Cubes, platform shoes, bell-bottoms and mood rings.

Today I’m so far out of it, pop-culture wise, I’d hesitate to even mention a 2008 fad for fear it’s already last-year’s thing. (Although, since this column appears on New Year’s Eve, I guess you could say any 2008 fad is last-year’s thing.)

Perhaps you have fallen for a fad yourself, once in a while. I would say that I never have, if not for the contrary evidence of that plaid polyester sports jacket in my high school graduation photos.

Cognitive scientist Mark Changizi of Rensselaer Polytchechnic Institute has conducted research that shows why direct exposure to repeated advertising first increases consumer preference for a promoted product (thus giving rise to a fad), but then over time actually lowers preference for it (the end of the fad, and that deflated feeling of realizing that when you thought you were cutting edge, you were really just following the herd.)

According to Changizi, when we see just a few images of a new product, we get a sense that a) it is rare, and hence valuable, and b) it is nevertheless obtainable. This makes it more likely that we will go out of our way to obtain it.

Once we see the object everywhere, however, our perception of its rarity, and hence its value, plateaus and then decreases. Eventually we realize that everyone has one, and hence it must be essentially worthless.

That seems fairly straightforward. What is most interesting about Changizi’s research, published in the scientific journal Perception, is that he found that there’s a significant increase in product preference in response to visual images that aren’t consciously recognized by the consumer.

In other words, product placement in movies, logos on clothing, all those subtle little ways advertisers have of getting our attention, may well be more effective at getting us to buy products than multi-million-dollar Super Bowl ads.

Changizi believes this effect exists because this response to visual stimuli that activates fads in humans serves a different but vital purpose in animals.

Suppose you are a grazing animal. Every spring, for just two weeks, a particularly luscious and nutritious plant grows in your meadow, recognizable by its purple flower. When it appears, you react to its appearance immediately, because it is vital to your diet. You snatch it up wherever you can find it, knowing it is rare and valuable. When the purple flowers fade and the plant just looks like another grass, you resume your normal grazing habits. In human terms, you’ve once again bought into the purple-flower fad.

This means it’s sometimes difficult for us to realize our preferences are being manipulated because the mechanism through which the manipulation is carried out is hard-wired into our brains.

Fortunately, awareness that this manipulative pathway exists is the first step toward avoiding following the herd to the mall to buy the latest shining fad-thing….at least when you’re aware of the proliferation of images of some new must-have item. Humans have access to what Changizi calls “consciously accessible information” about objects, and can use that to pass a personal judgment as to whether or not they really need to obtain any specific one.

But when we don’t recognize that we’re being advertised to–those logos and product placements, again–we’re more susceptible, because our cognitive filters are down and we’re more likely to just follow our animal instincts.

Changizi says his research could hold potential for marketers interested in optimizing their advertising for the human mind.

Indeed it could. But it also holds potential for those who would prefer their mind not be affected by the optimized advertising of marketers.

Forewarned is forearmed. It’s a marketing jungle out there. Keep your wits about you. And if you suddenly feel the urge to buy purple flowers, think twice.

Remember: you are a human being. You are not an animal!

Not a dumb one, anyway.

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1 comment

    • Janet on December 30, 2008 at 4:07 am
    • Reply

    Fads go much further than consumer goods. There are political fads, “cause” fads…

    I have a deep and abiding mistrust of any kind of groupthink, so I tend to do much the opposite. I suspect you do too.

    On a totally unrelated note, I just saw your two SF novels on the shelves of yet another bookstore. It made me happy for you. I didn’t buy them because I already had them. I did buy The Company by somebody Parker, on the strength of an online excerpt, which is what persuaded me to buy your book the first time too. :o) While darning you to heck.

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