Marketing memories can influence behaviour decades later

by Nigel Hollis | December 16, 2019

A long time ago and far, far away (but admittedly not in a different galaxy) I saw a print ad. It showed a car and compared its performance to other makes. I still remember that print ad. It was visually boring, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the memory of it is one of the reasons I now drive a Subaru nearly 20 years later.

A couple of years ago I read an article by Jeremy Bullmore that recalls how an ad for Aston Martin seen as a teenager influenced the same person to buy that make 30 years later. He notes,

“The car in the advertisement that Len Heath saw and the car that, 30 years later, Len Heath bought would, physically, have been very different. But the essence of Aston Martin, as captured in the advertisement, had remained alive; and perhaps even been enhanced.”

I will be honest, when I first read the article, I felt the fact that the brand in question was an Aston Martin detracted from its persuasiveness. And I suspect that Jeremy did too, because he went on to emphasise that properly-conceived, every advertisement should be an investment in the value of the brand.

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It took over a year for me to realise that Len Heath was not alone, and that I too had ended up buying a make of car that I had seen advertised many years before, even if it was somewhat more mundane than an Aston Martin.

So, what did this memorable ad show? It showed a Subaru Outback. Just the car, with some text callouts comparing it to other makes. Better ground clearance than a Jeep. Better crash rating than a Volvo. Better cornering grip than a Porsche Boxster…or was it acceleration? Truthfully, I cannot remember the specific details, but you get the idea. And that is the point. That ad seeded an impression in my head. By framing the car in the context of more expensive makes it suggested that Subaru was a better choice than I had thought; maybe a Subaru was the car for me.

Of course, there can be a huge gap between expectations created by advertising and experience, and so it was in the case of the 1998 Subaru that I test drove a few months later. Where was the acceleration? Why did the engine sound so labored? Why did it feel so clunky? So once again I went with what I knew and bought another Audi A4.

Did that ad for the Outback fail in its intent? No, the product failed. And, given that I can still remember that ad today, maybe in the long run it did have an influence, because I now drive a Subaru Crosstrek. I doubt it had much conscious influence on my choice but below the surface it was one more memory that contributed to my decision to take another test drive. And this time the product was good enough.

Are there brands that you own today where your initial desire was triggered by an ad seen long ago? Please share your thoughts.

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  1. Ed C, December 16, 2019
    While I'm not as much a coffee connoisseur as you (Peet's :) I do try several brands. But somewhere in the back of my head I still wonder why, as Folgers is clearly the best part of waking up, as was told to me via that gingle from when I was 9 in 1984. There are probably too many brands like this to remember, where even in childhood, our passive listening caused deep-rooted brand associations.

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