The Mere Exposure Effect and Why “Marketers Ruin Everything”

The Mere Exposure Effect is a pattern in human psychology where people develop preferences for things simply because they have been exposed over and over.

Familiarity breeds preference.

This is related to our tribal nature. Trust, familiarity, rapport, authority–these are all tied together.

The more you are exposed to something or someone, the more comfortable you become with them. You trust them more, you feel familiar with them, and you see them as more of an authority (assuming that has been their message).

If I say to you “people develop preferences based on familiarity” you might believe me.

But if I preface it by saying “a Harvard study says that people develop preferences based on familiarity” suddenly your likelihood of believing my statement shoots up dramatically.

Harvard is well-established in millions of people’s minds as having high authority. Decades of familiarity and trust has been built up with the “Harvard” brand.

Harvard has some very smart people working in it. But are they the absolute smartest and most capable people on earth? Probably not. There are plenty of other universities, research centers and think tanks that can compete with Harvard’s brainpower any day of the week.

But Harvard has one of the most powerful brands in the world. That’s the key difference. It’s a difference borne of many, many years of the public getting that message that “Harvard is an authority, Harvard has the best minds in the world.”

Repetition. Mere exposure.

This is a big part of advertising strategy. Many big marketing firms are not so concerned with immediate ROI for each advertising dollar spent.

Rather they are focused more on the longer-term (and, in many ways, more insidious) project of building a high-authority brand.

They are playing the long game.

They know if they can repeat the same basic message over and over to millions of people, year after year, in time they will become the go-to source for that product or service.

As soon as people think “car insurance” they will think of that Gecko. When they think “refreshing soda” they will picture Coca Cola.

One of Gary Vaynerchuk’s major ideas is the notion that “marketers ruin everything.”

The job of business is to find where the customers are and get their message to them.

And sometimes the intensity and effectiveness of this messaging spoils that platform, or at least significantly takes away from its enjoyment.

The pursuit of mere exposure can have interesting side effects:

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