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Why You Should Care About the “Mere Exposure Effect”

The old saying has it that familiarity breeds contempt. But in marketing, it’s just the opposite. Familiarity breeds preference. The more familiar potential customers are with your product or service, the more positively they’ll view it.

At least that’s the principle advanced more than 50 years ago by a famous psychologist named Robert Zajonc, and confirmed in more than 200 studies since.

Dr. Zajonc’s experiments showed that when you introduce a new stimulus into someone’s environment, the initial response is fear and avoidance. But over time, if the stimulus remains in place, the response changes to fondness.

The most famous of Dr. Zajonc’s experiments involved showing Chinese characters to a group of English-speaking individuals.

He then showed the group a larger set of characters, with the original ones mixed in. He told the test subjects that these symbols were adjectives, and asked them to say whether each symbol had positive or negative connotations. The group consistently rated the familiar symbols more positively than the new ones.

He called the phenomenon the “mere exposure effect.”  Mere exposure to an item, no matter what it is, breeds familiarity and preference.

The message for surgical marketers? The more often you can be in front of your customers and potential customers—in print, on the web, at trade shows—the more comfortable they’ll be with you, and the more they’ll choose your product or service over those of lesser-known competitors.

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