This month, Speedo starts filling preorders for the $550 consumer version of its LZR Racer suits worn by Michael Phelps and other world-class swimmers. Promoted as a design breakthrough and worn by the most victorious Olympian in history, it offers a potent blend of functional promise and emotional aspiration. But what about Phelps’s warm-up parka? Never intended for the retail market, the white hooded garment was rushed into production in response to consumer demand, and Speedo USA has already sold thousands of them, at $175 apiece. Surely nobody believes that simply wrapping yourself in the Speedo-Phelps aura has any impact on swim performance, right? Well, whether anybody believes it or not, recent research implies that it might.
In a study published earlier this year, professors at Duke University and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, explored whether exposure to brands — exposure that we’re not even conscious of — had an effect on actual behavior beyond just purchase decisions. In one study, subjects looked at a screen that displayed a series of numbers and kept a running sum. Interspersed between the number-flashing were images of either Apple or I.B.M. logos, which came and went faster than the conscious mind could pick them up. A separate preliminary study had found that Apple’s brand is widely associated with creativity, and that was what this follow-up research was really about.
After the tabulation exercise, the subjects performed a creativity-measurement task called the “unusual uses test.” (This involves thinking up how many things you might do with a brick.) In addition to counting the raw number of uses the subjects came up with, independent judges, who didn’t know the details of the study, rated the creativity of those uses. The upshot of the original study, and numerous replications, was that the subjects subliminally exposed to Apple branding came up with more uses, and their uses were deemed more creative, than those exposed to the I.B.M. logo or to no logo at all. In other words, exposure to the Apple logo appeared to make people more creative.
One of the researchers, Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke, acknowledges that many of us — and not just the owners of I.B.M. — resist this finding because we are suspicious of the idea that brands affect us at all. (We are particularly fond of concluding that because we can’t remember what ads we saw yesterday, those brand messages must not have had any impact.) Many people, Fitzsimons says, accept the idea that flaunting a brand broadcasts qualities you already possess or even aspire to: maybe creativity for the Apple loyalist, rugged individualism for the Harley consumer or athleticism for the Speedo buyer. But Fitzsimons and his colleagues say the process can work the other way around, that brands can not only reflect who we are but also affect how we behave.
Thus he suggests even a Speedo jacket might actually have a functional payoff — but only when you stop thinking about it. “The trick is, the first time you wore the warm-up parka,” it wouldn’t have any effect, he says. “Because you’d realize, Oh I’m being ridiculous.” Wear it often enough, though, and you’ll probably stop ruminating about it. “Below the level of conscious awareness, you’d put the jacket on, and what’s activated in your mind is maybe Michael Phelps going very fast,” he continues. “And those things could actually kick up your motivation to go faster.”
Obviously for any such effect to occur, you would have to have some mental association between the Speedo jacket and swimming speed. It wouldn’t work if you have just arrived from Mars and know of Michael Phelps as only an endorser of Frosted Flakes. Fitzsimons notes a follow-up study suggesting that positive results are much more likely if a brand’s associations relate to an individual’s particular goals; subjects who reported a strong desire to be more creative experienced more of a creative boost. In a sense, what he and his colleagues suggest is a bit like a subliminal placebo. If the overt belief that a painkilling placebo will work helps the brain make it work, maybe the nonconscious belief that Speedo and fastness go together can do something similar. The crucial difference — not thinking about it — shouldn’t be a problem. Let’s face it: if you do find yourself spending $175 because you think a jacket can make you swim faster, you’re probably not going to want to dwell on that reasoning for long.
This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, October 3, 2008.