It seems that implicit is the new black – everybody’s talking about it, at least in the small but feverish world of advertising research. But is it a new idea and how useful is it anyway?

The idea of the implicit mind has been around for quite a while - probably since the 1970s, but received a huge boost in the 1990s with the advent of cognitive neuroscience - particularly through the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Joseph Le Doux, with its emphasis on unconscious, emotional response. And more recently, of course, there’s been behavioural economics - particularly the work of Daniel Kahneman, who talks about fast effortless and unreflective thinking (System 1) vs. the effortful, reflective and conscious kind (System 2).  Kahneman’s key point is that whereas System 1 is automatic, System 2 is not.

I’m not going to get hung up on the relative merits of these various approaches because I believe for our purposes (as marketers and advertisers) there’s a simple operational definition that does the job:  

The Implicit mind is the bit we’re not aware of, but which influences most of what we do.

So how does stuff get into the implicit mind? One route is through explicit (active) learning: we continually process information consciously (in our Working Memory), but then forget about it. Another more interesting route, however, is the one suggested by Robert Heath a decade or so ago (in The Hidden Power of Advertising, 2001). He proposed that brand information can be acquired through passive/implicit learning at levels of low (or no) attention.  His key point was that such learning takes place independent of attention and reinforces (non-rational) associations which become linked to the brand - producing associations that are enduring and which can trigger emotional markers which in turn influence intuitive choice. In short, emotional associations (from advertising) are more likely to be processed implicitly than explicitly.

When we consider the value of the implicit mind to marketers or advertisers, the key point is its (almost infinite) ability to encode and store implicit associations- as compared with the finite (and ephemeral) nature of associations stored in our Working Memory. This is great news for brands because:

  • Implicit processing is fast/unreflective – meaning that brands may be selected (automatically) with minimum expenditure of cognitive energy
  • Although advertising may fade from Working Memory, it leaves traces in implicit memory – so even though advertising may no longer be recalled, it is still ‘working’ (at some level)
  • Some of these (implicit) associations may be emotionally ‘tagged’ and therefore highly significant influencers of future behaviour
  • Those associations can be refreshed or triggered by new advertising – thus building implicit associations over time that can trigger behaviours

Finally,  the recent work of Binet & Field (The Long & the Short Of It, 2013)  demonstrates the power of non-rational (emotional) communication in building long-term value – suggesting that the implicit mind with its web of automatic associations, operating ‘below the radar’ of our conscious mind – is just too important for marketers and advertisers to ignore.