Quickly say the colors of the words written above. Do you find that saying the word is easy, but saying its color is not? Why is that?

This is one of psychology Professor J.R. Stroop’s experiments on words and colors. Stroop, in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, reported his experiments on the use of word and color. When test subjects were asked to speak the words, they said them properly. But when they were asked to describe the colors, they hesitated, and many repeated the word instead of the color.

Implications: Conditioning Trumps Raw Perception

Stroop’s experiments suggested that the human brain is not always in charge of its own responses to stimuli. Humans are “involuntary readers” and see words before anything else, showing the overpowering effect of words on human perception. Words can be so powerful that they can  mean more than that which they describe.  Words in themselves are discrete packets of information that convey learned associations. As people are socialized, certain associations get pounded into their minds such that the word evokes a Pavlovian conditioned physical and or emotional response.

he Stroop Effect, which may seem minor in itself, is for the advertising world, an eye opener. It implies that the brain, at least under the influence of its educational conditioning, is wired to respond to words on a page more significantly than to any other factor about a product. A concept that is rich in associations is more significant to the average person than its broader context. Advertisers need to use words or phrases that powerfully and simply evoke a rich array of mental and emotional associations.

The Evocative Power of Words and Images

Example 1 – The Power of Words: “Massachusetts Moderate:” The Stroop effect is evident in political campaigns. Newt Gingrich’s use of the term “Massachusetts moderate” to describe candidate Romney in the 2012 Presidential primary campaign is a rich example. While neither “moderate” nor “Massachusetts” are themselves negative, the juxtaposition somehow imparts a rare power to them. The term, used as used as a label  evokes a rich array of profoundly negative stereotypes and associations particular to an audience of conservative Southern voters, which a Georgia native like Gingrich could fully appreciate and tap.

The association of Massachusetts with Yankee evokes deeply inculcated images of carpetbaggers from the North violating the sovereignty of the South, imposing crippling control over the genteel folks and putting an end to an idyllic way of life, as portrayed in the films of D.W. Griffith. Mental associations are of cultural imperialism. Emotional responses are of shame and indignation over the hypocrisy of the Union in using a moral position to impose their own control over the South.  All that bundled in two little words.

Example 2 – The Power of Images: “Forest Gump:”  As a second example of the Stroop effect, let’s generalize this to the use of symbols, rather than words, to reach individuals at a deeply personal associative level.  In the film Forest Gump, by associating the figure of Tom Hanks’ character Gump with the very significant milestones of richly associative events that occurred in the lives of baby boomers, the film gets the audience to re-experience those important milestones. The effect is a strong sense of: “Yes, I was there and it was deeply personal.”

The “Everyman” character is constructed so that the audience can imagine itself in the same situation without having to possess knowledge, skills, or abilities outside everyday experience. Gump is ironically portrayed as a simpleton much like Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” or Chelsea Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinski’s “Being There.”  In emptying the character of content, and allowing the audience to impute their own associations to the character, the “Everyman effect” is established – an empty shell into which one can project his own personal content, a “mirror effect.”

Advertising Case Studies

Example 1 – State Farm’s “Get to a Better State”:  In advertising, having a hapless character to whom frustrating things happen can immediately put you into that character’s shoes, as shown below in the example of State Farm television advertising campaigns.To  differentiate itself on the basis of its excellent customer service, State Farm has televised commercials created by DDB Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group, that focuses on a hapless  individual interacting with State Farm’s claims representatives. The idea is to get you to identify with the situation by tapping into words and images that you strongly associate with embarrassment and predicament. Here’s a rundown of the campaign ads that tapped into this “everyman concept:

  • “State of Unrest”: A husband is caught by his wife making a furtive phone call at 3 a.m. to “Jake, from State Farm.” Skeptical, she grabs the phone and asks what “Jake” is wearing. The scene cuts to a call center where Jake answers sheepishly, “Uh, khakis.”
  • “State of Regret”: Jerry calls his State Farm agent, Jessica, after running his car up a pole. She reminds him that he dropped State Farm the previous month. Jerry bemoans the fact that it took “15 minutes” to sign up with his new insurer (a dig at Geico) but it’s taking a lot longer to hear back. He then breaks down in tears saying, “I miss you Jessica.”

“We are a brand that’s been known for the service end of the business for a long time,” Tim Van Hoof, State Farm’s advertising director said. “As we learn from consumers about just some of the distrust in the world today after what we’ve been through financially and economically as a country, it seemed like a great opportunity to tell our core story, which is the best value in the business.”

Results: The State Farm “get to a better state” campaign has created a beer commercial-like buzz with its broad and humorous approach.

Example 2 – Chrystler: “It’s Halftime In America:”  Chrysler made news with a moving Detroit-centric Super Bowl XLVI ad titled “It’s Halftime in America,” which aired during halftime. It featured Clint Eastwood narrating a powerful presentation intertwining commentary on the idea of the recovery of the automobile sector of the American economy. Although the word “Chrysler” was not heard in the advertisement, and it was aired only once, the words evoked a sense of national pride that collided with the onset of a presidential primary campaign season. “The key message is that there is still another half to go as both Chrysler and the nation continue to recover from the 2008-2009 recession that drove Chrysler and General Motors into taxpayer-funded bailouts.

“This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines. Ya, it’s halftime in America, and our second half is about to begin,” Eastwood says as he drifts off camera and the Chyrsler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram logos appear.

The single airing of this two-minute commercial sparked debate from living rooms to dealerships across the country, as people wondered whether the ad’s intent was to sell cars or to help President Barack Obama in this fall’s presidential campaign, since his administration provided bailout funding and ushered Chrysler and rival General Motors through a quick bankruptcy protection process in 2009.

What were the results of a few well chosen words? The controversy boosted viewership with more than five million people viewing the ad on YouTube. Zeta Interactive, a New York-based marketing firm that mines 200 million different blogs and social media sites, said the buzz around Chrysler’s ad has been 83% positive. Collective Intellect, a tracking firm in Boulder, Colorado, said its research shows that since the spot aired, consumers’ affinity and favor of the Chrysler brand has increased. Auto-shopping website Edmunds.com said it saw a 27% jump in consumers looking for information about Chrysler after the ad aired. Edmunds.com said traffic for the auto maker showed a 23% increase.

Search for Symbols that Resonate

A quick Google search can bring up lists of “power words” and phrases that can generate interest in advertising campaigns. An example would be the attachment of a direct and powerful word like “revolutionary” to something that in reality is a fairly minor change in a product. The term “revolutionary” can exaggerate the change by associating itself with something personally meaningful.  If the word is more important than its context, then the word can cover over the reality of what is being described.

But the Stroop effect goes beyond just the use of words to the conditioned psychological effects of symbols in general. Since what you present to an audience has the potential to evoke powerful conditioned responses,  the key to successful messaging lies in gaining a better understanding of associations that resonate with your audience in various ways. You need to be aware of and test for the effects, intended and unintended, of the words and images you use for particular target audiences.

The negative implications of what you do not know and neglect to test for can come back to haunt you as well.  In a previous article, I highlighted how a casual nod to Black History Month can be seen by African Americans as insensitive, while advertisers who are not culturally clued in can easily overlook very significant symbols that have specific appeal, such as “jumping the broom.” The bottom line is knowing your audience sufficiently to be able to think as they do, and make the same unconscious associations that they do, something that is not possible without diverse marketing representation and concept testing.

Snap Principle of the Stroop marketing effect:

Study the evocative associations of words and images.


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