“A recent study by Juliano Laran and colleagues suggests that people automatically activate a defensive system whenever they detect persuasive intent. The work builds on some fascinating results involving commercial brands in a phenomenon known as implicit priming, in which a seemingly irrelevant word or image can trigger behaviors that are somehow associated with that stimulus. For example, previous work has shown that subliminally flashing the Apple logo can spur study participants to think more creatively, and that presenting a Walmart logo can encourage frugal behavior whereas presenting a Nordstrom logo leads to greater indulgence. In other words, the brands activate a set of associations that in turn trigger certain behavioral goals. […]
But brands, argue Laran and colleagues, are different from other commercial messages in that they’re not necessarily perceived as inherently persuasive—at one level, they’re simply identifiers of a particular product, equivalent to say, your name. But slogans are transparently persuasive. Perhaps people react to these in reverse-psychology manner by blocking and even countering the typical brand associations.
The researchers found that when they had people look at cost-conscious brand names like Walmart in an alleged memory study, and then take part in an imaginary shopping task, they were able to replicate the implicit priming effect: people were willing to spend quite a bit less than if they’d seen luxury-brand logos. But when people saw slogans instead of the brand names, there was a reverse priming effect: now, the luxury brand slogans triggered more penny-pinching behavior than the economy-brand slogans.
The reverse-psychology effect really does seem to hinge on detecting the persuasive intent on the message. In another version of the study, if people were told to focus on the creativity of the slogans (presumably making their persuasive intent less “visible”), the reverse effect evaporated, and they now treated them just as they had the brand names;
that is, the economy-brand slogans led to less spending than the slogans for luxury brands. And if the persuasive nature of brands was highlighted, the brand names triggered the reverse priming effect, just as the slogans had previously.”