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Word up: The phonetics of branding in marketing

Although I have published a number of papers on the psychology of gambling advertising, branding, and marketing, I cannot claim to be in expert in the more general area of branding psychology. However, I feel more knowledgeable about the area having just read a fascinating paper by Sascha Topolinski, Michael Zürn and Iris Schneider recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Their paper examines the biomechanical connection between articulation and ingestion-related mouth movements to introduce a novel psychological principle of brand name design”. Now I’m sure a lot of you will be none-the-wiser from that description but keep with me because I think what they have done is ingenious. Before I get to the heart of their research findings, I ought to add that I also learned a lot in their paper’s introduction. For instance:

  • Repeated exposure to brands increase positive attitudes and the likelihood of eventual brand choice, and also increases the fluency of a brand name.
  • Repetition-induced high fluency due to advertising depends upon subtle mouth exercises. Activities that stop this happening (such as eating popcorn while watching an advert in the cinema) inhibit the effect of the advertising.
  • Easier to pronounce brand names (unsurprisingly) increases fluency. The easier the brand name is to pronounce, the more positive individual’s attitudes are towards the brand.
  • Consumer responses to brands can be influenced by how the name of brand sounds (so-called ‘phonetic symbolism’). In these instances “the sound of a word conveys certain characteristics of the denoted object or product, such as size, color, or touch. For instance, some vowels sound high (for instance [i] as in SWEET), and other vowels sound low, (for instance [u] as in LOOP). High vowels are associated with little, fast, or light objects, while low vowels are associated with large, steady, or heavy objects”. Research has shown that fictitious brand names for hammers (that are heavy items) are preferred by consumers when they contain low vowels whereas fictitious brand names for knives (that are light items) are preferred by consumers when they contain high vowels.

Based on these research findings, Dr. Topolinski and colleagues reached the conclusion that in relation to brand names, consumer choice can be influenced by word sounds and articulation fluency. However, their new research studies (seven studies in one paper) went beyond this by examining consumer behaviour towards brands based on the muscle movements while saying the name of the brand. The studies constructed brand names for diverse products that are spoken inwardly (from the front to the rear of the mouth, such as the fictitious brand name ‘BODIKA’), or are spoken outwardly (from the rear to the front, such as the brand name ‘KODIBA’). Here is the authors’ easy-to-understand explanation:

‘[It] is possible to construe words that feature consonant sequences that wander either from the front to the rear (inward) or from the rear to the front (outward) of the mouth. Take, for instance, the three consonants K, D, and P. Arranged in the word KADAP, first the rear back of the tongue is pressed against the soft palate to generate K, then the tip of the tongue is pressed against the soft palate to generate D, and then the lips are pressed together to generate P. These muscle tensions thus wander from the rear to the front of the mouth, this is, outward. Reversely, arranged in the word PADAK, first the lips are pressed together, then the tip of the tongue touches the soft palate, and then the rear back of the tongue touches the soft palate. These muscle tensions wander from the front to the rear, of the mouth, that is, inward. Combining such articulatory patterns with the muscle patterns of ingestion and expectoration, it is obvious that inward consonantal wanderings (PADAK) resemble the muscular dynamics during ingestion, and outward consonantal wanderings (KADAP) resemble the muscular dynamics during expectoration…Since ingestion is positively associated, and expectoration is negatively associated…consonantal wanderings may feel positive and outward wanderings may feel negative”.

The seven studies that were carried out (comprising a total of 1,261 participants) compared the fictitious inward speaking brand name (e.g., ‘BODIKA’) with the fictitious outward speaking brand name (e.g., ‘KODIBA’). The results of the seven studies (using a variety of different methodologies including laboratory experiments and surveys, and including participants that spoke different languages [German and English]) were very revealing. In summary, the participants (i) preferred the inward name product to the outward name, and (ii) reported higher likelihood to purchase the inward named product, and (iii) reported higher willingness-to-pay for the inward named brand (participants said they would pay 4-13% more for the inward name brand). The same effects were found in both English and German language. The authors concluded:

“[The] present approach exploits the biomechanical connection between articulation and ingestion to introduce a novel psychological principle for brand name design. Brands for which the consonantal articulation spots wander inwards in the mouth compared to outwards are preferred, elicit higher purchase intentions, and even trigger higher willingness-to-pay with a substantial possible monetary gain”.

The paper did make me wonder about implications for brand names in the gambling industry. All things being equal, it suggests that gamblers may prefer to spend their money with companies such as PKR and Bet 365 than Corals and 888.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Baker, W. E. (1999). When can affective conditioning and mere exposure directly influence brand choice. Journal of Advertising, 28, 31–46.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Children and gambling: The effect of television coverage and advertising. Media Education Journal, 22, 25-27.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty. Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Does advertising of gambling increase gambling addiction? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 3(2), 15-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Responsible marketing and advertising of gambling. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, August/September, 50.

Hanss, D., Mentzoni, R.A., Griffiths, M.D., & Pallesen, S. (2015). The impact of gambling advertising: Problem gamblers report stronger impacts on involvement, knowledge, and awareness than recreational gamblers. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 29, 483-491.

Janiszewski, C. & Meyvis, T. (2001). Effects of brand logo complexity, repetition, and spacing on processing fluency and judgment. Journal of Consumer Research, 28, 18–32.

Laham, S.M., Koval, P., & Alter, A. L. (2012). The name-pronunciation effect: why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun. Journal of Experimantal Social Psychology, 48, 752–756.

Lodish, L. M., Abraham, M., Kalmenson, S., Livelsberger, J., Lubetkin, B., Richardson, B., et al. (1995). How TV advertising works: a meta-analysis of 389 real world split cable TV advertising experiments. Journal of Marketing Research, 32, 125–139.

Lowrey, T. M., and Shrum, L. J. (2007). Phonetic symbolism and brand name preference. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 406–414.

Rozin, P. (1999). Preadaptation and the puzzles and properties of pleasure. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp.109-133). New York, NY: Russell-Sage).

Song, H. & Schwarz, N. (2009). If it’s difficult-to-pronounce, it must be risky: fluency, familiarity, and risk perception. Psychological Science, 20, 135–138.

Topolinski, S., Lindner, S. & Freudenberg, A. (2014a). Popcorn in the cinema: oral interference sabotages advertising effects. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24, 169–176.

Topolinski, S., Zürn, M. & Schneider, I.K. (2015) What’s in and what’s out in branding? A novel articulation effect for brand names. Frontiers in Psychology 6, 585. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00585

The teen screen scene: How does media and advertising influence youth addiction?

When we are looking for factors that change behaviour we can look inside the individual for personal characteristics that make people vulnerable to addiction and we can look outside the individual for features of the environment that encourage addictive behaviours. Addiction is a multi-faceted behaviour that is strongly influenced by contextual factors that cannot be encompassed by any single theoretical perspective.

The media (television, radio, newspapers, etc.) are an important channel for portraying information and channelling communication. Knowledge about how the mass media work may influence both the promotion of potentially addictive behaviour (as in advertising), and for the promotion of health education (such as promoting abstinence or moderation). Much of the research done on advertising is done by the companies themselves and thus remains confidential. The media, especially television and film, often portray addictions (e.g., heroin addiction in the film Trainspotting, marijuana use in the TV show Weeds, gambling addiction in the TV show Sunshine, etc.). Because of this constant portrayal of various addictions, television and film dramas often create controversy because of claims that they glorify addictive behaviour. The popularity of media drama depicting various addictions requires an examination of their themes and the potential impact on the public.

A 2005 study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine by Dr. H. Gunasekera and colleagues analysed the portrayal of sex and drug use in the most popular movies of the last 20 years using the Internet Movie Database list of the top 200 movies of all time. The researchers excluded a number of films including those released or set prior to the HIV era (pre-1983), animated films, films not about humans, and family films aimed at children. The top 200 films following the exclusions were reviewed by one of two teams of two observers using a data extraction sheet tested for inter-rater reliability. Sexual activity, sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention, birth control measures, drug use and any consequences discussed or depicted were recorded.

The study reported that there were 53 sex episodes in 28 (32%) of the 87 movies reviewed. There was only one suggestion of condom use, which was the only reference to any form of birth control. There were no depictions of important consequences of unprotected sex such as unwanted pregnancies, HIV or other STDs. Movies with cannabis (8%) and other non-injected illicit drugs (7%) were less common than those with alcohol intoxication (32%) and tobacco use (68%) but tended to portray their use positively and without negative consequences. There were no episodes of injected drug use. The researchers concluded that sex depictions in popular movies of the last two decades lacked safe sex messages. Drug use, though infrequent, tended to be depicted positively. They also concluded that the social norm being presented in films was of great concern given the HIV and illicit drug pandemics.

Drug use in this context could be argued to illustrate a form of observational learning akin to advertisement through product placement. A similar 2002 study by Dr. D. Roberts and colleagues examined drug use within popular music videos. Whilst depictions of illicit drugs or drug use were relatively rare in pop videos, when they did appear they were depicted on a purely neutral level, as common elements of everyday activity.

The makers of such drama argue that presenting such material reflects the fact that addictions are everywhere and cut across political, ethnic, and religious lines. Addiction is certainly an issue that impacts all communities. However, it is important to consider possible impacts that it might have on society. Empirical research suggests that the mass media can potentially influence behaviours. For example, research indicates that the more adolescents are exposed to movies with smoking the more likely they are to start smoking. Furthermore, research has shown that the likeability of film actors and actresses who smoke (both on-screen and off-screen) relates to their adolescent fans’ decisions to smoke. Perhaps unsurprisingly, films tend to stigmatise drinking and smoking less than other forms of drug taking. However, the media transmit numerous positive messages about drug use and other potential addictions, and it is plausible that such favourable portrayals lead to more use by those that watch them. Anecdotally, some things may be changing. For instance, there appears to be more emphasis on the media’s portrayal of alcohol as socially desirable and positive as opposed to smoking that is increasingly being regarded as anti-social and dangerous.

Back in 1993, the British Psychological Society (1993) called for a ban on the advertising of all tobacco products. This call was backed up by the UK government’s own research which suggested a relationship between advertising and sales. Also, in four countries that had banned advertising (New Zealand, Canada, Finland and Norway) there was been a significant drop in tobacco consumption.

However, public policy is not always driven by research findings, and the powerful commercial lobby for tobacco has considerable influence. In her reply to the British Psychological Society, the Secretary of State for Health (at the time) rejected a ban saying that the evidence was unclear on this issue and efforts should be concentrated elsewhere. This debate highlights how issues of addictive behaviours cannot be discussed just within the context of health. There are also political, economic, social and moral contexts to consider as well. The British government and European Community made commitments to ban tobacco advertising though they found it difficult to bring it in as quickly as they hoped. It is now rare to see smoking advertised anywhere in the UK but there is a new trend in television drama and films to set the action in a time or location where smoking is part of the way of life (for example the US television programme Mad Men).

Just as the British Government have banned cigarette advertising and banned smoking in public places, they have also deregulated gambling through the introduction of the 2005 Gambling Act. This Act came into effect on September 1st 2007 and allowed all forms of gambling to be advertised in the mass media for the first time. This has led to a large number of nightly television adverts for betting shops, online poker, and online bingo. Whether this large increase in gambling advertising will impact on gambling participation and gambling addiction remains to be seen. There have been very few studies that have examined gambling advertising and those that have been done are usually small scale and lack representativeness.

In an article I wrote in 2010 looking at these issues, I reached a number of conclusions that I don’t think have changed in the past few years since I wrote that article. My conclusions were:

  • Glamorisation versus reality is complicated: The issue of glamorisation versus reality is of course complicated. Although the drama producers hope to accurately depict various addictions, they still need to keep ratings up. Clearly, positive portrayals are more likely to increase ratings and programmes might favour acceptance of drug use over depictions of potential harms.
  • Research on the role of media effects is inconclusive: More research on how the media influence drug use is needed in order to evaluate the impact of such drama. With media and addiction, it is important to walk with caution, as the line between reality and glamorisation is easy to cross. More research is needed that investigates direct, indirect, and interactive effects of media portrayals on addictive behaviour.
  • Relationship between advertising and addictive behaviour is mostly correlational: The literature examining the relationship between advertising on the uptake of addictive behaviour is not clear cut and mostly correlational in nature hence it is not possible to make causal connections.
  • There could be different media effects for different addictions: Although there appears to be some relationship between tobacco advertising and tobacco uptake, this does not necessarily hold for all addictive behaviours. For instance, some academics claim that econometric studies of alcohol advertising expenditures come to the conclusion that advertising has little or no effect on market wide alcohol demand.
  • Research done to date may not be suitable: Survey research studies have failed to measure the magnitude of the effect of advertising on youth intentions or behaviour in a manner that is suitable for policy analysis. As a consequence, policy makers may introduce and/or change policy that is ineffective or not needed on the basis of research that was unsuitable in answering a particular question.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cape, G. S. (2003). Addiction, stigma, and movies. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 107, 163-169.

Dalton, M.A., Sargent, J.D., Beach, M.L., Titus-Ernstoff, L., Gibson, J.J., Aherns, M.B., & Heatherton, T.F. (2003). Effect of viewing smoking in movies on adolescent smoking initiation: A cohort study. Lancet, 362, 281-285.

Distefan, J. M., E. A. Gilpin, et al. (1999). Do movie stars encourage adolescents to start smoking? Evidence from California. Preventive Medicine, 28, 1-11.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Does advertising of gambling increase gambling addiction? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 3 (2), 15-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Media and advertising influences on adolescent risk behaviour. Education and Health, 28(1), 2-5.

Gunasekera, H. Chapman, S. Campbell, S. (2005). Sex and drugs in popular movies: An analysis of the top 200 Films. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 98, 464-470.

Nelson, J.P. (2001). Alcohol advertising and advertising bans: A survey of research methods, results, and policy implications. In M.R. Baye & J.P. Nelson (Eds.), Advances in Applied Microeconomics, Volume 10: Advertising and Differentiated Products (Chapter 11). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.

Roberts, D.F., Christenson, P.G. Henriksen, L. & Bandy, E. (2002). Substance Use in Popular Music Videos. Office Of National Drug Control Policy. Located at:

Wilde, G.J.S. (1993). Effects of mass media communications on health and safety habits: An overview of issues and evidence. Addiction, 88, 983-996.

Will, K. E., B. E. Porter, et al. (2005). Is television a healthy and safety hazard? A cross-sectional analysis of at-risk behavior on primetime television. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35, 198-22