Here’s news that probably won’t shock you: sex is at the top of our unconscious minds. And, when marketers ask us, we won’t come close to admitting it.

A fascinating new study by Young & Rubicam provides insights into what we say vs. what we really think. The firm, in conjunction with Adelphi University psychologist Joel Weinberger, used implicit association testing to compare what consumers in the U.S., China, and Brazil said was important to them to what was subconsciously important. (To learn more about this kind of test and even take some yourself, check out Harvard’s Project Implicit.)

Sex and the Global Brain

Perhaps not surprisingly, although “sexual satisfaction” was rated at #14 out of 16 total categories by consumers in the three global markets, it emerged as #1 in the unconscious testing. Geoffrey Miller, a prof. specializing in evolutionary psychology and author of Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, probably has a big smile on his face when he sees these results. They certainly seem to bear out his thesis that a huge amount of our behavior is driven by “mating” instincts, even though most of our activities have little to do with actual sex.

“Wealth,” another category people might be inclined to express disinterest in when asked, shot from #16 to #5.

Americans: Not So Helpful?


In the US, “maintaining security” edged out sex for the top spot. “Helpfulness,” meanwhile took the biggest dive in the survey. Although US consumers ranked it #1 when asked, it slid to the very bottom, #16, in the non-conscious rankings. Surprisingly, Chinese consumers consciously rated helpfulness lower, #9, but it rose to #3 when measured unconsciously.

Two Big Implications for Marketers

The first takeaway from this study is no surprise to Neuromarketing readers: as I state in nearly every speech I give, people can’t, or won’t, accurately answer surveys if the questions go beyond the simplest factual topics.

Relying on asking people what they think is important in their lives, or about your product, is practically guaranteed to produce bogus results. (For more on this, see my Forbes post Why So Much Market Research Sucks.)

The second takeaway is that if you believe the non-conscious testing results are accurate and meaningful in identifying the subconscious values of consumers, you should consider incorporating one or more of the important elements in your marketing campaigns. While lots of marketers have figured out that sex is a potent sales tool (even if consumers feign disinterest), the emergence of “security” as a top concern for US consumers might be relevant for some product categories. Similarly, “tradition” emerged as the #1 non-conscious interest in Brazil, even though it was consciously ranked at #12. Brands and products that appeal to a sense of history or custom might prove unexpectedly effective in that market.

This study may not be the definitive word on the unconscious motivation of global consumers, but it certainly shows why marketers are interested in using neuromarketing tools to find out what’s really on consumer minds.

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