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Trendspotter: synaesthetic marketing

Coming to you soon: synaesthesia is a neurological condition: one that causes the sensory and cognitive world to blur, so that colours are also heard as sounds or are tasted.

Full-blown synaesthesia is thought to affect only about 1 in every 2,000 people. Adam Rountree / Bloomberg News
Full-blown synaesthesia is thought to affect only about 1 in every 2,000 people. Adam Rountree / Bloomberg News

Advertisers have designs on your brain. But, of course, you already knew that. Anyone who has grown up in a mass-media environment is accustomed to the idea that an army of brands vie for our attention every day, seeking to win it, often, via a blunt appeal to our senses: loud noises, bright colours, catchy music.

Soon, though, the advertisements and branding we encounter may get a whole lot smarter in terms of the approach they take to human-sensory experience. That's thanks to an emerging development coming soon to a page or screen near you: synaesthetic marketing

Strictly speaking, synaesthesia is a neurological condition: one that causes the sensory and cognitive world to blur, so that colours are also heard as sounds or are tasted. Full-blown synaesthesia is thought to affect only about 1 in every 2,000 people. But a growing body of research suggests that, in fact, most of us are a little synaesthetic, in ways that we're not really aware of until uncovered by testing. Unsurprisingly, this fact is of great interest to people who want to sell us things.

As Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, noted in Wired magazine this month, when asked to pick a colour for a letter, most people choose red for A, blue for B, and white for O. Most people say lemons are "fast" rather than slow, and that "maluma" is a better name for a round shape than "takette".

Already, marketers and brand managers play on this strange cross-pollination between senses in order to prompt us to buy a product - or heighten our experience of it. In the 1950s, the psychologist and marketing man Louis Cheskin knew that most people think of sweetness as round and bitterness as angular and this influenced his design of the 7-Up logo - with its prominent red circle at the centre. Meanwhile, Spence has noted the preponderance of budget-brand names built around an "i" sound: Ikea, Primark, Lidl, Aldi.

In the next few years, we can all expect to be exposed to an increasing amount of content that has been designed for synaesthetic effect. Already, Starbucks is developing a piece of music designed to sharpen the taste of its coffee; meanwhile Spence has been working with chefs at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant to design music that can change how a food tastes. You can listen to two pieces of music at condimentjunkie.co.uk/bittersweet and see if - like most people - you think that one sounds sweet while the other sounds bitter.

The ultimate dream for synaesthetic marketing? Content that has the power to operate on our unconscious synaesthetic connections in order to make us feel that we crave a certain taste or trust the salesperson who is currently talking to us about the half-price sofa we've stepped into the store to look at.

Of course, all that is some way off. But should psychologists continue to unravel the unconscious synaesthetic connections that are woven through the human brain, they may some day be a reality. Back in 1957, James Vicary, a market researcher, discovered that flashing advertising messages on a cinema screen for microseconds caused audiences to eat and drink more: he called the technique "subliminal advertising". A year later, subliminal advertising was banned in the UK, US and Australia. Will synaesthetic marketers have only a brief time during which to weave their spell on us before the law intervenes once again?

 

David Mattin is a senior analyst at www.trendspotting.com