Classical Conditioning: Its Use in Marketing

Matt Lybarger



Most people think of Pavlovís dogs when they hear the phrase classical conditioning. Classical conditioning has become much more complex since the turn of the century when Ivan Pavlov (picture in Appendix A) conducted his conditioning experiment. This however, does not make his work irrelevant in todayís context, perhaps this is why he won a Nobel prize in 1904 (The Nobel Prize Internet Archive.) Classical conditioning is used in many aspects of society and the simplicity and notoriety of Pavlovís study makes it a valuable example. To refresh everyoneís memory back to psychology 101, Pavlov began his work studying the digestive systems of dogs (Classical Conditioning As A Part of Psychological Behaviorist Theory.) He noticed that the dogs salivated before their food was brought into the room. This could be at the site of the person who fed them. Pavlov then rang a bell (conditioned stimulus, or CS) before the food (unconditioned stimulus, or US) was brought in. At first the dogs only salivated (unconditioned response, or UR) when the food was brought in. Eventually the dogs began to salivate (now the conditioned response, or CR) as soon as the bell was rang. There have been many more experiments adding to Pavlovís original. Some of these have involved timing, overshadowing, and blocking. For relevance purposes, and in an attempt to keep this from becoming a "dry research paper", these will be ignored. I will however, attempt to walk the tightrope of boredom, and point out some important aspects of extinction. To extinguish a conditioned response, the conditioned stimulus should be supplied without the unconditioned stimulus (The Persistence of... 1998.) This will cause the subject to realize that the CS does not predict the US. The association between the two is lost (The Persistence of... 1998.) The next topic to be entertained will be classical conditioning in everyday life, as well as some marketing applications.

Classical Conditioning in Everyday life, and Marketing

A bit of anecdotal evidence of classical conditioning can be offered to pet owners who happen to feed their pets canned food (Classical Conditioning.) As soon as you begin opening a can, whether it be pet food, or pork and beans (assuming you donít feed your pet pork and beans,) your pet will come bounding into the room ready to eat. The sound of the can opening has become the CS, paired with the food, or US. The UR that becomes the CR is the animal expecting food (Classical Conditioning.)

Classical conditioning has also found its way into the realms of entertainment. The most notable example of this is the 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange written by Anthony Burgess and it subsequent 1971 movie directed by the late Stanley Kubrick (Internet Movie Database.) A Clockwork Orange details the activities of a young ultra-violet protagonist named Alex. Alex is "cured" of his evil tendencies via classical conditioning. He is forced to watch various films depicting ultra-violence (US) and the like , and his natural feeling of excitement or joy serves as the UR. The films are paired with a drug (CS) that makes Alex violently ill. In turn Alex eventually becomes violently ill (now the CR) when he begins to feel the excitement associated with violence. The people treating Alex also utilize galvanic skin response (GSR) to get the optimal results. GSR is used to measure arousal from a stimulus (Hawkins 1998.) It uses small electrodes attached to the skin that measures minute changes in perspiration. The most well known use for GSR is in the lie detector test (Hawkins 1998.) The book brings up certain moral aspects of classical conditioning when used to modify behavior (such as consumer behavior.) Burgess makes his character out to be programmed, and unable to make choices on his own. It is generally believed that Burgess overstates the power of classical conditioning in the context complete behavior reform.

In addition to entertainment, classical conditioning is also used as a marketing tool. Classical conditioning is generally used with low-involvement products (Hawkins 1998.) This is because classical conditioning is most effective when emotion is involved (Classical Conditioning.) Advertising for low-involvement products usually attacks the consumer through affective means because nobody wants to think (cognitive) about purchasing low-involvement products. Advertising and sales promotion (event sponsorship) are the most common forms of classical conditioning in marketing.

Classical conditioning is used in a plethora of advertisements. The idea behind it is a simple one. Make an ad (US) that elicits a positive response (UR) in the person exposed to the ad. The product or brand within the ad then becomes the CS. The goal of advertisers is to get the exposed person at the grocery store or what have you, to associate the positive feeling they had for the ad with the product. This makes the positive feeling now the CR. Event sponsorship is very similar to this. With event sponsorship the sponsor wants the person viewing the event (US) to project the positive feelings (UR) they get from the event with their product. The big advantage to event sponsorship is that the person being exposed has generally chosen to be exposed to the event. Therefore, the positive emotional feeling toward the event can be intense. This can also be a double-edged sword as well. This occurs when the emotion involved is extremely negative. An example of this is when it is a sporting event, and the exposed personís favorite team loses. The product could then be associated with those feelings.

Background Music

One area extensively covered with regard to classical conditioning and consumer behavior is the effect of background music. Gerald Gorn can be considered the leader in this research due to his 1982 experiment involving background music and the color of pen chosen as a gift (Kellaris 1989.) The experiment involved pairing one pen color with pleasant music, and pairing another pen color with unpleasant music. Several pen colors were tested and ranked on a scale of one to seven. Then two pen colors with similar positions were used in the experiment. The music was picked using a ranking scale as well, except instead of picking two pieces with similar positions, the two selections were on the opposite ends of the spectrum. The subjects then were exposed to slides of the one color pen paired with pleasant music, and the other with unpleasant. When given a choice the more subjects chose the pen color associated with the pleasant music This study has a major impact because it showed that consumer behavior can be influenced rather easily. The Gorn experiments are not without controversy (mostly regarding the procedures used in the experiment), but the are still very widely accepted and referenced (Kellaris 1989.) Another area looked at by marketers is how often to repeat the advertisement.


Low-involvement advertising needs extensive repetition in advertising (Hawkins 1998.) This is mostly because people just are not actively searching for information on low-involvement products. This generally means that not a great deal of attention is paid to ads for low-involvement products. The problem with this is a certain amount of diminished return on the ad. The first time the ad is adequately comprehended it is generally as funny, emotional, etc. as it is going to get. From that point on its affect diminishes and the conditioning is not as strong. This encourages companies to advertise in campaigns. This way they donít have to reinvent the wheel every time out, but they can still remain fresh with ongoing variations.


The number of examples of classical conditioning at work within a marketing framework is quite extensive. Due to this fact examples will be broken down into either advertising of event sponsorship with only a few examples of each.


1. Michelinís use of babies sitting in tires. The babies (US) elicit positive feelings (UR) from the exposed person. The tires become the CS. When the tires elicit the same positive feelings, the feelings become the CR.

2. Anheuser-Busch using the Budweiser frogs and then lizards (or nearly every Budweiser ad.) The frogs/lizards (US) are funny (UR). Budweiser is the CS. When your at the liquor store and you smile uncontrollably at the stacks of Budweiser, the humor has become the CR.

3. Cokeís polar bear ad campaign. The bears (US) generate positive feelings (UR), and Coke (CS) is associated with the positive feelings that have then become the CR.

Event Sponsorship

1. The many sponsors of Nascar, with Du Pontís sponsorship of Jeff Gordon. Lou Savilli attributes 20% of Du Pontís automotive refinishing groupís growth from 1991 to the present, an amount around $100 million, entirely to Du Pontís relationship with Gordon (Johnson 1999.) This is a pretty powerful endorsement for classical conditioning as well as sponsoring the right event.

2. Billboards at baseball parks are a form of event sponsorship utilizing classical conditioning. The game (US) produces the feelings (UR) that is associated with the product.

3. Wheaties sponsoring the Olympics is an example of event sponsorship. The Olympics can be a great source of emotion (pride, etc.) for many Americans. By associating their product by putting Olympic athletes on the box, Wheaties is attempting to tap into all of those positive emotions.

Relevant Web Sites

Classical Conditioning

This site has easy to understand explanations of Pavlovís experiments.

Classical Conditioning As Part Of Psychological Behaviorist Theory

This site has more Pavlov stuff. The picture of Pavlov is from this site.


This is Coca-Colaís official web site.


Michelinís official North American homepage.


This site allows the visitor to vote for their favorite Wheaties Champion. 75 different boxes are available to see.


The Nobel Prize Internet Archive. (No date.) Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. Online:

Classical Conditioning as a Part of Psychological Behaviorist Theory. (No date.) Online:

"The Persistence of Classically Conditioned Responses." (1998.) The Journal of Advertising, (27,) Spring, 24.

Classical Conditioning. (No date.) Online:

The Internet Movie Database. (No date.) Online: [April 20, 1999.]

Hawkins, Del I., Roger J. Best, and Kenneth A. Coney (1998.) Consumer Behavior: Building

Marketing Strategy, Seventh Edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill. 388, 333.

Kellaris, James J., and Anthony D. Cox (1989.) "The Effects of Background Music in Advertising: A Reassessment." Journal of Consumer Research, (16), 113-118.

Johnson, Roy S. (1999.) "Speed." Fortune. April, 57-70.