How the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon Influences Decision Making

The scenario: a friend brings up the name of a car in an off-hand conversation. Or you’re watching TV or reading a magazine, and its image pops up on the page or screen. What follows next is the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

Within hours you start to see that very same car driving next to you on the highway. In the parking lot at work. The restaurant’s valet on date night. Sure, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of other cars on the road, but now you only notice one.

Is it a Mini Cooper or an Impala? Is it even a car at all? Do you notice a color more often usual, or a scent?

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is a frequency illusion. By becoming aware an object exists, we start seeing it more often in our day-to-day lives independent from the first instance, despite nothing changing in the world.

The illusion is the goal of all advertisers and direct marketing efforts, no matter the size of the company or how ‘big’ the brand is. But it’s not something you can actively pay for – the phenomenon happens naturally.

For example, billboards are the classic example of targeted display advertising. The last advertisement you see before exiting the highway will command the highest marketing cost. Unless you’re looking hard at each billboard, once you get off the main road you’re going to either get gas or fast food.

Billboards are relying on impulse to sway decision making.

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon implies you’ve already made your decision, and the next time you see the recurring object, you’re more likely to purchase said object, or at least reinforce the idea you want it more than anything else.

Vehicles are the most straightforward example. Like the scenario mentioned above, cars are typically the biggest ticket item outside of a home we’ll buy in our lifetimes. It’s no easy decision, so we could always use a nudge in the right direction.

But this nudge can snowball.

If you rent a car, respond well to an ad, or take the advice of a trusted source, you’ll naturally find yourself seeing more of the same vehicle. By fostering an appreciation for how you perceive yourself in, and out of, the car itself, you reinforce your desire to buy. The opposite, however, may also occur. You may also develop a distaste for the same vehicle if the perception doesn’t match your lifestyle.

Either way, the frequency illusion is at play every step of the buying process. And it’s up to a good marketer to provide the first helpful hint.


For the marketers, will you be a helpful nudge or a forgetful nudge?

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