Marketers delve deep with hypnosis

When I first agree to be hypnotized by Charles Leech, a qualitative research consultant and a trained hypnotherapist with Toronto's ABM Research, I fear the worst: will I become 'very sleepy' at the behest of a swinging pendulum, then stumble through the day like a zombie?

When I first agree to be hypnotized by Charles Leech, a qualitative research consultant and a trained hypnotherapist with Toronto’s ABM Research, I fear the worst: will I become ‘very sleepy’ at the behest of a swinging pendulum, then stumble through the day like a zombie?

But it turns out that hypnosis – a fairly novel form of market research – has received an unfair rap, thanks to its negative portrayal in flicks like Svengali (1931), The Hypnotic Eye (1960), Dead Again (1991) and Woody Allen’s recent The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

‘There’s this cultural idea that hypnosis or trance means a complete loss of control, a complete loss of memory and that you’re made to chirp like a monkey, none of which is really true,’ Leech says. ‘You can’t force anybody to do anything because people are too strong, and they have free will.’

He’s right, as I discover while I’m in my mesmerized state. Hypnosis is like meditation and not in the least bit nefarious. As I settle into a lounge chair, Leech spends about 10 minutes encouraging me to relax, while urging me to be aware of my surroundings, as well as my own tactility.

He then asks, in a soothing voice, about my childhood toys and I tell him about Family Tree House, a foot-high plastic tree that opened up to reveal a home. When he inquires about my emotions related to the toy, my answer astonishes even me. It’s ‘cozy,’ because I used it on stormy days, when I felt safe indoors. I’m not sure I would have revealed this in a normal conversation.

Leech also asks about the little plastic people that came with the Tree House. I tell him the dad has a mustache, and the blonde mom wears a blue dress with a white apron. However, I do admit, while still entranced, that I could be making everything up. ‘But that’s what is coming out and that’s interesting,’ Leech assures me.

I am confident, however, in my recollection that the Tree House eventually broke: one day I closed it and, sadly, it never opened again. From then on, it was just a tree.

‘Did you close it very hard or softly?’ asks Leech. ‘Very hard,’ I answer, although I’m not sure it’s true. ‘You were angry perhaps.’ Leech than wonders if I had an argument with my brother, but I honestly can’t remember.

My confusion is not uncommon: a study released in August suggests that hypnosis doesn’t help people recall events more accurately. Researchers asked 96 college students, half of whom were hypnotized, to give their best estimate of the day, month and year that various news events occurred. The spellbound crew was no more precise than the control group.

To be fair, I had scored poorly on the pre-hypnosis Absorption Scale Test, a survey including 60 questions, such as ‘Do you like to watch clouds form shapes in the sky?’ and ‘Have you ever completed a task without remembering it?’

My results would have disqualified me from participating, according to Leech. The company tries to include participants from a wide range of demographics, but because it is voluntary, trance usually involves folk who are open-minded to the process, likely bypassing self-conscious cynics like me who don’t want to appear flaky.

Leech says ideally eight to 10 people should be involved in the study, but a client can get away with as few as three. ‘Anything less and the statistical probability goes down so much, there isn’t any point.’

ABM’s ‘depth interviews’ cost between $2,000 and $3,000 each – about half the cost of a focus group.

Skeptical? Well the hypnosis isn’t meant to address all of a marketer’s research needs. ABM doesn’t recommend that the depth interview be used on its own; rather, it should be used in conjunction with focus groups and ethnography, where researchers go into the field to study consumption or speak with consumers.

‘The information that you get crosses over and is much more accurate because you get it from three different methodologies,’ Leech explains. ‘That minimizes the inherent risk of whatever methodology you’re using.’

The downside to focus groups, for instance, is that the microphones and mirrors can be unnerving and peer pressure from other participants can sway consumers’ opinions. With hypnotism, on the other hand, ‘there’s a level of detail and emotional clarity you get that’s simply not possible in focus groups.’

ABM also readily admits that hypnotic trances should not be built into every research effort. It won’t work when a company wants to determine which of its ads is strongest, because that would require visual stimuli. Nor would it be valuable in determining which long-distance plan would be most attractive to a family because that is an intellectual decision.

Rather, it’s suitable when ‘you’re talking about the emotional connection you have with an existing product or service,’ explains Leech. ‘[You can] find out people’s genuine motivations, what they really feel and what they really want.’ Also, if a brand has an image problem, depth interviews can help figure out how it can be repaired, again because of the emotional component involved.

Surprisingly, some of the biggest (and most conservative) companies in the U.S. have already turned to similar methods to find out what consumers really think. These include such companies as Shell, Procter & Gamble and DaimlerChrysler.

For example, in 1999, Shell’s hypnotism research revealed that consumers were loyal to the gasoline brand used by their parents when they were tykes. As a result, the oil giant is currently working on a campaign directed at kids.

Similarly, DaimlerChrysler had participants lie down in darkness to free-associate about an early prototype of the PT Cruiser, which launched in 2000. Participants favoured a stronger, bigger vehicle, and designers responded by bulking up fenders and increasing the amount of sheet metal in the back.

But while there’s growing acceptance south of the border, Canadian clients are holding back. In the last year, ABM performed hypnotism sessions only six times, a number that pales in comparison to its weekly focus groups. ‘Some companies are really adamantly against it; they think it’s flaky and ridiculous,’ says Leech.

Still, he says some brand managers are tired of conventional research methods and are looking for something different. Although often hesitant to become involved with hypnosis, they are convinced when they see the results, says Leech. ‘Then they’ll do it again, and word of mouth spreads.’

And don’t forget, while perhaps its effectiveness is still unproven, hypnosis doesn’t do anyone any harm — there have been no reports of unsuspecting participants being turned into chirping monkeys. At least, not without a pendulum.