Reticular Activator

Jon Hamilton

January 22, 2011

What do Pavlov’s Dog and Marketing have in common?  What is a reticular activator, and how can it help strengthen my brand?  Read on to find out!

What does Pavlov’s Dog have to do with Marketing?

In the 1904, Ivan Pavlov won a Nobel Prize working with dogs and their drool. What he noticed was that the dogs tended to salivate before food was delivered to their mouths. He further discovered that anything associated with food, even a symbol or sound, could be used to cause the dogs to salivate.

Modern scientists call these elements, like a symbol of food, reticular activators. Things like food, smells, music, and visual icons instantly remind us of something we’ve experienced, seen or heard. These “flashbacks” can be positive or negative depending on the situation. How many times have you heard a song on the radio that triggers the memories of Junior Prom? Or perhaps you smell something that instantly takes you back to your fourth-grade science class.

Just as Pavlov established with his dogs, building strategic reticular activators within your brand can instantly activate emotions that will strengthen your brand. Here are some things to consider:

Headlines – Great headlines, cleverly crafted can be chuck-full of reticular activators. Not many ads have them because it’s a difficult art. For example, a headline captured on the cover of Men’s Health states: “Rock Hard, Right Now”. It was a teaser headline for an article about strengthening abs. The word rock is a reticular activator. What do you think of? Another headline on the outside of a direct mail envelope asks a question: “Can you tell if you are a man or a woman (without looking)? What comes to mind for you? Can you pick out the trigger words? Would you open the envelope?

Visuals – The biggest use of visual reticular activators involve sex. Why? Because the use of these types of visuals evoke powerful emotions. Since everyone’s familiar with sex, let’s talk about other visuals that make great reticular activators.

Babies, kittens, and teddy bears all evoke innocence. Each one of us has had an experience with these things. Chances are the experiences were innocent, comforting and pure. Conversely, dogs bearing their teeth, car accidents, or a casket all evoke emotions and experiences that aren’t pleasant. Choose your visuals carefully and your audience will fill in the emotion you are after.

Logos — What would you like your customer to think and feel when they see your logo? Having a well-thought approach to your logo design and graphic standards is worth thousands of words and hundreds of emotions.

Apple Computers chose an apple with a bite out of it, reminding us of Adam and Eve’s first rebellious act. At the time, Apple computers wanted to be viewed as the rebellious competitor to IBM. If you have a well-constructed logo that has multiple layers of meaning, you’ll be sure to reach a broader audience.

Mascots — Mascots can also serve as an effective reticular activator. Ronald McDonald is effective with children. Every time a child sees the clown or similar clown, he or she wants to go to McDonald’s

Colors – What do you think of when you see red? How about white? Black is another one to consider. All of these colors have deep emotion attached to them. Color can be a very effective reticular activator. The Tiffany & Co. Blue is one of the most effective uses of color as part of the brand. It is such a unique blue, that every time you see it, thoughts of wealth and diamonds appear in your mind. Red and oranges are used for food because it looks much more appetizing than blue. Black has a mysterious feel to it and white usually evokes the feeling of purity. A little color research can go a long way when establishing reticular activators.

Sounds – Quoting from the Wizard of Ads by Roy H. Williams: “It is easier to implant a reticular activator using sound rather than sight. Medical science tells us that it takes 29% longer to understand written words than spoken words. That is because the brain must translate the written word into the spoken word before it can be understood.” Drawing from personal experience, I can vouch for this in a different way.

I like Diet Coke. I’m addicted. At times I’ve tried to stop drinking it. However, when I hear a co-worker pulling the tab of a can of soda, I instantly crave a Diet Coke. I don’t even have to see it. The sound can come from the other room and a myriad of emotions flood my brain. I can taste it. I can imagine the cool liquid in my mouth. Visions of good food, friends and energy fill my mind.

If you are old enough to remember the song, I bet you could sing: “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.” Or, how about “My bologna has a first name, it’s O-S-C-A-R. My bologna has a second name, it’s M-A-Y-E-R…”

So start thinking today about reticular activators you can incorporate into your marketing plan. If done correctly, you can bet Pavlov will be smiling down on you each and every time you leave your customer drooling for more.

If you want a reticular activator about reticular activators, visit: You’re guaranteed to remember it, for better or worse.