The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

Now you see it… you’ll start seeing it everywhere.

Self-driving cars.

You might not have really thought about them.

But after I mention them here, you might start hearing about self-driving cars more.

Just like when you’re out and you see a yellow car.

Then another appears later on.

We’ve all experienced it.

A coincidence?

My last post discussed confirmation bias.

A cognitive bias that influences how we make decisions.

This post looks at another cognitive bias, called The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon (or the frequency illusion), caused partly because of confirmation bias.

In 1994, on a newspaper website forum, the frequency illusion was being discussed.

A visitor had recently experienced the illusion by hearing about the Baader-Meinhof Group (also known as the Red Army Faction) – a West German far-left militant organisation founded in 1970.

At the time the group was virtually unknown.

The visitor then detailed that this obscure group popped up again the next day.

Hearing about it twice in two unrelated places within 24 hours made it noteworthy.

It’s interesting what actually goes on here.

Our brains notice something new and it gets excited.

Selective attention then kicks in as we’re on the lookout for it again.

We’re subconsciously aware of it and looking for that same feeling of excitement.

It’s fresh in our minds.

This is where confirmation bias comes in.

Once we see it again for the second time, we agree that we’re seeing it randomly like the first, even though now we’re actually looking for it.

It’s no coincidence. It’s not déjà vu. Our brains are experts at pattern recognition.

Every day we identify and categorise things around us, but when something stands out it gets extra attention.

Of course, as marketers, to do our jobs effectively, we need to capture this attention. We can do so via the frequency illusion.

We can’t be motivated by something that doesn’t exist. Making something exist in today’s world means that it has to stand out.

It has to be unique.

The subconscious mind can recognise more of what’s in the environment than what the conscious mind perceives.

But so much of what we see it cluttered by other stuff.

Marketers could look to prime those they seek to talk to.

The idea of integrated marketing communications is often forgotten when creating content or crafting campaigns.

But a series of blog posts, rather than stand-alone posts, for example, will stand a far better chance of being seen, understood and acted upon.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon has its origins set in something which is obscure.

That first campaign message, therefore, needs to be unique.

You want to stimulate specific areas in your audiences’ minds to ensure what you’re doing or saying is memorable. That means when your message or your brand appears again, it’s recognised and action is taken.

Lead nurturing is something to consider to exploit this phenomenon. Remarketing, targeting ads at those who are familiar, is another option.

Combining offline and online marketing channels and messages should also help make the message stick.

Okay, you want a real-world idea…

How about targeting a specific region, a town, a city or country, and aggressively promoting a marketing message for a short period and then completely retreating.

We’ve primed the audience. We’ve created intrigue.

Then, after that initial message has been digested and discussed (as it has seemed to have disappeared as quickly as it arrived), enter the region again after a period of absence and promote a product related to the original message.

We’ve then addressed a market who might have been subconsciously looking for the initial message.

The word might have also spread into new regions for the promotional messages to resonate with another audience already primed for you to exploit.

So, there we have it. The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

A classic example of our brains playing tricks on us.

Also, a classic example of how you can market to your audiences in a smart way.

If this is the first time you’ve heard of the illusion, I wonder when you’ll see it next…

Share the love! Let your friends know how to use (or avoid) this bias by sharing on Twitter.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

39 thoughts on “The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

  1. That was very interesting! I have heard of the phenomena and of course like all of us I have witnessed it. Thank you for following my blog. I hope you enjoy your visits.

  2. Another educational and entertaining post. Thank you, Gareth.

    I grew up during the Cold War era and know of the Baader-Meinhof Group and their deadly association with the Japanese Red Army. I noticed the phenomenon you speak of but did not know it had a name: the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

    The closest I’ve come to this is its darker cousin: subliminal messages in advertising.

    All good wishes for the year ahead,

    1. Thanks, Eric.

      Interesting that you grew up during the time of the Baader-Meinhof Group – the phenomenon itself, also referred to as the frequency illusion, is surreal but also common so I’m not surprised you have experienced it! Appreciate you stopping by again – good to connect. 🙂


  3. Appreciated this post, and also grew up in the Cold War era and remember that Baader-Meinhoff Group. Interesting piece. Useful. Thanks also for following my blog.

  4. Thank you for this interesting post. I had not heard of this phenomenon but experienced it 5 years into my marriage when I first really noticed a mother with her baby while on a day trip to the seaside…needless to say, soon there were babies everywhere I looked, and I was smitten!!

  5. Thank you for your follow on my blog, it prompted to take a look at yours and reading this particular post was illuminating.
    I am becoming more and more aware of the untapped power of the brain but to read that my brain may have been producing the coincidences that I had thought were random, possibly spiritual, is quite a revelation and really worth considered awareness of situations that arise.
    Thank you and a belated Happy New Year to you too.

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