Selling Memories

Professor links childhood experiences with consumer behavior

Baking cookies on a chilly autumn day. Eating Popsicles in the heat of summer. Riding in a station wagon on the highway to the beach. Childhood memories such as these are triggered by scents, places and even brand names, associations that Kathryn LaTour, associate professor of hospitality, researches and teaches at UNLV.

LaTour, who holds a doctorate in marketing from the University of Iowa, has studied a variety of topics ranging from online gambling and automobiles to In-N-Out Burger and wine consumption. But the driving force behind her research is finding out why consumers make choices and how brands can influence and capitalize on those decisions.

In her research, LaTour has found that childhood memories play an integral role in consumers’ purchasing decisions. In a recent Journal of Business Research article on Coca-Cola as a childhood icon, LaTour found that Coke is ingrained in the memories of Southern children in part because of the prevalence of Coca-Cola bottling plants in the region, and competing beverages must overcome the strong link in order to lure consumers away from the iconic soft-drink brand.

“It’s not just a brown, fizzy water for them; it’s a part of their family,” LaTour says. “Their mothers introduced it to them very early in life. One of our participants talked about going from the bottle [of milk] to the bottle of Coke. … They would never consider buying Pepsi or a competing product. It was part of their relationship with that brand. It gives some insights into how to tap into those feelings.”

LaTour finds links between childhood memories and consumerism by conducting group interviews that combine psychoanalysis and yoga. A certified yoga instructor, LaTour leads groups in stretches and meditation before asking questions about their childhoods. After the group portion of the interview is finished, she conducts individual interviews.

“We’re trying to understand how their life history has evolved to bring them to where we are today, [which] gives insight to why they buy what they buy,” she says. “It is very much consumer psychology.”

The influence of childhood memories on consumer behavior is not a solely American phenomenon. While studying the cultural influence of gambling in other countries, LaTour interviewed French and Chinese gamblers, and found that though the types of childhood experiences varied, the effect of those memories on buying choices was consistent.

“You would think that everyone had a different kind of childhood, but when you get to a really deep level you start to see some commonalities between people,” LaTour says.

As part of the larger theme of consumers’ motivation, LaTour examined online gambling, the legalization of which is being debated on both the state and federal levels. When LaTour interviewed online gamblers and casino gamblers to determine why a consumer would choose one over the other, she found that online gambling could benefit from legalization to make it more legitimate.

“We found that the casino gamblers obviously have a different relationship with gambling than the online gamblers,” LaTour says. “The online gambling environment was chaotic; there were no rules and regulations. … We thought that this experience online could benefit a lot from regulation.”

While her previous research studied how advertisers can use consumers’ earliest memories to market their products, her latest work focuses on how advertising is used to manipulate consumers’ minds and even create false memories.

“What I’m trying to show now is that actually the people who are the most manipulated are the ones who process the most deeply,” she says. “So maybe it’s not such a bad thing that they’re creating these false images, memories and experiences, because it’s just part of the way the human brain processes information.”

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