Defamiliarising the Familiar

Jeanette Helen Wilson

Published Wed 13 Jan by Jeanette Helen Wilson in Recommended Articles and Marketing More Effectively

Making the familiar seem new and unfamiliar is the process of defamiliarisation. This article looks at how marketers can make subtle changes to alter the way people perceive a situation.

When we look at the same thing over and over again, it can become so familiar that we often stop noticing it. Defamiliarisation is a technique marketers use to enhance perception of the familiar by making it new and exciting to consumers. 

For advertising to appear not so obviously, it needs to turn from the aggressive to the coaxing, the coercive. To actually listen to what people want, and be designed to appeal to the unconscious decision-making process, which is more emotional than rational.

For example, a friendly invitation to ‘Join 1000 others who’ve already signed up’ appeals to our instinctive need to belong, to be a part of something.

As advertising expert Rory Sutherland points out: ‘Small changes can have very large effects.’

Defamiliarsation is not a new concept. It was first coined by Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky in the 1920s, in reference to literature. 

Figurative language, according to Shklovsky, has the power to ‘refigure, reform, revolutionise’ our world. It’s not about creating something entirely new, it’s about making something that is so familiar it is barely noticeable, seem new again. 

It is therefore our perception of the product that is different. And this makes us feel like we’ve discovered something: it makes us feel energised, excited. It makes us feel good. And this is how we attach value to it.

Rory Sutherland used the Canadian example of Diamond Shreddies. Diamond Shreddies are exactly the same as the traditional square Shreddies. A diamond is, after all, merely a skewed square. A square at an angle. But the important thing here is that the consumer’s perception of the traditional Shreddie is shifted: therefore its value increases in their mind. 

Something as small as this can have quite a dramatic effect. Think about the traditional perception of a diamond: we associate it with wealth, luxury, status. Something that is a cut above. No wonder sales went through the roof when Diamond Shreddies were released!

Another example of defamiliarisation at work is iPod headphones. Until Apple brought out the iPod, headphones had always been black. Nobody had ever questioned it. 

The concept of creating headphones that were white, one of the simplest ideas they could possibly have had, was enormously effective. So much so, that there is an implicit status attached to having white headphones.

In effect, defamiliarisation does not have to be a dramatic shift. It can be as subtle as a change of colour, a different way of wording a much-used phrase, a play on words. Wording something differently can alter the way people perceive a situation and this can have quite a powerful effect. 

To further demonstrate this, Rory Sutherland highlights the example of organ donation. In Austria, they used the ‘opt-in’ tick box. In Germany, the ‘opt-out’ tick box. In Germany, far more people ended up signing up to the ‘in’ the group who agreed to donate organs, merely because when faced with the reality: ‘Am I actually going to refuse to help someone in need?’ they found it harder to do. This is how powerful reframing can be.

The current debates around the UK’s EU Referendum are using the same concept: do we have the ‘Yes’ vote for staying in or leaving? Experts predict that having the positive ‘Yes’ for staying in would make it more likely that people would opt to stay in the EU.

The simplicity of language really can alter our perceptions. 

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