Football fandom and the Association Principle

The association principle can manifest as associating with a sports team, especially a sports team that’s well-liked or performing well.

A referee voodoo doll with pins stuck in it. Next to the doll is a pin cushion with additional pins for patrons of the shop to stick in the doll.
A day after the January 20, 2019 NFL Conference Championship game where the New Orleans Saints lost to the Los Angeles Rams, I walked into a New Orleans craft store to find this referee voodoo doll prominently displayed. The store owner invited me to push another a pin into the doll. Many residents of New Orleans blame the game loss on a referee’s bad interception call.

A while ago, I was listening to a local radio station when a female caller asked a dating question. She’d been on a few dates with a guy and noticed that he is what is often referred to as a “super fan.” His apartment was covered in logos and memorabilia from a particular sports team. His clothing also was mostly for that team, down to the slippers he wore. And his vehicle was covered with stickers for the team.

Her problem? The rival team is her team.  Her question was whether he’d continue to date her when he found out.

But I think her question should have been, “Why does this guy so heavily associate with the team?”

Association Principle

The association principle is when two or more things that are not related are somehow connected in our minds to create a relation between them. For example, in Ivan Pavlov’s famous study where he rang a bell and the fed dogs, the dogs eventually connected the bell to food and began salivating when he rang the bell, even in the absence of food. They’d associated these two things with one another food + bell.

Association Principle and Advertising

Advertisers absolutely love the association principle because they can associate their product or service to another positive product or service to drive sales.

Examples:

  • Marlboro cigarettes + tough cowboy = Men who smoke Marlboro cigarettes are tough and rugged.
  • Corona + beaches = The drink you should drink at the beach or to feel like you’re at the beach is Corona.
  • Successful business person endorsement + book = Successful business people read this book. If you want to be successful, you should too.
  • Beautiful celebrity + skincare product = If you use this product, you’ll be like this celebrity.
  • National Basketball League (NBA) + Nike shoes = If you want to be in the NBA or play like NBA players, wear Nike shoes.

There’s also the fun world of negative advertising association, in which a competitor works to associate your brand with something undesirable.  For example, it’s rumored that a competitor to the Gucci brand sent Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi a Gucci handbag to make Gucci less desirable to luxury buyers.

Self-Esteem, Association Principle & Football

Yet another way of looking at the association principle is through the lens of social status and self-esteem. The belief is that if we surround ourselves with favorable people and things then that positivity will also be associated with us. One example is people with low self-esteem and low social status. In these cases, a person has a tendency to want to associate with someone or something of a higher or “winning” status.

And, as by now you’ve probably guessed, that can manifest as associating with a sports team, especially a sports team that’s well-liked or performing well. Think about some of the behaviors that sports fans exhibit:

  • Fans watching the game in a bar giving other fans “high-fives” when their football team scores a touchdown even though they didn’t physically complete the play themselves.
  • Someone becoming a “super fan” of a university football team even though they never attended that university.
  • University students saying “we won” when their university’s team wins and “they lost” when their university team loses. By doing so, they are associating themselves when the team does well by using “we” and distancing themselves when the team does poorly by using “they.” (Cialini et al. 1976)
  • A fan believing “their team” won’t win if the fan doesn’t wear a certain shirt or eat a certain food during the game.

While enjoying a sports game can be a fun hobby and someone with a favorite team doesn’t necessarily suffer from low self-esteem, it’s interesting to look at the most extreme examples of sports fandom and try to understand the potential motivation behind it.

Why marketers still celebrate consumer-based holidays, such as Valentine’s Day

Why do people in communications and marketing still celebrate consumer-based holidays (such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.)? why people in communications and marketing still celebrate consumer-based holidays (such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.). It’s a fair question, since we are supposed to be such “experts” on how product companies utilize these holidays to get consumers to buy things.There are three main reasons we still go out, buy things, and celebrate.

A white feather, chocolates arranged in the shape of a heart, rose petals
“Essence of love with sweet chocolate and Strawberries #1 [Happy Chocholate day]” by Kumar’s Edit, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

One of the questions I get often from friends is why people in communications and marketing still celebrate consumer-based holidays (such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc.). It’s a fair question, since we are supposed to be such “experts” on how product companies utilize these holidays to get consumers to buy things.

There are three main reasons we still go out, buy things, and celebrate:

The holiday & traditions are important to someone else in our lives

I first witnessed this when I was interning at the Kellogg Company in their snacks division. High-level marketing executives would rush out of their offices in the middle of the day for a chance to get their child the toy craze of that holiday season. Why? Because, even though these executives knew the techniques very well that made their child want the toy and made them willing to rush around to get it, their child didn’t care about those, their child wanted the toy, and sometimes, it’s not worth the battle to explain to the child why they shouldn’t want it.

If you want to test this theory, try telling your mother that you will no longer be celebrating Mother’s Day because it’s a “Hallmark holiday” and see what kind of reaction you get. Oh and email me about the experience, I’d love a good laugh.

Emotion and societal norms play a huge role

The vast majority of the consumer-based holidays are based around religion, cultural traditions, and personal relationships, which makes them highly emotional for the vast majority of us. This makes it difficult for anyone, even someone who is trained in the influential techniques, to not react emotionally to them.

As Robert Cialdini, best-selling author and professor of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University, humbly points out in his best-selling book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, even he falls prey to the subtle, but powerful influences of his emotions, societal norms, and cues in his environment. In many cases, it’s because we’ve developed patterns of behavior that become routine and thus we don’t question them. For example Valentine’s Day=buy a card and chocolates for your loved one (which yes, I did this year).

The holidays are rooted in a positive intention

Is it wrong to take a day and celebrate the love we have in our lives? Is it wrong to show appreciation to the people who raised us? Most definitely not. We should be celebrating these things. And I would argue that most of us need an external reminder to take some time to do so, such as a designated societal day.

What this doesn’t mean, however, is that it needs to be celebrated in a consumer-centric way. This may be something as simple as not having your Valentine’s Day dinner on the actual day, or it may mean something more, such as not exchanging gifts on major gift-giving holidays. As long as the other people involved are on board (see the first heading), then you can choose to retain the positive intention of these holidays and celebrate them another way.