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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Perception is Everything, Watch Out for Advertising Tricks

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 20th 2011

Perception is Everything, Watch Out for Advertising TricksLike most of us, I enjoy that morning cup of coffee along with reading the newspaper. I was doing just this when I came cross an ad for automobiles that attracted my attention. Not only did the ad catch my interest but it also tempted me to schedule a trip to the dealership later that day. In great excitement, I handed my wife the newspaper and exclaimed, "Wow, what a great price for the car we've been talking about." She carefully read the fine print, something I failed to do, and pointed out what was actually being sold. Let's come back to this in a moment.

As I have written in previous blogs, what you see is not necessariy reality.

Our five senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, absorb information from the outside world and transmits it along a compex neural network that reaches the brain. Based on past experiences and memories, both conscious and unconscious, the brain then processes the data into perception. In other words, our noses pick up sensory smells and transmit them to the brain, which then creates the perception that this is steak on the grill, fried food, bacon and eggs or any number of other possibilities. In fact, the odors may be extremely unpleasant but we still perceive that we are smelling rotten eggs, waste, or mold.

Another example is of a man and woman walking toward each other on the street. First, they each become aware that this person is of the opposite sex. Instantly, the brain takes in the senory information and then creates the perception that this person is sexually attractive. That may set off several thoughts about how to meet this person and make a date. We go from sensation to perception to thinking and decision-making.

One of the things that is interesting about perception is that it can vary from one person to the other. In the example above, one woman may perceive the man as handsome while another may not find him attractive in the least.

The same thing happens with taste. Salt is salty and that is a taste sensation that does not vary. However, cook with salt and the results may be that some people find the dish too salty and others not salty enough. That is why there is always a salt shaker on the table.

Advertisers are very aware of how this process of sensation and perception works. Companies hire industrial psychologists who help design strategies for sales purposes based on their knowledge of how the brain works. Have you ever asked yourself why, when shopping for any product, the prices are listed as 3.99, 10.99, 34.99, 244.99, and so on? The reason is that the lower number is seen first and registers. It is natural to see the price of a small television as 244 dollars or, possibilty, 200 dollars rather than the real price of 250. The perception of the price is, "Gee, that's much lower than I expected. I can afford that." First, we have a visual sensation. Then, the sensation is organized into something that makes sense. Businesses are counting on psychological priniples of perception to help shoppers perceive lower prices.

Have you noticed that prices never include state and local taxes? If they did, the price would look even higher than it does. The same things happens when purchasing a car. The price you believe you see is never accurate and does not include additional costs that go unmentioned until you make the purchase. Those include shipping costs, dealer prep, upgrades that you convince yourself you must have even though you had no intention of buying them until the salesman got done with you, insurance for the car and, very often, some type of down payment. Many times these costs are listed in the original advertisements but in very small print and at the bottom of the page where sellers know most people will overlook them.

What you initially perceived to be a great deal often turns into something very different. Nevertheless, you will most probably leave the dealership with your car and with the conviction that you did get a great deal. That is due to what we call the "sales pitch." The talents of the salesman and manager help to convince you that you got this great deal, even though you didn't.

If you have noticed recent trends in advertising then you are aware that all of us are being told the daily or monthly price of an item. After all, the monthly payment for a car, washing machine, or other expensive item seems very cheap. However, if you do some adding then you realize that you are getting no bargain. They are trying to create the perception that anyone can afford this item, "for just pennies a day!!"

Perception is everything.

The way to prevent being scammed by this is to do your homework before going to the store. Whether you are buying something for five or five thousand dollars, make certain you know your state and local tax rate, additional costs associated with the purchase and be sure you know what you want so that you avoid getting talked into something else. Be prepared to walk away if the store does not have what you want and don't fall for the false perception that is created when the salesman says, "We've run out of that model but we have a much better color choice and deal on this other one. And it's only for today, if you don't buy now, you'll miss out on a great deal!"

"Yeah, sure, you bet!"

Remember: Seeing is not always believing.

Questions and comments are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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