Perception is how you interpret the world around you and make sense of it in your brain. You do so via stimuli that affect your different senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. How you combine these senses also makes a difference. For example, in one study, consumers were blindfolded and asked to drink a new brand of clear beer. Most of them said the product tasted like regular beer. However, when the blindfolds came off and they drank the beer, many of them described it as “watery” tasting. 1
Using different types of stimuli, marketing professionals try to make you more perceptive to their products whether you need them or not. It’s not an easy job. Consumers today are bombarded with all types of marketing from every angle—television, radio, magazines, the Internet, and even bathroom walls. It’s been estimated that the average consumer is exposed to about three thousand advertisements per day. 2
Consumers are also multitasking more today than in the past. They are surfing the Internet, watching television, and checking their cell phones for text messages simultaneously. All day, every day, we are receiving information. Some, but not all, of it makes it into our brains.
Have you ever read or thought about something and then started noticing ads and information about it popping up everywhere? That’s because your perception of it had become heightened. Many people are more perceptive to advertisements for products they need. Selective perception is the process of filtering out information based on how relevant it is to you. It’s been described as a “suit of armor” that helps you filter out information you don’t need. At other times, people forget information, even if it’s quite relevant to them, which is called selective retention. Usually the information contradicts the person’s belief. A longtime chain smoker who forgets much of the information communicated during an antismoking commercial is an example.
To be sure their advertising messages get through to you, companies use repetition. How tired of iPhone commercials were you before they tapered off the tube? How often do you see the same commercial aired during a single television show?
Using surprising stimuli is also a technique. Sometimes this is called shock advertising. The clothing makers Benetton and Calvin Klein are probably best known for their shocking advertising. Calvin Klein sparked an uproar when it featured scantily clad prepubescent teens in its ads. There’s evidence that shock advertising actually works, though. One study found that shocking content increased attention, benefited memory, and positively influenced behavior among a group of university students. 3
Subliminal advertising is the opposite of shock advertising. It involves exposing consumers to marketing stimuli—photos, ads, message, and so forth—by stealthily embedding them in movies, ads, and other media. For example, the words Drink Coca-Cola might be flashed for a millisecond on a movie screen. Consumers were thought to perceive the information subconsciously, and it would make them buy products. Keep in mind that today it’s common to see brands such as Coke being consumed in movies and television programs, but there’s nothing subliminal about it. Coke and other companies often pay to have their products in the shows.
The general public became aware of subliminal advertising in the 1960s. Many people considered the practice to be subversive, and in 1974, the Federal Communications Commission condemned it. Its effectiveness is somewhat sketchy, in any case. It didn’t help that much of the original research on it, conducted in the 1950s by a market researcher who was trying to drum up business for his market research firm, was fabricated. 4
People are still fascinated by subliminal advertising, however. To create “buzz” about the television show The Mole in 2008, ABC began hyping it by airing short commercials composed of just a few frames. If you blinked, you missed it. Some television stations actually called ABC to figure out what was going on. One-second ads were later rolled out to movie theaters. 5
Even if your marketing effort reaches consumers and they retain it, different consumers can perceive it differently. Show two people the same product and you’ll get two different perceptions of it. One man sees Pledge, an outstanding furniture polish, while another sees a can of spray no different from any other furniture polish. One woman sees a luxurious Gucci purse, and the other sees an overpriced bag to hold keys and makeup. 6 A couple of frames about The Mole might make you want to see the television show. However, your friend might see the ad, find it stupid, and never tune in to watch the show.