Perception in Marketing, Part II

“...Dateline staff members were willing to fake an explosion to ‘prove’ their point.”

by Michael Cooney

As last month’s column showed, the very purpose of marketing and advertising is to alter your perceptions. Remember the example of Toyota and Lexus? Or Honda and Acura?

Let’s go further now. How can advertising alter your perception of various products? Can you be fooled by advertisers? Or do we allow ourselves to be fooled? Let’s see.

Do we secretly want to be fooled?

Recently I was driving down Brand Boulevard with a visitor from Japan. His eyes caught a sign along the street, and our conversation went like this:

“What does it mean, ‘previously owned?’”

“It means they’re used cars.”

“Then why don’t they say ‘used?’”

“Because they think ‘previously owned’ sounds better.”

As you’ve noticed, there’s no such thing as a used Mercedes anymore. Only “previously owned” Mercedes. Same for BMW, Lexus, and all the luxury makes. But what about Fords and Chevrolets and Toyotas? That term is trickling down to those as well.

How do you look at it? Does a “previously owned” Toyota Corolla or Chevy Cavalier sound pretentious? Or do you prefer how that sounds?

 Factually, we know a previously owned car is a used car. But somehow, “previously owned” makes it sound like the car must have been pampered. Not "used up" or "used and abused" so to speak, but rather just "lightly used." Interesting.

If it’s on TV, is it true?

Perhaps you saw this story on creating false perceptions. It aired on 60 Minutes January 14.

An attractive young married couple created an infomercial to sell a course on how to get rich buying distressed real estate. Their formula was predictable, and predictably successful.

They held themselves up as the example. They said they had used their simple, easy-to-use system to quickly become wealthy -- as you could see by their mansion and cars and yacht. Now perfected, they were willing to sell that same exact system to you, the viewer.

Unfortunately for those who sent in their $1,000 or so, the infomercial was crafted to create a false perception. You see, the stately mansion they strolled in front of wasn’t theirs. The $240,000 Lamborghini he drove off in wasn’t theirs. The yacht they frolicked on wasn’t theirs. All those were merely rented for a day. And the client testimonials were performances by friends and local actors who were paid to follow a script, pretending they had bought the course and were making money hand over fist.

Remember, people buy perception over fact. In this case, the perception was a lie. But when those viewers sent in their $1,000, they had perceived a lie to be the truth.

NBC’s Dateline program did a story about pickup trucks that may have been more prone to explode in accidents due to the design and placement of their gas tanks. To demonstrate, they used a remote controlled car to intentionally ram one of the trucks in question. Sure enough, it exploded in a ball of flames.

It made for a dramatic story. But it was a lie. The Dateline staff had rigged the truck with a detonator timed to make the gas tank explode the instant it was struck by the other car. For the sake of marketing their show and creating a biased perception in your mind, some Dateline staff members were willing to fake an explosion to “prove” their point.

A bit of skepticism is healthy

It is up to you to separate false perceptions from accurate ones. Just because you see it “in black and white” -- whether it’s an ad or a news story in your local paper -- doesn’t mean it’s the entire truth. One side of the story may have been omitted or greatly down-played to leave you with the perception an editor desires you to have. What you watch on the evening news is also subject to being slanted to alter your perception. Particularly political stories.

This should come as no surprise. Every person carries biases. And some will work overtime to persuade you to agree with their bias. That is why even the news you rely on is not always as objective as it may appear on the surface.

Certainly, the purpose of marketing and advertising is to alter your perception. The responsibility of those who advertise, then, is to create perceptions in an ethical manner--not to deceive, but to enthusiastically and truthfully enlighten.