Sense and Sensibility – Perception in Marketing

Sensory Perception in Promotion

For marketers, a basic knowledge of the senses can be helpful in many ways.   Advertisers must know how the products being advertised affect all the senses.  Such knowledge often forms the basis for effective campaigns.  Television, radio print and Social media all have their limitations

Sensory Adaptation

All of our senses have a saturation point.  With constant exposure to a given set of stimuli, our senses become adapted and the sensations produced by the stimuli are no longer noticed.

When we watch a show on a television screen, we become adapted to the objects in the room and notice only the movement on the screen, even though the light’s rays emanating from the screen may represent a small portion of the total rays reaching our eyes.  After steady exposure to a given noise level or a distinctive perfume, we become adapted and no longer notice them.

This factor is important for advertisers.  Advertisements should be presented in ways that reduce the chance of adaptation.  Advertisements or commercials that are frequently repeated with little or no variation lose their impact though adaptation.  As consumers adapt to the stimuli, the stimuli are no longer noticed.


If attention is not aroused, the chances that: a stimulus can be converted into a perception are greatly reduced.  The first task of a commercial message is to attract attention.  Many advertisements begin with gimmicks designed to attract attention, such as unusual or loud sounds, off-beat colours, distinctive typefaces, or exclusive symbols.


Vision occurs when light strikes the lens in the eye.  The purpose of the lens is to focus the light waves upon the retina at the back of the eye.  Within the retina are the rods and cones.  The rods make possible vision under low levels of illumination (in black and white), whereas the cones make possible the percept on of colour.

Although this process iswell known at this elementary level, there are many details that have a bearing on how, advertising messages are received.  Of particular importance are the anomalies.  Very often the messages transmitted by the advertiser are not received by the consumer in the manner intended.  This is often due to the limitations or defects of the senses.

Colour Perception

Knowledge of colour perception is of great importance to advertisers.  How to use colour properly is one of the keys to effective advertising.  All objects are distinguished by their colour and form.  Of the two, colour appears to be preeminent as indicated by studies of infant development.  As infants learn to distinguish objects, they are able to distinguish colours before they can distinguish forms.

Although research is limited, there is general agreement that responses to colour involve the emotions to a large degree *, while responses to form appear to be more rational or intellectual.  Reactions to colour vary considerably.  Although some people have strongly negative reactions to certain colours, particularly red, most people prefer advertisements or commercials in colour.  The use of colour is effective in attracting attention and creating favourable attitudes.

* A lot of pop-psychology has occured about connecting colour preferences with personality types.  Most research in the area has been difficult to prove conclusively.  One of the problems being to determine which colur shade is being used or perceived.  Physical differences are also an important factor

Colour Blindness

Manufacturers commonly assume that all persons can perceive colours as they are presented.  This is not the case.  Approximately 10% of the population is colour blind.

This is an important factor when considering things like logo design and packaging, as well as advertising

Changing Colour Refraction with Age

Another phenomenon relating to lens accommodation is colour refraction.  The longer wavelength colours focus at a point on the retina slightly behind the shorter wavelength colours.  As consumers grow older, many develop a thickness of their lenses due to a phenomenon known as presbyopia.  The refractory pattern may change when this occurs, making the shorter wavelengths more sharply focused on the retina than the longer wavelengths

This phenomenon relates to a change in colour preference, which takes place with age.  With younger people, more often reds and oranges are preferred.  Older persons, on the other hand, tend to prefer blues and violets, perhaps because objects in these colours appear crisper or sharper.


Words and music can be considered as complex vibrations of air molecules.  When the sounds from a radio or television commercial are emitted from a receiver, the sound vibrations compress the particles of air, transmitting the energy from particle to particle.  These compressions take place very rapidly, resulting in waves of sound being transmitted.  The greater the number of waves per second the higher the pitch of the sound. Since the early days of man-kind, the spoken word has been important to advertising products (including services).  Even with television, many (most?) commercials carry the main message on the sound track rather than in the picture.

Importance of Appropriate Voices

Those specialising in sound reproduction know the importance of having the right voices for advertising containing sound.  The right voice has qualities consistent with the desired image of the product.

Auditory Perception

What are the differences in sounds that cause some to be effective and some ineffective for advertising purposes? Why is one sound good and another bad? Why are some sounds popular with some listeners and not with others?

One of the answers is familiarity.  Familiar sounds are usually more acceptable than unfamiliar ones.  The first time a sound is heard on an instrument new to the listener, it sounds strange and even unpleasant.  Music played on instruments like the sitar the kora, bolon, ngoni and the koto have been introduced into popular music of the Western world.

Familiarity, however, has its limitations. If sounds are heard too frequently, they may become boring.  Musiciansare constantly searching for new sounds.  So are advertisers.  Both realise that new sounds will attract attention.

Advertisers must continue to search for the optimum combination of the old and the new, of the familiar with the different.  Advertisers can never find the one jingle or the one set of words that will always be of maximum effectiveness.  As a new sound is recreated, it shifts from the unfamiliar to the familiar and the optimum combination is lost.

Consonance and Dissonance

Writers have related consonant and dissonant sounds to pleasantness and unpleasantness in an aesthetic sense.  This view is now seen as too simplistic for many advertising situations.  Modern composers of music for commercials have discovered that dissonance at certain times can be desirable.  Consider the typical commercial.  It first presents a problem situation to cause psychological tension.  The problem is then resolved through the purchase and use of a recommended product, and the tension is reduced.  Musically, when the problem is being presented, dissonant notes may be used to assist in the creation of psychological tension.  As the problem is successfully resolved, it is accompanied with appropriate consonant notes connoting peace and harmony.


The use of the appropriate rhythm may also play an important role in radio and television commercials.

Why do some people prefer faster rhythms than others? What constitutes a fast versus a slow rhythm? Much research is needed in this area, but there are some logical reference points.  One possibility is the heartbeat.  Within the ear, as in other parts of the body, the heartbeat is constantly coursing blood through the circulatory system.

Despite the fact that the beat is not usually heard, it has been suggested that the heartbeat serves as subconscious pacemaker .With music, using this pacemaker concept, it is likely that a rhythm faster than a heartbeat is considered fast, whereas music with a rhythm slower than the heartbeat is considered slow.


Another phenomenon which has advertising implications is the phenomenon of synaesthesiaThis is the relation of sounds to colours.  Though not completely understood, it appears that the sound codes transmitted by neural impulses to the brain are in some instances similar to the colour codes transmitted from the retina to the brain.  Some people actually see colour when sounds are played.  The same sounds always cause the same colours to be seen for any one person.

Two persons with this ability do not always see the same colours when a given sound is played.  Some people perceive different colours as sound intensity varies, yet others see different colours as the tone varies.


The sense of taste is of primary importance to advertisers in relation to food and beverage samplingIncreasingly, food advertisers recognise that a trial sample of a product can be an effective tool of persuasion.

Advertising alone will seldom be effective for products that are considered strange or that elicit negative reactions due to cultural biases.  The principal receptors for taste are located on the tongue.  The taste buds, however, are relatively insensitive when compared to the receptors for the sense of smell Many consumers, for example, may baulk at the idea of trying snails or eels.  A sample might be very helpful in overcoming negative predispositions.


The sense of smell is perhaps the least understood of the senses.  But possibly one of the strongest it is widely suggested

Most substances produce odours, and advertisers need to be aware of their importance.

Without the sense of smell, the pleasures of eating would be markedly reduced.  The basic qualities of taste (sour, acid, sweet, and bitter) are not sufficient to give us the various sensations we receive from food.

Samples of perfume can be attached to printed materials like magazines via scratch swatches.


Marshall McLuhan has talked about the importance of the tactual experience. Sounds of loud music are enjoyed because of the tactual involvement.

Fabric advertisers have known for years that one of the more important differences of stress was texture involving the sense of feel.  Samples of fabric can be attached to printed materials like magazines.

All commercial stimulates one or more of the senses.  It is therefore helpful to have a rudimentary knowledge of all senses and how they react to the available stimuli.

The perceptions we have of each promotional message can be no more accurate than the neural impulses transmitted by our imperfect senses.  The sensations that are transmitted are further modified by our previous experience, which enables us to attach meanings to the sensations received.

And we should consider that the senses of the prospective buyer are also important in all physical settings they are in

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