As the fall winds blow, we all may be just a little more intrigued by the sun-drenched isle far south of Miami when reading advertisements in glossy travel magazines claiming, “The Blues Are More Colorful in Key West.” At least that’s the goal of Miami-based Tinsley Advertising exec John Underwood, who crafted the copy. The Tinsley team, says Underwood, always works to be playful with words.
“We like comic relief that’s arresting,” says Underwood. “The objective is to get people to find out more.”
He may be surpassing those goals. New research from the University of Miami says that homophones — words that are pronounced the same but have different spellings and definitions — can influence our decisions to spend money, at least when we’re distracted. While the “blue” in the Key West ad is a double entendre, the findings prove we’re susceptible to misjudging information that companies put in front of us. When their words change our perception of an offer’s value or quality, they can — without us being aware — impact our willingness to pay, says Derick Davis, an assistant marketing professor at University of Miami.
“They’re suggestive and they’re directional,” says Davis. “They give people higher purchase intentions and make them more willing to buy.”
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We’ll most strongly connect “good bye” and “good buy,” says Davis, who presented to one group of subjects a restaurant ad reading, “Enjoy tonight and say ‘so long’ to everything else.” And to a second group, the text, “Enjoy tonight and say ‘good bye’ to everything else.” After being told to memorize a seven-digit number — distraction is key here — those who saw the “good bye” add were willing to pay more money for the offer, indicating they did in fact believe it to be a good buy.
In another experiment, Davis showed people a page featuring an inexpensive bookshelf, asking them the material it appeared to be made from. Those seeing pages with text at the top reading, “Want to Get Organized? Sure Would!” were much more likely to decide the shelf was made from wood. While the others proposed less expensive materials, such as aluminum.
“Incorrect meanings are carried forward,” says Davis, “and that affects you when judging how much you want to pay for things.”
The disconnect happens because two processes occur when we’re reading, says Debby Zabludowski, a reading specialist for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. First, we see the letters and decode the word. Next we comprehend the word by attaching it to all its potential meanings and by putting it into context. But typically we read things for a purpose, and if we’re reviewing an ad in hopes of deciding where to spend our money, we probably very much are hoping to get a good buy, she says. Being distracted means the second level of processing — the comprehending aspect — breaks down, says Zabludowski, and the homophone’s other meaning takes effect.
This two-level system of language gives way to several forms of influence, says Dave Lakhani, author of Subliminal Persuasion: Influence and Marketing Secrets They Don’t Want You to Know. And the best persuasion is subtle, psychologically influencing us on levels of which we’re unaware.
“We’re looking for short cuts and reasons for making the decisions we make,” says Lakhani. “If people have pre-persuaded themselves, or have a brand in mind or an experience that’s deeply embedded, this could push them over the edge.”
When we’re distracted, psychologically determined ideas are even more effective, says Lakhani. For example, we’re frequently reminded that grocery stores are set up in ways that cause us to overspend. But even though we’re well aware of the obvious tactics, we’re hit with so many others we don’t even realize because let’s face it; no one concentrates 100 percent on grocery shopping. We’re paying attention to our shopping lists and our texts while thinking about what we have to do later and what we forgot to do earlier.
“There are so many things that cause consumers to take action if they notice one thing they can never notice all,” he says
UM researcher Davis says that being aware homophones can influence us when we’re distracted suggests that we should simply be focused when making decisions. But Lakhani says it’s not that simple. He says that when we’re determined to resist persuasion, there are strategies that use that very same resistance to persuade us.
As an example, he puts forward the hypothetical concept of a child selling expensive fundraising chocolates and an elderly neighbor determined not to buy. But the moment that neighbor sees even one other adult wave at the child, suddenly the chocolates and their corresponding prices are no longer the issue. The internal dialogue changes, and the neighbor thinks about other peoples’ perceptions, and whether she’s considered a person who supports the community.
“Nobody can be effective at resisting persuasion even 50 percent of the time,” says Lakhani. “If someone is skilled with words they can impact someone very completely.”
This is an occasional column by Miamian Brett Graff, a former U.S. government economist who covers how economic forces affect real people. Follow her at @BrettGraff or contact her at email@example.com.
Homophones — words with the same pronunciation but different meanings — could change your willingness to spend money, according to research from the University of Miami. In experiments, the strongest effect occurred when subjects read “good bye” and proved they later believed the product to be a good buy.
While the following homophones were not tested in labs, they might enter your mind while spending money:
Ate – Eight
Gene – Jean
For – Four – Fore
Presence – Presents
Prince – Prints
Profit – Prophet
Raise – Rays – Raze
Beech – Beach
Higher – Hire
Hour – Our
Carat – Carrot – Karat
Cents – Scents – Sense
Cheap – Cheep
Suite – Sweet
Tacks – Tax
Coarse – Course
Currant – Current
Made – Maid
Wade – Weighed
Waist – Waste
Way – Weigh – Whey
Weak – Week