Paint Me a Picture

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

Over the last few years, an illuminating series of studies about false beliefs and misperceptions about the state of the world has been underway. In the first of these studies (known as “The Gapminder Misconception Study”) published back in 2017, the researchers discovered that misperceptions among the general population appear to be the norm rather than the exception, especially among citizens of wealthier nations. For example, when asked whether the yearly number of deaths from natural disasters has been increasing or decreasing over the last 100 years, the majority of respondents (over 90%) were completely wrong in stating that worldwide deaths have been increasing, while only 10% of the respondents identified the correct answer, that deaths from natural disasters have actually been decreasing (significantly in fact). Other misperceptions identified in this study included the relative number of people in poverty, the ability of an individual to gain an education, and what the forecasted world population will be in 2100. On all these topics, and indeed on almost all the questions asked, the average response was not only incorrect but wildly incorrect in the opposing direction. This is just one example of how widespread misperceptions can be in the general population, and you can likely imagine how often this routinely happens within the context of marketing.

One of the more famous misperceptions in marketing occurred in the 1980s when A&W promoted a 1/3-pound burger as the superior alternative to their competitor’s popular 1/4-pound burger (i.e., the “Quarter Pounder”). Despite having a significantly larger beef patty, better taste (according to reviews), and sharing the exact same price point, A&W’s 1/3-pound burger struggled to put a dent in the 1/4-pound competitor’s market. Confused, A&W executives brought in a marketing research firm to determine what had gone wrong with what clearly should have been a winning strategy for their new product. Eventually, a focus group revealed a surprising truth: a majority of consumers felt that the 1/3-pound burger represented a poor value for their money. Specifically, they stated that they were reluctant to pay the same price for a smaller amount of beef. It turns out, the misperception of fractions was the downfall of the 1/3-pounder. The common belief among consumers was that since 4 is a larger number than 3, it followed that a 1/4-pound burger must contain more meat than a 1/3-pound burger. Thus, in an ironic and cruel twist of fate, A&W’s new burger was widely perceived by consumers as being smaller and of lower value than its competitor’s burger, when in fact the opposite was true.

Simple misperceptions like this happen all the time in marketing. Luckily for us, there are ways to help correct and/or prevent these misperceptions from forming in the first place. Specifically, by providing a “picture” of exactly what you are trying to convey, you can greatly reduce or eliminate the risk of any misperceptions. A recent study out of the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties finds that even powerful ideologically driven misperceptions can usually be corrected simply by presenting the relevant information in a graph or pie chart.

These findings are supported in other areas, such as in the visual representation of mathematical formulas, where researchers found that depicting mathematical proofs in graph form significantly increased students’ comprehension and subsequent recall of the formula and its information. Additionally, studies in health care services show these types of visualization strategies significantly enhance the chain of communication between health professionals and their patients, allowing large amounts of complex information to be conveyed with greater clarity, which resulted in less of the information being lost than when health care workers used verbal or written discourse alone.

While no method is foolproof in preventing all misperceptions, providing your target audience with a picture (or a graph) will go a long way in allowing them to visualize and remember the key information you wish to convey. This ultimately contributes to greater comprehension of your message in the short term and reduces the chance of any misperceptions down the road.

Happy Marketing!

-Dr. James