The Power Of Perception To Influence Consumer Choice


What if I told you I could create a 161% change in consumer perception by simply changing the background of a headshot photo? Would you believe me? Would you believe that something so small could cause such a massive movement in consumer perception? And not just any perception, a meaningful one — the percentage of people that believed the author of a statement was a “medical professional” in an native ad for diet pills. Here’s what a recent study found.

Endorsement & Consumer Perception

Embedded in the advertorial in Figure 1 was an unequivocal claim that the named products were effective for weight loss, even though other content warned of abuse. In it, a young, professional-looking woman writes, “While the pills do cause rapid weight loss (no doubt about that), most people buy them as ‘speed’ pills.” The author’s identity and role is unclear. We sought to determine whether the reader would think the author of the advertorial was the person in the image, or someone else, such as a medical expert. The author’s role as expert was ambiguous. She wore a white, Oxford-style shirt, and what could be a lab coat. However, she is not identified as a medical expert nor is she wearing a stethoscope.

But here is where it gets really interesting from a marketing point-of-view.

Figure 3. In the control condition, the endorser appeared before a plain, white background.

consumer marketing perception - lady on white background

We divided the respondents into two groups. In one, we subtracted the background, so that the endorser simply appeared against a white background. The second group saw the background from the actual advertisement, where the endorser appears in front of what may be a blue-toned wall of products.

Figure 4. In the experimental condition, the endorser appeared before a wall of blue products.

consumer marketing perception - woman on blue background

We presented the endorser’s picture again along with the text as presented in Figures 3 and 4, and asked an open-ended question: “What job does the person in the picture have?” The plurality of respondents presented with the condition image (white background, n=290) thought the endorser was a model (32%). Twenty-three percent thought she was a medical expert: 6% indicated a pharmacist, 6% a doctor, and 11% some other medical professional (e.g. dietician) or multiple categories (e.g., “pharmacist or doctor”). Seven percent thought the endorser was a journalist, and 2% indicated that she was probably a model dressed as a medical expert.

Adding the blue background shifted respondents’ perceptions dramatically (x2(9, n=443) = 130.2722; p <0.001). Asked in an open-ended fashion, the plurality of respondents who saw the image with the blue background (n=308) thought the endorser was a pharmacist (52 percent). Eighteen percent thought she was a model, and less than 1% thought she was a journalist. Overall, 60% thought she was a medical expert: 1% a doctor, 7% some other medical professional. Five percent recognized her a model dressed as a medical expert.

consumer marketing perception - graph results

Read entire study here.

Marketing Implications of the Findings

I’ve always said,

Perception is reality…. right up to the point of experience.

It was the bedrock of my Mardi Gras Experiments in 2009 and 2010 — where both times we proved the power of social media and embedded journalism to change the often long-held misconceptions people had about Mardi Gras.

But far too often we forget that little details, like showing a person in front of a white background or what appears to be a wall of prescription drugs, can significantly effect the persuasiveness of a piece of creative.

Yes I know, creative types everywhere are standing and cheering at that last statement…. as they prepare for yet another meeting where a client won’t appreciate that nuance and instead just ask them to make the logo bigger.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That may or may not be true but marketing research has proven that consumers interpret photographs to have meaning, a meaning that you may or may not understand when you create the ad. But as the research above suggests, knowing that meaning BEFORE you run the ad could dramatically change the results of a campaign. It’s why we developed our proprietary VVP Message Modeling to help our clients and their creative teams appreciate these nuances.

Measure Twice. Cut Once.

It’s an old carpenter’s saying…. one my father drove into my head each summer during high school as I worked side-by-side with him as a trim carpenter. It means you should place more value on knowing where to cut than the act of cutting.

But how many marketers really do that?

I’d argue far too many value (and compensate marketing partners) to cut… feeling that all that time spent doing research and strategy (measuring) is wasteful or somehow not as valuable.

Don’t make that mistake with your creative product, social media messaging and content marketing.

Value the ability to persuade as much, if not more, than the ability to place that persuasion in front of a consumer at a key propinquity point. Understand that the effective reach of your message is as much a function of the quality of the persuasive tools (creative) as the number of times a person is exposed (frequency).

This year, invest in making better messages and I’m sure you’re reap the rewards to your company’s bottom line.

Need help doing that? Click Here to call me right now to discuss how Converse Digital can help you with that problem.

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About Tom Martin

Tom is 20+ year veteran of the marketing and advertising industry with a penchant for stiff drinks, good debates and digital gadgets that helps digitally challenged companies create innovative and effective digital marketing strategies. He is the founder of Converse Digital , author of The Invisible Sale and a contributing writer for Advertising Age. Tom guides clients through the digital marketing maze and helps companies teach their sales force how to Painlessly Prospect their way to more sales. Connect with him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.


  1. The blurry blue background makes it look like she is standing in front of the shelves in a pharmacy so of course she must be a pharmacist, and thereby an expert on this topic 😉 Sneaky marketers, good food for thought, Tom!

  2. Hey Tom, good stuff. I’ve done quite a bit of testing on these types of images myself. Another factor that matters is where the person is looking. So for your examples the non-background eludes basically no emotional response and does not enhance trust. The one with the background does. So, beyond trust you also have action. Lets say there was a call to action button there. The gal looking straight forward, even with the background , would likely not be optimal. Rather, her eyes seemingly looking at the call to action button will draw the readers eye to take that action.

    Extrapolate all of that and maybe 1. No background (sucks) 2. Background ‘eyes forward’ (good) or 3. Background plus eyes looking at the statement (Great).

    or…….. I could be completely full of it. 🙂 Happy New Year brother!

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