Our five physiological senses have unknowingly fooled us – on a regular basis, no less – to the benefit of marketers and manufacturers. By exploring the psychological and physiological concepts of human perception, companies are discerning the differences of absolute and differential thresholds and applying it to marketing their products and effectively influencing consumer’s buying decisions. Once a product’s thresholds are distinguished, companies apply the results to marketing principles in manipulating consumer’s perceptions so that the reality of their product purchases are never fully realized. In order to educate consumer’s future purchasing decisions, this paper explores absolute threshold, differential threshold (or j.n.d.), their causal relationship with human perception and marketing applications, along with examples of these sensory principles. Absolute threshold is the minimum point at which individuals experience or detect a stimulus. As a human sensory perception, absolute threshold encompasses the minimum observed detection of “something”.
Whether circumstantial due to individual differences or testing environment, its definition is considered imprecise because of the variability in its measurement. Not all people are created equal therefore; absolute threshold has been more accurately defined as the minimum point at which a stimulus can be detected 50 % of the time. Consequently, as the limit of exposure to the stimuli increases, absolute threshold decreases. Consider a road trip in which you first notice a street sign; this is your point of absolute threshold. After considerable exposure to street signs, signs become less noticeable thereby absolute threshold decreases. Where absolute threshold measures the point in which a stimulus is detected, the differential threshold is the “just noticeable difference” (j.n.d.) detectable change of intensity in the stimuli. A distinction made by Ernst Weber in 1834, the j.n.d. quantifies the perceived change to be in constant proportion to the initial stimulus.
Weber specified that for a change to be detected, the intensity of the initial stimulus should be proportional to the intensity of the second stimulus. For example, if holding a 5 pound weight you add a 1 pound weight, the j.n.d. is notably detectable. Conversely, if holding a 50 pound weight and you add a 1 pound weight, the intensity of the 1 pound weight is proportionally incremental to the 50 pound weight therefore, the j.n.d. is indistinguishable. The physiological concepts of thresholds are fundamental in understanding human perception relative to marketing and product development. The relative differences between these perceptual thresholds are causally related to the direction marketers choose when promoting, improving, or changing their product.
Should a manufacturer necessitate a negative change such as decreasing a product’s quality or weight, or an increase in price, marketers determine the relevant j.n.d. in order for these changes to be undetectable to consumers and perceptions remain positive. On the other hand, should a manufacturer initiate a positive change such as lowering price, an upgrade in size, packaging, or ingredients, j.n.d. is maximized so that consumers recognize the change. Amongst depressing economic conditions, understanding absolute thresholds and the j.n.d. have become detrimental in businesses sustaining the profit potential of their products; whether to shift attention from or draw attention to their product. To list some examples of perceptual thresholds in marketing, the magnitude of its applications will hopefully be realized.
Marketing is all about strategy and consumers have unknowingly been prey to their influences. One memorable business example of absolute threshold application was the introduction of New Coke on April 23, 1985. Coca-Cola severely underestimated the intrinsic value of the original formula and its brand to consumers. Considered a marketing disaster, the re-introduction of the original formula and phasing out of the New Coke initiated new packaging to distinguish the two formulas; hence Coke Classic. Once all New Coke products were completely removed from the market, Coca-Cola then began applying the differential threshold. Application of the j.n.d. was utilized in removing the “Classic” from its packaging by incrementally minimizing the font size of “Classic” on its cans until ultimately it was back to just Coca-Cola.
Additional examples are predominantly negative product changes that manufacturers have implemented in order to sustain sales and maintain positive consumer perception. To list a few: Lanacane First Aid spray went from 113 to 99 gram packaging with no change in price; Pillsbury Cake mixes have reduced their packaging by 3 ounces; Kraft American Cheese slices are packaged as 22 instead of 24; Chicken of the Sea went from 3 oz. packaging to 2.6 oz. To continue the list, would be redundant, not to mention, depressing.
In an unpredictable economy with an unpredictable future, as consumers, we should try to comprehend the values and applications of absolute and differential thresholds, rather than allowing marketers to reap all the benefits. Once we distinguish the perceptual differences and are more perceptive of the products we purchase, we arm ourselves with the knowledge that has ironically been used against us for so long and can move to make more conscious choices in our buying decisions.
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