Perception and Attention in Marketing: A Bergsonian Detour

Posted: October 3, 2010 in Diagramming Affective Ethics
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Let’s look at another take on consumer behaviour. In “Understanding consumer behaviour,” David Jobber specifies further why perception is crucial for marketing (Jobber, Principles and Practice of Marketing [London: McGraw-Hill, 2010] 108-143). Jobber claims that an understanding of customers can be gained by answering the following questions (109):
1. Who is important in the buying decision?
2. How do they buy?
3. What are their choice criteria?
4. Where do they buy?
5. When do they buy?

These are the key dimensions of buyer behaviour according to Jobber. In an interesting, although unacknowledged, reprise of Bergson’s memory cone, Jobber notes that need recognition of consumers runs a dynamic spectrum from functional (the simple recognition of needing a commodity like replacing a broken TV) to emotional or psychological (buying a perfume or cologne). The decision making process goes through various stages, and it is important that these concepts are presented in the pop-out box, at least in this instance, as a temporally linear unfolding: need recognition/problem awareness → information search → evaluation of alternatives → purchase → post-purchase evaluation of decision. Memory and perception and their mobilization are key throughout. For instance, in the first stage need recognition will happen initially through “a review of relevant information from memory” (113). The aim of searching for information for a good marketer like Jobber is to build up the “awareness set—that is, the array of brands that may provide a solution to the problem” (113). Much like Grewal and Levy, Jobber expends a few choice words on “low-involvement situations.”

For low-involvement situations…the evaluation of alternatives is much more rudimentary, and attitude change is likely to follow purchase. In this case, attempting to gain top-of-mind awareness through advertising and providing positive reinforcement (e.g. through sales promotion) to gain trial may be more important than providing masses of information about the consequences of buying the brand. Furthermore, as this is of little interest, the consumer is not actively seeking information but is a passive receiver [my emphasis]. Consequently advertising messages should be short with a small number of key points but with high repetition to enhance learning. Television may be the best medium since it allows passive reception to messages while the medium actively transmits them. Also, it is ideal for the transmission of short, highly repetitive messages. Much soap powder advertising follows this format.

The obvious target from a critical theory perspective is the notion of passive receiver. In what sense passive? If a high degree of repetition is necessary to enhance learning, then something other than passivity is involved here. This would be a good place to interject the notion of habituation. What Jobber is attempting to diagram is the process of habituating consumers with/to a brand (first as logo and distracted spectacle, and then as experience and consumption). That Jobber elects TV as the medium of choice for habituation is also decisive in terms of thinking of the co-evolving capacities of perception and media. Recall, that media theorists have called TV the media of distraction par excellence—the image is less important than the sound, implying that viewers are more likely to be walking around doing household things rather than seated squarely in front of the TV.

Jobber goes on to note that for marketing the process of emoting is absolutely crucial. A product is a major source of high emotion when it exudes (or is made to exude through promotion, marketing, branding and social circulation) high symbolic meaning (116). High symbolic meaning feeds into consumers’ “self-concept and sense of identity.” Owning the commodity communicates that self-image to others. These are, Jobber notes, “non-rational preferences” for which information gathering is largely about justifying an emotionally based decision. “How do I feel about it?” is the question top-most in importance. “Consequently, many marketers attempt to create a feeling of warmth about their brands. The mere exposure to a brand name over time, and the use of humour in advertisements, can create such feelings. Impulse buying is another area that can be associated with emotions. Consumers have described a compelling feeling that was ‘thrilling’, ‘wild’, ‘a tingling sensation’, ‘a surge of energy’, and ‘like turning up the volume’” (116). Marketers solicit emotional response to embed brands in highly modulated but unpredictable ecologies of sensation.

These ecologies of sensation are unpredictable partly because the hangover of consumption comes back to haunt the process. Thus, marketers have to watch out for “cognitive dissonance” which arises because of “uncertainty about making the right decision.” Notice here that two different notions of the subject are being simultaneously evoked in Jobber’s account of effective marketing: a utility maximizing subject of functional calculation, and the monad of sensation, in which the world if folded like a substance of infinite sponginess (on the fold and sponginess cf. Deleuze, The Fold). But dissonance in consumption is a gradient of anxiety that becomes increasingly intense with the expense of purchase, difficulty of decision-making, irreversibility of the decision, tendency toward anxiety (117). And of course this is also where the good marketer can make her mark felt and appreciated: by the salesperson being an affirmative problem-solver “rather than simply pushing the highest-profit-margin product” cognitive dissonance is reduced and customer satisfaction is increased (117).

There are personal and social influences on consumer behaviour: personal influences are information processing, motivation, beliefs and attitudes, personality, lifestyle and age, and life cycle; social factors include culture, social class, geodemographics, reference groups. There is a chiaroscuro effect in these two lists, and the rigorous distinction between them becomes untenable: what is personal is social, what is social is personal as well.

Regardless, Jobber goes on to consider how consumers become involved in a buying decision. Self-image, perceived risk (buying the wrong house is riskier than buying the wrong chewing gum), social factors (of acceptance in social groups), hedonistic influences (high degrees of pleasure, like picking a restaurant) are what affect involvement. Jobber writes: “Marketers can help in this buying situation by providing information-rich communications—for example, press advertisements and websites are particularly suited to information-rich content, supported by a well-trained salesforce where appropriate” (122). Again the choice of specifying which media best suits a particular marketing plan is crucial—what are the capacities of this media as opposed to another given the necessary level of attention? In that sense, picking the appropriate media is correlated to questions of perception at a fundamental level.

Finally, Jobber turns to the question of how information is processed in the dynamic of being influenced. There are two key aspects here, according to Jobber: perception and learning. First, perception:

Perception is the complex process by which people select, organize and interpret sensory stimulation into a meaningful picture of the world. Three processes may be used to sort out the masses of stimuli that could be perceived into a manageable amount. These are selective attention, selective distortion and selective retention. (123)

Let us consider this definition in light of Bergson’s notion of perception. Bergson writes in Matter and Memory:

Perception…measures our possible action of things upon us. The greater the body’s power of action (symbolized by a higher degree of complexity in the nervous system), the wider is the field that perception embraces. The distance which separates our body from an object perceived really measures, therefore, the greater or less imminence of a danger, the nearer or more remote fulfilment of a promise. And, consequently, our perception of an object distinct from our body, separated from our body by an interval, never expresses anything but a virtual action. But the more distance decreases between this object and our body (the more, in other words, the danger becomes urgent or the promise immediate), the more does virtual action tend to pass into real action. Suppose the distance reduced to zero, that is to say that the object to be perceived coincides with our body, that is to say again, that our body is the object to be perceived. Then it is no longer virtual action, but real action, that this specialized perception will express. And this is exactly what affection is. Our sensations are, then, to our perceptions that which the real action of our body is to its possible, or virtual, action. Its virtual action concerns other objects and is manifested within its own substance. Everything then will happen as if, by a true return of real and virtual actions to their points of application or of origin, the external images were reflected by our body into surrounding space and the real actions arrested by it within itself. And that is why its surface, the common limit of the external and the internal, is the only portion of space which is both perceived and felt. That is to say once more, that my perception is outside my body and my affection within it. (56-7)

On the basis of these distinctions, Bergson will go on to show that there is no perception without affection (i.e. sensation), which mixes inside our body with the image of external bodies. Thereby Bergson attempts to restore “the true character of perception,” exhorting us to “recognize in pure perception a system of nascent acts which plunges roots deep into the real; and at once perception is seen to be radically distinct from recollection; the reality of things is no more constructed or reconstructed, but touched, penetrated, lived, and the problem…between realism and idealism…is solved, or rather dissolved, by intuition” (69).

What do we draw from this?

The processes of perception and sensation are mixed; when we perceive something we subtract out what we need in order to act; sensations are real actions of our body; perception is a virtual or potential action of our body; that actions of the body involving the experience of a synaesthetic affection are both virtual (depending on the distance or interval of the object) and real (effecting the reality of the world and body). Therefore, perception is not about knowledge for Bergson, but rather about actions, capacities to affect and be affected by the world and by your body.

Jobber’s notion of perception then is not all that different from Bergson’s: Jobber’s marketers are after all pursuing potential actions: the buying of a commodity. But like so much else in business discourse, perception for marketing is about managing the crisis of selective attention, distortion, and retention by making marketing essentially about knowledge—weighing costs and benefits after information processing. But also notice that there is a subtle and yet decisive instrumentalizing of the body itself, sensation becomes something to solicit and control in the process of constructing “a meaningful picture of the world.” So the aim of effective marketing becomes soliciting and modulating conscious and neurological attention. Although, Jobber notes dejectedly that consumers consciously attend to only 5-25% of the ads they’re exposed to, a pop-out box also heralds the new capacities of neuromarketing research.

Neuromarketing: New Horizon or False Dawn? How consumers process information is of great interest to marketers because it sheds light on how they make purchasing choices—for example, what clothes we buy or what music we like to listen to. This is where neuroscience can play a part; it is the study of the brain and nervous system by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning. The brain is made of networks of neurons. When these cell clusters are stimulated, they use more energy. These active areas light up on fMRI scans, allowing researchers to map emotion and cognition. The scanner produces a colour-coded image of the brain that is helpful in revealing a person’s unconscious feelings about a brand, an advertisement or, even, a media channel. For example, the effects of different media channels (e.g. print versus the Internet) on brain stimulation have been found to be useful when making media decisions. This application of the techniques of neuroscience to marketing is called neuromarketing. Neuromarketing advocates argue that it is an objective tool that scientifically demonstrates and quantifies human reactions and provides new insights into how people process information. The sceptics counter that is has not revealed any huge insights in human behaviour that are not already instinctively known. As applications of neuromarketing develop, the truth about its worth to marketers will be revealed. (Jobber 126)

Everywhere marketing turns its gaze it is confronted with the problem of how to extract capital from attention, how to insinuate an associational brand swarming with a viral energy into the mechanisms of sense, value, and force that constitute an ecology of sensation.

A number of factors influence attention. We pay more attention to stimuli that contrast with their background than to stimuli that blend with it. The name Apple is regarded as an attention-getting brand name because it contrasts with the technologically oriented names usually associated with computers. The size, colour and movement of a stimulus also affect attention. Position is critical too. Objects placed near the centre of the visual range are more likely to be noticed than those on the periphery. This is why there is intense competition to obtain eye-level positions on supermarket shelves. We are more likely to notice those messages that relate to our needs (benefits sought) and those that provide surprises (for example, large price reduction). (123)

So note that for Jobber first of all this is the problem which forms of marketing must address: how to get consumers to attend to a given brand, and in this consciousness is like a threshold in the intensive differentiation of attention. For Bergson, by contrast, the process of perception is always mixed with affection, memories, past and present intuition. The more complex our nervous system, in other words, the greater our capacity to affect and be affected, the wider will our perception be. Marketing attempts to limit this complexity

  1. karishma says:

    hi, my name is karishma!i really liked the whole reading…can u elaborate a bot more on jobbers notion of perception because i had difficulty in understanding it

    • amitsrai says:

      Hello. Thank you for your question. It depends on what how you define perception. Jobber uses a definition that is mostly about conscious meaning making, but in fact he shows quite clearly that what is at stake is a much broader strategy for targeting the neurologies of populations understood as a set of statistical variances. In short, we need a much broader and more robust definition of perception if we are to understand the biopolitical dimensions of marketing.

  2. Iosif-Christoforos says:

    Hello Sir, my name is Iosif-Christoforos. Could you please explain the following phrase ‘when we perceive something we subtract out what we need in order to act’ ? Does that mean we turn numb ? Our selective attention span focuses at another point when we perceive something ?
    Thank you

    • amitsrai says:

      This idea that perception is subtractive comes from Henri Bergson and F. Nietzsche. The basic idea is that the world moves quickly, has lots of heterogeneity in it, and a lot of specific detail that must be filtered out for basic human action to take place. You reach for your keys to unlock your door: you’ve done it now hundreds of times, but you don’t each time look closely at the key, you don’t examine every nook and nob of it, nor do you think twice about it looking like hundreds of other keys you’ve used in the past. For you, the most important point is that it fit in the lock and the door open. So the object key has lots of differences in it, but if each time we thought about them all it would be difficult to act. In that sense we attend most often and habitually to only what we need to act. That is why it is said that habitual perception is subtractive–it subtracts out the differences and heterogeneity of phenomenon and objects…

  3. Iosif-Christoforos says:

    Thank you

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