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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 24, Issue 2

Advertisers Exploit Time Illusions to Sell Products

Marketing illusions that make time fly



COURTESY OF SWATCH

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Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.
—Theophrastus (371–287 B.C.)

Ancient philosophers were far from alone in their musings about time. Playwright Tennessee Williams wrote in 1944 that time is the longest distance between two places. And the years since have proved him right. Fast travel, instant communications and express deliveries between opposite ends of the world mean, more than ever, that time is not only relative but also an illusion.

But time is also money, or so the axiom goes. Certainly both time and money are precious, exist in limited quantities and can be intimately intertwined. Have you ever longed to get away but lacked the money or time to take your ideal vacation? In our travels we have noticed that airports, surprisingly, are a favorite location for high-end watch displays. It is as if travelers commonly must decide before imminent takeoff whether to pop into the newsstand to grab some gum and a copy of Scientific American or stop by the adjoining jewelry counter for a $10,000 Rolex. Who chooses the latter? We can't, unfortunately, although we do like to window shop. Next time you do, pay special attention to the watch displays and see if you notice anything unusual. You may see how advertisers exploit the intersection of time and illusion to sell their products.

Accurate Twice Each Day

Search for the term “watch images” on your favorite Internet browser, and you'll find something bizarre. Almost every watch is set to 10:10. What belief, what powerful insight, what shared brain mechanism could cause salespeople to hock their clocks with that setting? Is it that shoppers preferentially like to make purchases just after morning tea? Or, as conspiracy theorists have suggested, because 10:10 is the hour when John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln or John Lennon was assassinated? Or when Fat Man and Little Boy burned the sky above Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Nope. All such proposals are factually incorrect.

According to the New York Times, the Hamilton Watch Company was among the first to set its products to 10:10—in the 1920s. The previous standard setting was 8:20. Some advertising executives now assume that the switch occurred to turn the watches' 8:20 “frown” upside down, into a “smile.”

But to visual neuroscientists like us, all this speculation begs the question as to why clock hands were set to oblique 8:20/10:10 positions in the first place. It seems unlikely that pre-1920 watchmakers wanted their watches to frown. One possibility is that oblique watch-hand orientations are best at keeping company logos uncovered—but, if so, horizontal positions such as 9:15 or 2:45 would be even better. Because horizontal orientations have never been popular in watch advertisement, we can rule this idea out.

Could it then be that oblique orientations result in higher watch sales than do cardinal—or vertical and horizontal—orientations? The answer may well be affirmative, and the neuroscience of perception and cognition reveals why. Scientists have long known that we can detect cardinal orientations more easily than oblique orientations. The visual cortex, moreover, responds to oblique orientations more weakly, as if they had lower contrast than cardinal orientations of the same physical brightness. In addition, fewer neurons are sensitive to oblique than to cardinal orientations. As a result, obliquely oriented watch hands are a bit more difficult for us to see.

At first, this fact may seem like bad news for marketing timepieces, especially if you think that watch hands should be as visible as possible in ads. But neuroscience tells us why it is actually a benefit. To maximize the potential for sales, you really want your customers to rivet their attention on your product—and the visual challenge of seeing the oblique position draws that attention. Visual attention has the effect of enhancing the perception of low-contrast image elements in perception. As it happens, the enhancement is most valuable when those elements are difficult to detect because attention is stronger when the object of interest is hard to see—such as watch hands that are oriented obliquely.

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