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A word’s meaning is often shaped by the way it sounds. A few examples will make this obvious. Take, for example, the exclamations “Wow”, “Cool”, and “Yuck”. But did you know that the way words sound can actually influence our buying decisions?

This phenomenon was described, as an aside, in an Op-Ed article by Daniel Gilbert in the New York Times. Mr. Gilbert talked about the link between what linguists call ‘short’ and ‘long’ vowels and how we subconsciously associate words with ‘smallness’ and ‘bigness’. Short vowels (like the ‘i’ in “thin”) tend to make us think of smallness and words with long vowels (like the ‘uw’ in “hoop”) connect us with a feeling of bigness. Here’s how it works in terms of how we choose what to purchase. According to Mr. Gilbert, prices that end with a short vowel will seem less expensive than prices that end with long vowels…even if their numerical value is larger. That’s phenomenal.

Gilbert describes a study where “one group was shown an ad for an ice-cream scoop that was priced at $7.66, while another was shown an ad for a $7.22 scoop. The lower price is the better deal, of course, but…shoppers who were offered the scoop at the higher price of $7.66 were more likely to buy it than those offered the price of $7.22 – but only if they’d been asked to say the price aloud.”

Isn’t it interesting that $7.66 ends with the ‘i’ sound associated with smallness and $7.22 ends with the ‘uw’ sound associated with bigness? We’ve known for sometime that colors, facial expressions, and ‘subliminals’ influence our purchasing decisions. But the fact that short and long vowels had a connection to the PayPal process? This was news to me. As a phonetician, here’s my advice: Read the price, silently, before hitting ‘submit’.