U.S. News

Vowel Sounds Influence Consumers' Price Perceptions

Alex Mindlin|The New York Times

Researchers have known for 80 years about a symbolic connection between speech and size: back-of-the-mouth vowels like the “o” in “two” make people think of large sizes, whereas people associate front-of-the-mouth vowels like “ee” with diminutiveness.

Sharon Lorimer

Marketers can use this effect to make consumers think a discount is bigger or smaller than it truly is, according to a study soon to be published in The Journal of Consumer Research by Keith Coulter of Clark University and Robin Coulter of the University of Connecticut.

In one experiment, researchers told consumers the regular and sale prices of a product, asked them to repeat the sale price to themselves, and then, a few minutes later, told them to estimate the size of the discount in percentage terms. Products with “small-sounding” sale prices (like $2.33) seemed like better deals than products with “big-sounding” sales prices (like $2.22).

In another experiment, the researchers used a pair of sale prices — $7.88, which sounds “big” in English, and $7.01, which sounds “small” — but are the other way around in Chinese. Chinese and English speakers had opposite perceptions of the products’ relative value.

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