How to Hit a Copywriting Home Run With Perceptual Contrast


Have you ever watched a baseball player on deck to bat next? You’ll notice that batters often place a weighted ring around the bat while doing warm-up swings.

Why? When the player steps up to the plate, the bat feels relatively lighter. This helps the batter swing faster when a hot fastball comes blazing down the middle.

It doesn’t matter that the bat isn’t really lighter. From a psychological standpoint (which is where world-class athletes leave average players behind), the batter feels like he has a stronger, faster swing. That mental edge makes a difference.

This phenomenon is known as perceptual contrast. Human beings naturally perceive things in comparison to other things, which means everything we mentally process is a relative assessment. Perceptual contrast is an effective persuasion technique because a skillful copywriter can literally alter the way a prospective buyer perceives a product or service, even though there’s been no actual change to the offer.

So how can you use it to boost your own sales?

In the book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, the authors share a real-world example. A company selling high-end hot tubs at $15,000 a pop heard from customers that having the tub was like adding another room to the house. The company incorporated that bit into their sales messages, and contrasted the price of the tub with the cost of a room addition (which runs at least $30,000).

Sales increased by 500%.

Here’s another perceptual contrast technique. Social psychologists have found that the relative amounts of information provided about two different offerings can influence how people feel about the second offer. In other words, when a small amount of information was revealed about Product A just before discussing Product B in detail, test subjects had a higher opinion of Product B than if Product A was also discussed at length or if there was no Product A at all.

For example, say you’re doing an affiliate promotion in an email or blog post. Rather than simply focusing on the product you’re specifically recommending, talk briefly about a competing product. You don’t have to trash talk the other product, you just have to mention it first and then go into an extensive review of the product you’re really trying to sell.

Perceptual contrast should do it’s magic and increase sales in comparison to a review that didn’t mention the other product. Give it a try.

Have you used perceptual contrast in your sales and marketing messages? Tell us about it in the comments.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Twitter.

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Reader Comments (28)

  1. says

    Good idea. I have not used that strategy before and will try it.

    It is similar to a sales technique I used to teach–only difference was that we gave the customer a choice between two options which usually resulted in a sale once we defined and cleared up any objections.

  2. says

    Interesting. This reminds me of the Dan Gilbert TED video on happiness I recently rewatched, where having a single choice that you can’t change makes you happy – but weighing too options a long time, in depth makes you less satisfied with the one you chose (same as too detailed Product A vs detailed Product B).

  3. says

    I’ve used perceptual marketing in wedding photography packages. I wanted to sell $11,000 wedding photography packages so I created two packages priced at $25,000 and $16, 400. By comparison, $11,000 seems reasonable.

  4. says

    “Yes!” is an awesome book, I haven’t finished it yet, but the greatest example so far is that the “Don’t steal our petrified wood” increases theft higher than if there was no sign at all…

    It’s so frustrating in forums to see people give advice based on what they “think” instead of having actually tested, since their opinions are basically a coin-flip.

  5. says

    Thank You, Brian!

    I’ve spent 5 hours on my very first squidoo lens, writing and rewriting my brains out. But I’m just not happy with it. This post has saved my butt (Can I say “ass” here?) and given me a solid direction to pursue. Copyblogger Rocks! By the way, have you seen the movie, Finding Forrester? Like Copyblogger, it inspires me to write. You’re the crusty old man that Sean Connery plays. (Can I joke around here?) Please take that as a compliment. That movie would help make a good post!

    ~ John Cannon

  6. says

    In politics, candidates spend a good part of their campaign contrasting themselves with their opponent. The challenge they face is in preventing the process of contrasting from becoming their primary message.

    A lot negativity these days is the result of writers and politicians who’ve internalized the contrasting message and made it central to their message.

    When used sparingingly the method works wonder. It is very tempting to over do it.

  7. Brian Killian says

    The same principle is at work in the advice that Dan Kennedy gives about comparing apples with oranges, for example comparing the price of some expert knowledge (like an ebook) to the cost of education that the expert paid to become an expert.

    $97 doesn’t look so bad next to $97,000.

  8. says

    Hi Brian,

    So to clarify, is it okay to be “objective” when describing Product A (and therefore comment on some short-coming of that product)?

    For example, would this scenario be appropriate: I casually mention that Product A looked excellent and did the job well. However, it didn’t have such and such a feature, which I desperately wanted or needed. After some searching, I came across Product B which did have such and such a feature. And it also had all these other great features… [Enter sales copy Stage Right.]

    So you are never trash talking the competition — in fact you are praising it in a way because you recognize the value of Product A and the problems it solves. It’s just that Product B does the job so much better…


  9. says

    Graham, yes… in fact, I think it’s important to be objective. The only bias you show is the amount of information you provide about Product B compared to Product A.

  10. says

    For whatever reason, I thought of Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, which had similar information at different points. Whatever the case, looks like there’s something there if you’re thinking about it and I’m thinking about it.

    Now, if only I had a way to test it. : )

  11. says

    This is a great article, I’ve only just discovered Copyblogger, always brilliant tips! Equating a baseball player with a world-class athlete though? Oops that was off-topic… sorry, it’s early in the morning.

  12. says

    That is really something to think about. I can’t think of any of my own experiences off hand where this has been applied. I am sure it has and I will give it some thought. I will also try this with affiliate marketing.

  13. says

    If I recall accurately, this also works with pos/neg information. A slight acknowledgment of negative information followed by positive information is more persuasive.

    So consider companies who try to astroturf– they just end up rendering themselves less credible and easily ignored. We saw this a lot on

    @Chris I thought of “Influence” by Cialdini.

    Currently reading “Nudge” by Thaler and Sunstein which suggests applications that leverage our little irrationalities to solve social problems.

  14. says

    Perceptual contrasting absolutely works. I used it when I was doing sales for Cutco Cutlery in college. Our set of kitchen knives were very expensive — around $800 for the top set.

    During the presentation, I bring up examples of things that cost a lot of money like we used the same rivets as on a space shuttle, bowling bowl handle, expensive process of heating and cooling the blade. When I get down to the price of the set, the customers don’t even blink. I sold a ton of steel this way.

    Tycoon Dreamer

  15. says

    I haven’t used perpetual contrast but I saw an example of it being used this evening when I was reading my email.

    In fact, as I was reading this post I figured the guy must have been reading this post because he nailed it down. I’m definitely going to try this one.

  16. says

    Very insightful post Brian. Great example about the baseball player, being a former college athlete I know my coaches always stressed the power of visualization techniques. The more you perceive something to be true the more likely you are going to bring it into existance. As a marketer by positioning your product strategically in a consumers mind you have the ability to suggest and alter their perceptions, even if nothing has really changed…Psychology is a great thing! I will definately try your perceptual contrast technique in the near future. Great seeing you again in Vegas

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