A stimulus is physical information we receive through our senses. Advertising stimuli can appear in a variety of forms: a window display at a local department store, the brightly colored labels on cans of Campbell’s tomato soup, or even the red price tag on a pair of skis at the Sport Chalet. These objects are all physical in nature; they stimulate our senses (with varying degrees of intensity) in ways that can be measured.
The second key element in perception is the personalized way of sensing and interpreting the stimulus data. Before any data can be perceived, they must first penetrate a set of perceptual screens, the subconscious filters that shield us from unwanted messages. There are two types of screens, physiological and psychological.
The physiological screens comprise the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. They detect the incoming data and measure the dimension and intensity of the physical stimuli.
We are limited not only by the physical capacity of our senses but also by our feelings and interests. Each consumer uses psychological screens to evaluate, filter, and personalize information according to subjective emotional standards. Advertisers face a major problem dealing with consumers’ perceptual screens. As over communicated consumers, we unconsciously screen out or modify many of the sensations that bombard us, rejecting those that conflict with our experiences, needs, desires, attitudes, and beliefs. We simply focus on some things and ignore others. This is called selective perception.
The third key element in perception is cognition: comprehending the stimulus. Once we detect the stimulus and allow it through our perceptual screens, we can comprehend and accept it. Now perception has occurred, and the stimulus reaches the consumer’s reality zone. But each of us has his or her own reality.
The mind is like a memory bank, and the stored memories in our minds are called the mental (or perceptual) files. Just as stimuli bombard our senses, information crowds our mental files in today’s over communicative society. To cope with the complexity of stimuli such as advertising, we rank products and other data in our files by importance, price, quality, features, or a host of other descriptors. Consumers can rarely hold more than seven brand names in any one file—more often only one or two.