Ian Pullen

Perception is Reality

“There is no truth.
There is only perception.”
– Gustave Flaubert
Remember “The Dress?”

(Before you ask, yes this is the original photo above, unretouched in any way and reproduced with permission from the creator, Cecilia Bleasdale.)

It’s been seven years since a British mom, Cecelia Bleasdale, snapped this photo of a dress she planned to wear to her daughter’s wedding. 

Her daughter then posted it on Facebook, asking friends to “help her out” by posting whether they saw the dress as white and gold or black and blue. 

Chaos ensued. 

A musician in the wedding band, which almost didn’t make it on stage because of disagreement over the dress color, re-posted it on her Tumblr account, asking the same question. 

Before long, the debate went viral. 

Within half a day, the Tumblr post had over 5,000 comments. By nightfall, it had hit 50,000. And was getting 840,000 views per minute. (That’s 14,000 views per second).  

BuzzFeed got hold of the story and ran a poll. Within hours, over 673,000 viewers were simultaneously hitting the page. Twitter, meanwhile, was so clogged with dress commentary, it crashed, after getting 11,000 tweets per minute labeled “#TheDress.” 

The Washington Post dubbed it “The drama that divided the planet.” Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and Laday Gaga weighed in on team “blue and black.” Kim Kardashian, Kay Perry, and Ellen DeGeneres stepped up for “white and gold.”

(Ah, for simpler times, right?)

Politicians, neuroscientists, and news commentators debated it on TV. Alex Jones wore the dress on talk show program. And it started showing up in cheeky ad campaigns. 

Women, said one researcher, are more likely to see it as white and gold. No, said another, it’s early risers who will see it that way, while night owls will see it as blue and black. no, said others, it depends on what you’re using to view the photo. Or whether you work a lot near open windows. Wait, said still more, that dress is clearly blue and brown. 

No, say the dressmakers at “Roman Originals,” it is absolutely… without question… blue and black. Because those are the colors we used to make it.

So what gives?

And more importantly, what does that all mean?

I’ll leave you to reignite the debate with your pals. There is, though, a greater lesson here for marketers and persuaders.

Simply put, it’s that persuasion begins with perception. 

Meaning, that you cannot begin to convince anybody of anything without first understanding how they see the world. 

Further, you have to allow they might not see it as you do. And, more importantly, that perception might be immutable. 

You could, sure, rack your brains over why anybody would be stupid and blind enough to see the dress as blue or black or white or gold. You could write treatise after treatise convincing them otherwise. And you, not they, would be the fool.

Some wiser commentators of the day and since then have called that phenomenon, “positivity bias.”

Translation: We each see what we see. And so do your customers. It stands to reason, then, that you have to first establish a baseline for those inflexible beliefs. And then use that as your persuasive foundation.

Anything else is wasted effort. 

Does that mean a prospect’s mind can never change? No, because not all beliefs are the same. Some actually can be shifted, and in the direction of a buying decision that you hope they’ll make. 

The difference between those fixed beliefs and flexible ones is desire. That is, there are certain things we just believe are true, based on our experience or what we want out of the world. 

And there are others we believe but wish weren’t true. Like things about ourselves or where we are in life.

I wish, for instance, it was possible to drop these extra 15 lbs. Or to get more done. And to get to sleep earlier. But it doesn’t seem to be. Can you convince me otherwise? Then please do.

To sum up, I’ll take no position on the dress myself. Let it live in the realm of other impossible-to-settle-yet-vital debates, like Democrat vs. Republican, pineapple on pizza, or whether the toilet paper should spool out over or under the roll.

What’s undeniable, though, is that beliefs matter. Perception matters. And, as Andy Warhol once said, often supersedes reality. Worth remembering before you build your next attempt to persuade.