There are plenty of people who find hidden meanings in the written word, whether they're actually there or not. Now researchers say the use of homophones -- words that sound alike -- may in fact be used to trigger specific actions by those who read them.
"We show that mentally distracted people will think of purchasing, or 'buy' when reading 'bye.' When the concept of purchasing is primed by reading 'bye,' consumers may be willing to pay more for a product or service," write authors Derick F. Davis of the University of Miami and Paul M. Herr of Virginia Tech, writing in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Their research showed that priming via a homophone elicits a predictable effect even when the connection between the homophone and the desired behavior is not obvious. For instance, when primed with the term "goodbye," a consumer may perceive they have just received a good deal, or "good buy."
The research extends to broader applications than just consumer behavior, the authors note.
"Building from these findings," they explain, "it may be possible to aid in individuals' dieting goals by having them read 'wait,' or influence how bold they feel when they read about a 'boulder.'"
The concept of priming is common in advertising, but the connection between the use of homophones and modified consumer behavior may have new application for brands as well as public policy makers.
One real-world example is the weight-loss drug Alli, which sounds like ally—one's comrade or friend in an effort. Consumers may be more likely to perceive Alli as being a helpful "ally" in their weight-loss goals.
"The relationship between word sound and word meaning may be interesting in the many areas where the written word is used to communicate meaning," the authors conclude.