Our sense of balance was refined while we were still dwelling in trees on the African Savannah around 6m years ago and not that much has changed in our inner ear since. Eventually we came down from the trees in search of more food and wound up in an environment that we, as quadrupeds, were unable to take full advantage of; the tall pampas grass offered good cover for predators and concealed food and potential mates.
That is when we took one of the most important steps for humanity; we began to rise up on our hind legs. Starting in short bursts of standing, over several generations we began to walk on them continuously, evolving longer and straighter legs to optimise energy use; a recent study at the University of Arizona found that chimps, walking on all fours, use 75 per cent more energy than humans.
While standing upright offered us access to a wider range of food and mates, walking on two legs did – and still does – requires more balance. Our balance organs, because they are left over from our quadruped days, work best when the head is tipped forwards around thirty degrees. This means that in modern day terms, the average human being has to fight the urge to look down while walking to avoid tripping over or stepping on things. And because of this instinct, we respond far more readily to the things we see below eye level than the things we see above it. In the UK the average human is around 168cm tall, or about the height of a small fridge freezer, meaning that the area of most effect will be around 160cm downwards.
Obviously we can still see signs that are above our heads, but because we have to physically move to look for them we pay far less attention. This is why overhead signs are often best used for things we actively look for, such as aisle labels. The most successful advertising is that taking place at eye level or just below it. But while labels on the ground are easily spotted, they aren’t always practical due to wear and tear and because if a customer is concentrating on the ground they aren’t easily taking in anything else.
Eye level isn’t the same for every species. Rabbits, for example, as ground-dwelling herbivores, need to pay the most attention to what is above them as the majority of their predator threat comes from hawks and other flying predators. This means that in a rabbit supermarket, the most effective signs would be hanging from the ceiling. On the other hand, in a hawk supermarket all of the signs would be floor-based.
So what can you do to take advantage of this evolutionary trait? The most obvious thing is moving your products around; the key spots are just below eye level. If you’re using this prime space for basic-brand products and store signage, you may want to think again. If you want to make sure your signage is effective, you can do worse than watch your customers – checking where their attention naturally falls is often a quick way to judge how successful your placement is.
Although obviously we all make many shopping decisions independently, it’s surprising how much influence the little prehistoric balance system in our ear has over where we look.
This is just one marketing trick that exists to seduce consumers into spending more than intended, but with every part of a store fashioned to make you purchase more goods, it’s no wonder we often fall into quite a few traps.
Phillip Adcock is the founder of the research agency Shopping Behaviour Xplained.
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