Caveat emptor - beware when buying!

Reflections for 2015 and what peacocks can teach us about sales leaflets

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As many of us unwind at the end of a busy year, we turn attention to those jobs which we often don't have time for in the hurly-burly of life. It could be sorting out the house or flat, catching up with friends or buying those things that need a bit of concentrated time to consider. In my case, it was all three but it is the last one that I would like to consider here.

My fifteen-year old son had reminded me more than once that this was the period when his mobile phone could be upgraded and since he told me - woeful reflection on these times! - that his £20.00 a month handset was the most basic in his year, I was under mounting pressure to do something. Fortunately, I had stored a leaflet from my telephone and broadband provider advertising deals on mobile phones to broadband customers. In bright, technicolour, the message showed images of three smartphones, with the words 'Exclusive mobile deals to smile about' above the images, and the message 'from £5 a month' below the phones. Something between £5 and £20 would have been fine and since my son said that one of three phones, the SonyXperia Z3, would be fine I was sure that I was minutes away from ticking this off my 'to do' list.

On telephoning the company – a Herculean task given the lack of a phone number and a voice-activated system that fails to recognise all the selected options - you discover that the Sony model is available at £32.50 a month. Could there be a mistake since this is six times the advertised ‘from £5.00’ on the leaflet? Conversations with supervisors confirmed the price and so one was left wondering whether the sole purpose of the these words was to prompt the unsuspecting buyer into making contact, even if that process needs a Diploma in telephony to complete.

So this experience gives one pause to consider the psychological techniques used in the selling process and the need to beware the seller - 'caveat emptor' - often because buyers have less information about the good or service they are purchasing, while the seller has more. This is called information asymmetry and in our enthusiasm to buy something, we should always spend time asking questions, at the risk of appearing overly fussy. Once the deal is done on a mobile phone, you are stuck with your contract for a fixed period of time with the words 'Act in haste, repent at leisure' ringing in your ears.

Well, the peacock, like the mobile phone operator, takes a big risk in advertising its presence to potential mates through a display of brightly coloured features that can equally well land it in the soup if spotted by a predator and the mobile phone operators likewise sail perilously close to infringement of the Trades Descriptions Act 1968 which criminalises traders making false or misleading statements about goods or services.

Then, of course, there is the question of the display itself. Peacocks, as we know, impress potential mates with an array of eyespots and believe it or not, there is a threshold number below which females won't look at certain males. What is more, Jessica Yorzinski, a biologist at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, has found that when in close proximity to the peacock, peahens focus their gaze on the lower part of the peacock’s train.

The explanation? According to Yorzinski whose theories were published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in 2013, the peacock's upper train may help females spot males across long distances, since in India, where peacocks are typically found, thick vegetation could obscure everything except the top part of the males' display of feathers. Once found, the birds can have a close encounter and the females, as Yorzinski discovered, will look back and forth at the lower part of the train, an action Yorzinski suggests reveals the width of the male's train and with that, information about his age (a young male won't have as big a train as a more mature one) as well as fitness with a symmetrical train correlating with a superior immune function and other factors linked to providing healthy offspring.

So, do not be fooled by the enticing colours, shapes and detail in mobile phone leaflet – after all the peacock is doing the same and using bright colours and rounded shapes that I have found have massive appeal to females. Instead, follow the peahens’ practice of scrutinising in detail the offer in detail the offer available. Caveat emptor will see you through a successful and happy 2015!

Gloria Moss PhD FCIPD is Professor of Marketing and Management at Buckinghamshire New University and author of book ‘Why men like straight lines and women like polka dots’ can be obtained from here She advises companies on making the most of the new science of perception and more information is available at


Gloria Moss

Professor, Buckinghamshire New University