Petrol Persuasions

A few hundred yards north of the border on the main Dundalk – Newry road, there’s a filling station that advertises itself with a sign on the approach thus:

Fill up at [I can’t remember the name]
Northern Prices!

Given that the price of petrol has been much lower in the Republic for a very long time now, either it is a very old sign, or this is some sort of pitch to the gullible and ignorant market and the unsuspecting-tourist-in-a-hired-car market.

Let’s say it’s the latter. If you asked the owner about the sign, he might claim that the Northern Prices! actually refer to the other items in the shop, of which, if you buy enough, instead of buying them and filling up in a southern petrol station, you could make the visit to the Northern petrol station worthwhile.

These items would include neither petrol nor cigarettes, but it is quite possible that, if you buy enough Lion bars and those blue drinks that look like the stuff they used to use in sanitary towel adverts, your visit to the northern petrol station will indeed be less expensive than a visit to its southern counterpart.

Of course, no-one is such a voracious consumer of Lion bars and blue drinks that they might be inclined to fill up their car there for this reason.

We can conclude, then, that the sign is a piece of trick advertising. The trick consists in making appealing suggestions that, in order to work, rely on a person’s ignorance rather than his knowledge. So, the person who knows nothing about the state of relative petrol prices sees the sign and, if he were to decide to pull in, would follow thought processes that could be described as follows:

Scenario 1:

1) Hey! northern prices! Fantastic. I’m gonna get me a bargain.


Scenario 2:

1) This place is advertising northern prices;
2) I know nothing about petrol prices, but I guess that if they’re advertising northern prices, it’s because they are lower;
3) Hang on a second: aren’t petrol prices lower in the republic?
4) Why am I such a moron that I can’t be sure about petrol prices? Isn’t it obvious that northern prices must be lower?
5) There’s no way someone would advertise northern prices unless they were lower than southern prices. And I’m an idiot for thinking otherwise.
6) I’m going in.

I would like to think that not many people would succumb to either scenario outlined above, but under certain conditions – heavy traffic, a couple of hours driving – it might not require much for plenty of people to pull in.

My concern here is not the practices of fuel traders in the border area. If this method works, I don’t see how it’s any worse than the advert that promises automatic virility on the purchase of a razor.

What interests me is how we have the potential to make choices based not on the amount of knowledge we have at our disposal, but rather, based on our own ignorance, and in particular, on the knowledge that we are ignorant, something which can be the source of shame or inadequacy. The person in the second scenario -I hope the scenario is sufficiently realistic- chooses to pull over because it means he can find release from his shame and uncertainty. He abandons doubt and submits to the message.

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September 2006

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