Up North and Down South: Spatial Metaphors Influence Consumers' Judgments

New Haven, Conn., December 3, 2009 — Maps depict northern locations to be above southern locations, and our speech commonly describes north to be above south (e.g., "up north" and "down south"). According to a study published in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of Marketing Research, the well-learned association between vertical position and cardinal direction leads people to erroneously infer that northern locations are physically above southern locations, which in turn shapes consumers’ judgments and choices.

"A lifetime of exposure to maps and metaphors linking vertical position and cardinal direction causes people to believe, quite literally, that north is uphill and south is downhill. Because of this, consumers expect northbound travel to be more onerous, more time-consuming, and costlier than southbound travel," said Joseph Simmons, assistant professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management and a fellow of the Yale Center for Customer Insights. Simmons conducted the study with Leif Nelson, assistant professor of marketing at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.

In a series of experiments, Simmons and Nelson found that people judge northbound travel to take longer and to be more difficult than southbound travel. As a consequence, people expect to pay more for northbound services than for equivalent southbound services. In one study, participants estimated that a moving company would charge 80% more to move the contents of an apartment 20 miles to the north ($1550) than the same distance to the south ($857). In another, participants estimated that it would be more expensive to ship a package to a northern city than to an equidistant southern city when given a map depicting the northern location to be above the southern location. However, when the map showed south to be above north, the effect was eliminated.

"When the belief that ‘north is up’ is disrupted, the effect of cardinal direction on consumers’ judgments is disrupted as well," said Simmons.

Marketing promotions that describe a retail location as north or south of a reference location can affect consumers’ intentions to shop there. Study participants expressed greater intent to redeem a coupon that described a store as being to the south of a reference location, presumably because southbound travel is expected to be the “easy” route. Another study showed that consumers choose to travel to southbound stores when convenience is important, for example when purchasing a routine, inexpensive item, but were indifferent to travel direction when purchasing a special, more expensive item that is worth extra effort to acquire.

"Companies targeting customers who value low prices and convenience should frame their locations to reflect a southern direction. However, retailers targeting customers who value high quality may not benefit from this strategy," said Simmons.