TM&Th blog
Jean-luc Doumont
Lies, damned lies, and visual lies

In Hemispheres—the in-flight magazine of United Airlines—
I recently spotted yet another perfect example of a visual lie,
in an ad for United's Economy Plus annual option, giving you
“up to 5 inches of extra legroom” in a dedicated seating area.
With standard aircraft seats typically placed 32 inches apart,
5 inches represent an increase of roughly 15% in seat pitch.
The “side-by-side comparison” displayed in the ad, however,
emphasizes the difference between Economy and Economy Plus
by means of two line segments superimposed on a photograph
(see below), with the red segment for Economy Plus 45% longer
than the gray segment for standard Economy. That's three times
the actual increase in seat pitch between the two seating areas.
In other words, this visual comparison is by no means truthful.

Screen shot

While the photograph may show the truth, the segments do not.
Why not? Because of the perspective in the photograph, but also
because the red and gray segments do not start and end exactly
at the same reference points on the seats shown left and right.
What the human eye will most probably compare quantitatively,
however, is the relative length of the two line segments—a lie.

The United Web site (united.com) shows a similar issue (below).
Again, the picture emphasizes the difference between Economy
and Economy Plus through two line segments, with in this case
one segment more than twice as long as the other! While these
segments might not be meant to represent seat pitch directly,
viewers will likely be influenced by this comparison of lengths.
What is worse, the spacing of the seats in the picture suggests
a seat pitch 38% larger in Economy Plus compared to Economy,
or 2.5 times the true 15%—and this is indisputably a visual lie.

Screen shot

Visual exaggeration is defensible in cartoons, such as the one
below, touting Economy Plus in the same issue of Hemispheres.
In drawings clearly meant to convey the actual pitch difference,
such as the two above, it is not—and no amount of legal copy
can correct the erroneous visual perception of this difference.

Screen shot

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