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Invisible Subtle Difference

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"The man has only one look, for Christ's sake! Blue Steel? Ferrari? Le Tigra? They're the same face! Doesn't anybody notice this? I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!"
Mugatu, Zoolander

The cast is trying to choose among several items that are, they insist, subtly different in some way. One character is fed up with their dithering, because as far as he or she can tell, they're all the same. Sometimes inverted, with one character insisting on a difference that nobody else perceives. Either way, and whether or not a difference actually exists, usually the audience can't see the difference.

Most commonly seen with subtle color differences, but can be anything, even identical-seeming people.

Generally Played for Laughs. Often appears with Limited Wardrobe, Evil Twin, Planet of Steves, Those Two Guys, and/or Only Sane Man. Compare and contrast Shell Game, Spot the Imposter, Needle in a Stack of Needles, and I Am Spartacus. This may be used to indicate Hyper-Awareness, or as one of the components of a Sherlock Scan.


    open/close all folders 

  • Twix's "Left Twix and Right Twix" ad campaign is filled with this trope, such as in this iteration of their website, which claims that Left Twix "is unmistakably cookie, caramel and chocolate", while Right Twix "is distinctively caramel, chocolate and cookie".

    Anime and Manga 
  • In K-On!, Sawako-sensei is able to tell that Ui is impersonating Yui because her breasts are slightly bigger.
  • Pokémon: The Series:
    • Although it's possible to tell Officer Jennys and Nurse Joys apart by the color and shape of the symbols on their hats, they otherwise look identical to one another. Brock can reliably tell them apart, but it's by traits such as slight differences in hair style or the type of perfume they use that are impossible for the audience to perceive.
    • All mons of the same variety look identical to the audience, but Pokémon trainers can distinguish their five Magnemite or other multiple individuals of the same species.
  • Ouran High School Host Club has Identical Twins Hikaru and Kaoru Hitachiin. The only one who can note the subtle differences is Haruhi Fujioka, the protagonist.

  • A well-worn gag: wife asks husband to decide between two (or more) different colors (usually, but not always, of paint for the house); husband can't tell the difference.

    Comic Books 
  • In an early MAD parody of Archie, Archie reacts angrily to a claim that Betty and Veronica are alike, claiming that they are very different. In the next panel, the two girls are drawn identically except for hair color. Their hair styles, poses, even the zits on their faces are the same.
  • The Smurfs make distinctions between two "smurf" words that all sound identical to humans. It doesn't show in most works because they're alone, but this is usually seen when Johan and Peewit are present.
  • In the Don Rosa story An Eye For Detail, Donald Duck is able to tell apart his identical triplet nephews (Huey, Dewey, and Louie). Uncle Scrooge tries to find a way to profit from this talent of Donald's. Hilarity Ensues, naturally.

    Comic Strips 
  • A variation in Beetle Bailey, where General Halftrack just wants his office painted "white," while his subordinates all insist that there are many different shades of white and that he needs to pick one particular one.

    Fan Works 
  • In one This Time Round story, it's revealed that the Mirror Universe counterpart of Bob the Muse is named ... Bob. (Otherside counterparts of authors and muses generally have names that are altered to refer to death and destruction). When the regular version of Bob hears this, he says it's like his name, but reversed.

    Film — Animation 
  • A Running Gag in Cinderella II: Dreams Come True has Cinderella being offered a choice between two different fabric colors for objects to be used in a royal banquet, with her two choices always being two different ways of saying "off-white".
  • In My Little Pony: Equestria Girls – Forgotten Friendship, Rarity is shown to have similar habits to her pony counterpart:
    Rarity: Which beach blanket should we use for the photograph?
    Rainbow Dash: You mean the white one? Or the white one?
    Rarity: [gasps] This is toasted oat and linen lamb's wool. [pointing to different blanket each time] Eggshell, warm frost, pale nimbus, and... Well, that one is white, I suppose.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • Juno uses the paint gag described under Comedy.
  • Watchmen: Ozymandias claims he can see subtle distinctions in Dr. Manhattan's face, showing his emotion, which to the average person are invisible. As he says this there's a shot of Dr. Manhattan's face, in which we see no emotion (but presumably Ozymandias can).
  • Zoolander provides the page quote: after an entire movie's worth of people gushing about Derek Zoolander's variety of "looks," one of the villains can't take it any more. It turns out there is a distinction that's not-so-subtle; at least one of them, while still visually identical to the others, bestows telekinesis.

  • Holes: The inmates at Camp Green Lake have to dig a hole every day that is as wide and as deep as his shovel. X-Ray has a personal shovel that he claims is shorter than normal so he can dig a smaller hole. To everybody else, his shovel looks the same as the others.
  • In the first Myth Adventures novel, Skeeve tells Aahz almost immediately that the Big Bad is Isstvan. Aahz blows him off with "Never heard of him." Not five minutes later Aahz speculates that the only enemy he knows of crazy enough to attempt the current scheme is Isstvan. Skeeve protests that's what he just said.
    Aahz: I said Isstvan. Can't you tell the difference?
    Skeeve: No.
    Aahz: Hmmm... must be too subtle for the human ear to detect.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Brady Bunch: The first-season episode "Kitty Carry-All is Missing." When it appears the doll is gone forever, Bobby buys her a new Kitty Carry-All. Mike and Carol try (unsuccessfully) to convince Cindy that there is no difference in the new doll and the original.
  • Babylon 5: Nobody can tell the ten Zathras brothers apart, or hear the difference in their names, but the Zathrases themselves.
  • Diff'rent Strokes: An early first-season episode, "Goodbye, Dolly," revolves around Arnold's prized doll being sold at an apartment-wide garage sale. Apparently, his mother had given it to him when he was a toddler, hence his abnormal attachment to it (it represents his mother and his connection to her), and Arnold is unable to sleep or even cope with his life after he realizes it to be missing; Drummond had absent-mindedly sold it. The trope kicks in when a private detective — unable to track down the doll's new owner — has a new one made, but Arnold immediately can tell the difference. (It is implied that Arnold eventually gets counseling and gets over the loss of the doll.)
  • Frasier: Frasier offers Roz advice on what color to repaint her house. He looks at three tile samples and proclaims them subtly different shades of off-white. Then she flips them over and advises him to look at the colored side.
  • Happy Days: Ralph and Potsie are living downstairs from a pair of twins, Daisy and Masie. Ralph thinks they look exactly the same, but Potsie says Masie has whiter teeth.
  • Home Improvement: Tim and Jill are picking out bathroom tiles. Jill insists they're different colors, Tim sees them all as white. Al, however, agrees with Jill.
  • Parks and Recreation: Tom Haverford and Jean-Ralphio are picking out black memorial ribbons. Jerry thinks they're all the same, but Tom and Jean insist they are a variety of shades, such as "Lost Soul" and Midnight Panther".
  • The Red Dwarf episode "Me2" has a scene where Rimmer is having a corridor repainted from "ocean grey" to "military grey". Lister can't tell the difference, and neither can the audience. In fact, when Lister challenges him, it turns out Rimmer isn't entirely sure which side is which himself.
  • There was a Saturday Night Live sketch about two Americans, Mike and Beverly, meeting a bizarre foreign couple (as in, an odd mishmash of Japanese and Scandinavian stereotypes), named Nooni and Nooni. Any time Mike said either name, Nooni or Nooni would immediately point out that he'd gotten them mixed up. Even though the only difference between the two names was which syllable was emphasized (and Nooni himself wasn't consistent on which name received which emphasis).
  • On Star Trek: Voyager, there are identical twin sisters, one of whom Ensign Kim likes. Tom Paris can't tell them apart.
  • In an episode of NCIS, the team is investigating a car accident that killed a navy servicemen. Abby proudly shows there was a transfer from the killer car's gray paint over the victim's car, which is also gray. She insists that it isn't the exact same shade of gray, but nobody else can tell the difference.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Played with in the Babylon 5 Collectible Card Game. Just like the TV series, there are multiple characters named Zathras that no one can tell apart ... except the players, because the card titles all have an apostrophe in a different location in the name. Needless to say, the pronunciations are identical, but the trick allows the cards to be distinguished in decklists and documentation without completely wrecking the joke.

    Video Games 
  • Pokémon:
  • In Paper Mario 64, in Peach's room, you can look at her dresses. The first time you play as her, she will insist that each one is unique, but to both the player and Twink, they all look identical to the one she's wearing.

    Web Animation 
  • RWBY: Weiss asks Ruby to pick between two tablecloths for the upcoming dance, and Ruby replies that both tablecloths look the same. Weiss then walks away complaining about Ruby being uncultured.

  • xkcd discusses it.
  • Narbonic
    • The super-intelligent gerbils are completely unable to tell each other apart. Helen, the Mad Scientist who created them, easily plucks the original out of the herd.
    • Dave can easily distinguish between Professor Madblood's fifteen thousand robotic duplicates, casually referring to them by number. This actually freaks out the robots, since they're supposed to be completely identical.
  • Skin Horse: A bomb is set to explode and can only be disabled by cutting the correct wire: unfortunately the wires are carnelian, magenta, and burgundy. Chris can tell the difference because he had been trying on lipstick earlier that day.

    Western Animation 
  • Archer: Archer is shown purchasing and bullying his butler about several identical black cardigans, which he insists are all different colors.
  • As mentioned under Comic Books, Donald Duck can tell Huey, Dewey, and Louie apart. Sometimes Scrooge McDuck can too. Usually no one else can, unless they're wearing differently colored clothes. Dewey weaponizes the confusion in the DuckTales (1987) episode "The Duck in the Iron Mask".
  • My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic:
    • "Trade Ya!": Rarity finds a vintage brooch that Applejack insists is identical to the one that Rarity is already wearing. Rarity insists the vintage one is better because it's older.
    • "The Crystalling – Part 1": While showing Shining Armor crystals and asking him to choose one for the Crystalling ceremony, Rarity mentions that she arranged them in order of purity. Fluttershy points out that they all look the same.
      Rarity: Now, I know choosing the crystal of purity is a very important decision. So I have gone through the trouble of arranging them in order from incredibly pure to outrageously pure.
      Fluttershy: Um, Rarity, don't they all sort of look the same?
      Rarity: Oh, well, to the untrained eye, perhaps.
    • "Uncommon Bond": At an antique shop, Sunburst picks up two identical-looking bricks and show them to Starlight Glimmer.
      Sunburst: Wow! What a difference between the hoof-molded bricks and the extruded ones, right?
      Starlight: Uh-huh... Ha-ha...
    • In "Honest Apple", Applejack's brutally honest opinions on fashion lead her to calling out Hoity Toity and Photo Finish when the two are arguing about which of a pair of virtually identical belts would be a better accessory with a particular outfit.
  • The Penguins of Madagascar: The lemurs need to install a cooling device on the zoo's furnace before it explodes. The device has seven colored knobs; according to Kowalski, who is giving instructions by walkie-talkie, they are red, crimson, scarlet, brick, salmon, ruby and rose. The lemurs are only supposed to turn the scarlet knob, but to them (and to us) they just look the same shade of red.
  • Phineas and Ferb episode "Oh, There You Are, Perry": Perry is forced to leave home by the agency. The boys, trying to find him, make a device that calls platypuses, and are immediately surrounded by dozens. The boys find a reason to believe none of them is Perry, even though to the viewer's eye they're exactly alike. All except for one:
    Phineas: That's just a duck with a tail taped on!
  • The Simpsons episode "Lisa the Iconoclast":
    Lisa: I'd like 25 copies on Goldenrod.
    Clerk: Right.
    Lisa: 25 on Canary.
    Clerk: Mmhmm.
    Lisa: 25 on Saffron.
    Clerk: All right.
    Lisa: And 25 on Paella.
    Clerk: OK, 100 yellow.
  • Star vs. the Forces of Evil has an entire episode revolve around this, with Star and Marco getting trapped in a photo booth as a result of Star trying to figure out why the duo's "best friend" pictures don't look like the ones they took a year ago, to Marco's exasperation. When they only have one last chance to make a good photo and escape the booth, Marco points out that only difference between the photos is that the earlier ones were from before Star admitted to having a crush on him at the end of the previous season, which he never got the courage to talk with her about in the months since.
  • Steven Universe: In "Bubbled", Eyeball doesn't believe that Steven is Rose Quartz when he shows her his Gem, claiming it's more of a pinkish red instead of a reddish pink. Steven points out that she's looking at it through his bubble, so of course it'll look pinkish. Coincidentally, Eyeball was right that it's not a Rose Quartz gem.
  • Tigtone encounters a civilization of Winged Unicorns having a bloody war against the Horned Pegasus over which faction is more beautiful. Naturally they are all identical.
  • The Venture Bros.: In "Dr. Quymn, Medicine Woman", Hank was indiscriminately interested in both of Dr. Quymn's semi-identical twin daughters, Nancy and Drew, even though he couldn't tell them apart. Dean could tell them apart, and tried to clue Hank in, but it didn't help.

    Real Life 
  • Identical twins look very similar, but their families can almost always tell who is who.
    • Identical twins often adopt distinct hairstyles or wardrobes, to prevent people from confusing them.
    • There are twin studies that indicate identical twins also develop divergent personalities (which would tend to be reflected in their choices of hair and clothing styles). Twins who grow up separately tend to develop personality traits that are much more alike than both non-twin and non-identical twin siblings who grow up separately (suggesting that there are strong genetic predispositions for many personality traits), while those who grow up together tend to develop much less similar personality traits than both non-twin and non-identical twin siblings (suggesting that the human drive to be unique generally overrides any genetic predispositions). If true, the common tendency for parents to dress and treat identical twins identically would likely reinforce the personality divergence.
  • Several forms of color-blindness are sex-linked. Ergo, on average, women can in fact distinguish more colors than men.
    • The antithesis of color-blindness, tetrachromatism (an ability to perceive finer degrees of color), is similarly more common in women.
    • It has also been determined that exposure to colors can allow people to see subtler shades. So, a person that doesn't get much exposure to them will see red and pink as the same. This is also the reason why different ethnicities will say people of other ethnicities look alike; they aren't used to seeing the differences that make them stand out and don't look for them.
  • Some audiophiles insist that they can hear a difference between music reproduction techniques which, scientifically speaking, should produce exactly the same sound. This has been known to cause flame wars.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Theyre All Orange


Sky Unicorn vs Horned Pegasus

A bloody war rages on between the sky unicorns and the horned pegasus-es, for each side believes that they are the most beautiful and that the other is hideous. Naturally, nobody else can tell the difference between the two "species".

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / InvisibleSubtleDifference

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