As a consumer reporter for more than two decades, I’ve come to consider myself a savvy shopper. I thought I knew most of the marketing gimmicks and advertising “gotchas” and that my buying decisions were completely rational.
But after reading ‘Hidden Persuasion: 33 Psychological Influence Techniques in Advertising’ I now realize, sadly, that’s not the case.
The book, written by Dutch social psychology professors Matthijs van Leeuwen and Rick van Baaren and visual design art director Marc Andrews, lays out clever techniques used in advertising, packaging and websites that are designed to get you to buy.
Hidden Persuasion is a graphic romp that’s both eye candy and eye opening. You’ll never look at an ad, an online shopping site or product packaging the same way again. One of my favorites from the book: The three “e’s” on Heineken bottles are slanted backwards, designed to be smiling at you so you’ll be more inclined to buy them.
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I spoke to van Leeuwen, an assistant professor of Social Influence and Persuasion at the Radboud University of Nijmegen, to learn more about these sly tactics and how we can avoid falling for them and spending money on items we don’t really need.
Here’s an edited excerpt of our conversation:
Next Avenue: Why did you write this book?
van Leeuwen: Consumers have a lot to gain in understanding how they’re influenced. They see ads, but believe they can resist because they believe the only tricks used are the smiling faces, the humor and/or the persuasive arguments made to sell a product.
But there are many social-influence techniques that affect consumers unconsciously. By informing consumers about these techniques, we hope they will be better able to defend themselves the next time they see them being used.
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What do you mean by “social-influence” techniques?
The ones we talk about in the book are based on psychology, not marketing. They are appealing to humans as if we are automatons. And the truth of the matter is we often function as machines, basically operating unconsciously so much of the time, automatically making choices that we don’t always understand why we did what we did.
These techniques, done correctly, trigger this unconscious behavior. We already know many of them, but what we don’t know is how they affect our buying decisions.
Can you give me some examples?
The most prevalent, of course, is sex appeal. If you can give people the feeling that using a certain product will enhance their chances to have sex, people want that product. The techniques are very subtle, but they affect our brain.
For example, cologne for men. The ads suggest that if you use it, you’ll have tons of women attracted to you. We laugh it off, but the strong association is lodged in our brain that using this will enhance our chances for sex. So maybe the next time you see that product, you’ll unconsciously think that, and buy it. Sex appeal works the same way for diet/slimming products.
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Do you have a favorite technique?
Yes. The psychological refund-guarantee technique: If you’re not satisfied with a product, you’ll get your money back. The guarantee implies that no matter what a customer does, he or she cannot lose. It removes any skepticism about a purchase as well as any reluctance to buy. A guarantee implies that a product is high quality, even if it’s not.
The problem here is that many companies have made it excruciatingly hard for customers to obtain their guaranteed refund, imposing such high hurdles that many don’t seek a refund.
What about anthropomorphism, making products likeable by giving them human attributes? For example, the World Wildlife Fund’s ads showing animals with human traits.
This technique is very successful because we really feel for animals. We don’t attribute evilness or bad intentions to them, but we think of them like innocent children.
It’s also a great way to promote inanimate objects such as cars. By putting a human face or characteristic on them, consumers feel an immediate connection, an empathy that bonds them to a product.
You also mention the "foot-in-the door" approach that begins with a small request, which then paves the way for bigger requests in the future. Video games and apps are sometimes marketed as “free” but then you need to pay to get the most out of them.
Yes, this works amazingly well. People are always afraid of making the wrong purchase, so the “foot-in-the-door” approach encourages people to try a product first. This assures them they won’t be throwing their money away.
It also builds a commitment for a product, so once a user downloads, say a calendar app, plays with it, likes it and really starts using it, he won’t want to give it up. Instead, he’ll gladly pay a fee to continue and use its enhanced functions.
It’s the same with video games: you draw players in, have them play a few levels for free for fun, then at the third level, you have to pay. And you will, because you’re into it.
Yes, Candy Crush taught me that lesson very well.
You do it because you don’t want to quit and you want to get better. It’s all about getting involved and creating a commitment.
Is this tactic becoming more prevalent?
Yes, absolutely. A few years back, we saw very little of the “foot-in-the-door” marketing. Now, it’s huge and growing exponentially.
It’s all psychological: the moment you download something for free, you think ‘It’s mine.’ And that makes it much easier to invest in something you already have.
How should people guard against this?
Consumers should realize nothing is free. So if you see an app that says it’s free, it probably means there’ll be a means of getting you to pay later.
You can always check before downloading an app, to see if it says there are “inApp” purchases — that’s a sign you’ll be asked to pay more as you go.
The other online technique you cite that I’ve fallen for is the “scarcity” tactic — like when airlines scare you into buying by saying ‘One seat remaining at this price.’ I thought phrases like that were legitimate, but your book suggests otherwise.
Absolutely. A lot of companies use this technique and get away with it, sometimes by using half-truths to create anticipated regret, a fear that we’re about to miss out on a really good deal.
Hotel booking sites, for example, may buy up only a certain amount of hotel rooms from a hotel. So perhaps that site only has two rooms left, but that doesn’t mean there are no rooms left at that hotel at that same price. Or the rooms listed are on one computer system; more are listed on another.
I travel a lot and use online booking sites and get tricked all the time. I get really stressed, when I see, ‘Two minutes ago somebody else was looking at this room’ or ‘A room at this hotel was booked five minutes ago.’ That makes me feel like, ‘Damn, everybody is looking at this hotel. It’s a good deal and everybody wants it. I’ve got to get this room right now.’
Any advice on how to guard against this?
That’s hard because I know better and I still get stressed out making hotel bookings.
You have to realize that these statements might not be true and that there will always be more deals.
On the Internet, there’s always a new deal coming. One of these rooms might be gone, but the next time you check, there might be two rooms available. It’s never as bad as they say.