They tell you to save money, but they didn’t tell you to be aware of manipulative advertising designed to take your money, did they?
Asked about the power of advertising in research surveys, most agrees that it works, but not on them – Eric Clark, journalist and author
Every day, you are bombarded with thousands of ads. Some are just for awareness. Some of them are funny and creative. But some of them are manipulative advertising, intentionally using your own psychology against you. You may not realise it working – and, like the quote above, may even be in denial about it – but believe me, it works.
The book Hidden Persuasion: 33 Psychological Influence Techniques in Advertising by psychologist, art director and designer Marc Andrews and social psychologists Dr. Matthijs van Leeuwen and Prof. Dr. Rick van Baaren did a wonderful job in uncovering most, if not all, of the techniques used by companies, organisations, governments and their advertising agencies to persuade you into buying into their product, service or message.
In this article, I have picked out 10 such practices which I thought was especially manipulative so you can identify them yourself in your day-to-day life. You can find 12 more in this WIRED article, great for further reading. It is my hope that once you see the practices IRL, you cannot unsee it.
Special thanks to Mimie from Malaysian Youth Mental Health Initiative (MINDAKAMI) for gifting me the book 🙂
#1 – Foot-in-the-door
Beginning with a small request paves the way for compliance to a bigger request. Asking for a big favour at once often leads to resistance; starting with a small, related request greatly increases the success rate.
This is the tactic those donation booths like to use.
First, they’ll ask you to sign a petition to show your support for children education or whatever (which monster wouldn’t sign, right?)
Then, they’ll ask if you’d like to make monthly donations, because obviously you are someone who cares about the issue. They are armed with sales scripts to counter any excuse you can give. The only method that works is to maintain a firm ‘No’.
Important: I’m okay with donation drives, especially for good causes. But I hate this ‘trap’ that they intentionally set up.
#2 – Promised land
Buy this product and get to the Promised Land. It inspires people, even when they know that the promise is exaggerated or unrealistic. Even unachievable desires are strong motivators for human behaviour.
These are products that simply over-exaggerate their claims, to the point of humourous. For example, they might imply you’ll be irresistible to the opposite sex by using their products (perfume, deodorant, alcohol, etc). They might also be products that promise quick results with minimal efforts (weight loss treatments).
The part I don’t like here is how blatantly they exploit basic human desires – to be loved and wanted. They also tend to feature sexist ads where sexually attractive women are the ‘reward’.
#3 – Astroturfing
Fake social proof is used to create an impression of popular support. People have an innate drive to copy others’ decisions and behaviour. While people are sensitive to any majority opinion, groups that are similar or physically close have a greater impact. Young people are particularly sensitive to the effects of social proof.
Many of us ask for product and service recommendations from friends, family and online community – a form of social proof. Astroturfing is the practice where one intentionally misleads their audience by showing fake social proof.
Our politicians may or may not use this service. Who can say 🙂
It’s not just buying likes. You can buy reviews as well. More about this in Online Shopping in Malaysia: My Quest to Find REAL Recommendations & Good Products
#4 – Attractiveness
“It is amazing how complete the delusion that beauty is goodness.” (Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata). When one understands what is universally considered attractive, it can be almost faultlessly implemented in any campaign.
Why don’t companies use Malaysian/Asian models instead of Caucasian models? Why don’t they feature more plus-size or short or dark-skinned ones?
…Because, unfortunately, many people still benchmark attractiveness to Western standards of beauty (whether they know it or not), and using conventionally (read: Western-looking) models are more profitable.
I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying the practice should continue. I’m saying, in cutthroat businesses like fashion, I completely understand why a business might want to stick with what works rather than experiment with what may not work.
#5 – Scarcity (the worst manipulative advertising IMO)
If it is hard to get, people want it more. Scarce products are more attractive than non-scarce products. People strive for a sense of freedom, and scarcity is a threat to people’s freedom of choice. When you are made to imagine how you would feel if you could not by a product, it makes you like the product more.
Ah, the scarcity tactic, the one I hate the most.
It comes in many forms. Limited edition. Countdown timers. ‘Today only’. Only 1 left. ‘Get it fast before its gone’. Only 300 in the world.
You’ve seen this at all shops, both online and offline. All of them are designed to encourage you to make a fast purchasing decision. Sometimes they even lie about it, they have more in stock, but you don’t know that. As long as they get the sale, who cares.
#6 – Decoy
When consumers are choosing between two similar products, introducing a decoy can push people towards the outcome of direction. The decoy must be presented subtly as the least-favoured option.
You’ve probably seen a lot of decoy pricing in real life. Yes, sometimes the super expensive/not value-for-money option is just there for you to quickly dismiss it, therefore choosing the other option (that they wanted you to take).
This is a really good example of decoy pricing.
#7 – That’s not all
Spontaneously offering a discount or offering free extras before the sales pitch is even over. The recipient should not have an opportunity to respond to each extra offer. Offering is continued until the presentation is finished. For maximum effect, the final ‘bonus’ should be particularly desirable.
If you’ve watched infomercials, you’ll know how this tactic works.
First, they’ll promote an item for RMxxx. Then, THAT’S NOT ALL, you’ll also get a discount. But THAT’S NOT ALL, its free delivery! Also THAT’S NOT ALL, you also get this free item worth RMxx! Wait not yet, THAT’S NOT ALL, you’ll get TWO sets instead of one!
I’m not saying you (or your parents) shouldn’t buy from GoShop. I’m just saying you should be aware of this tactic, because it’s a formula proven to work.
#8 – Reciprocity
Receiving a gift creates the social obligation to return it. A gift can be anything: coupons, bonus points, special discounts or something exclusive. The more people feel that the gift is a personal favour from the giver, the bigger the return.
Look, I like the coupons and discounts too. But I do NOT like when the gifts become exclusive, almost like a bribe.
Anyone working in the PR industry can attest to this – it is very common to send gift packages to members of the media and influencers, as part of ‘relationship building‘. In the future, they are more likely to speak favourably of the company, thus influencing their audience. Many of the products and services that get press coverage without paying for the ad space, got it thanks to this particular tactic.
Personally, I don’t like this practice and have been actively refusing gifts where I can. I simply don’t like feeling like I owe someone.
#9 – Authority
People or symbols that signify legitimate authority trigger compliance and obedience. A fit between the message and the authority figure used is essential. Subtle visual stimuli suggesting status, expertise and authority can trigger the visual heuristic effectively.
You might think that these are easy to spot, but they’re not as obvious as lifestyle influencers encouraging the use of skin whitening products or harmful ‘health’ supplements to their audiences. Those are bad, but what is far more dangerous is when the expert who gives recommendations and advice are someone who is respected in their fields. Remember, it was not that long ago that doctors ‘recommended’ cigarettes!
What’s the key lesson here? Never blindly trust anyone, no matter how much authority they seem to command.
#10 – Doublespeak
“War is peace! Freedom is slavery! Ignorance is strength!” (George Orwell, 1984). It is used to frame failure or bad outcome as good news or positive outcome. Doublespeak is often ingrained in our daily language that we do not even detect it.
That book made such an impact to me, I included doublespeak as one of the key concepts in the [PERSONAL] 7 Mind-Blowing Concepts That Shaped My Personal Finance Mindset article
Doublespeak is truly around us. The government justifying the usage (and wastage) of public funds. Making a crappy service like Buy Now, Pay Later sound good (see below). They’re all examples of doublespeak.
Do you recognise these manipulative advertising practices in real life?
Important: not all advertising is manipulative advertising. The other 20+advertising tactics listed in the book Hidden Persuasion: 33 Psychological Influence Techniques in Advertising contains wonderfully creative ways of highlighting the brand, product, services and message from companies, organisations and governments.
However, 10 is NOT a small number, and I did emit out a couple of other manipulative advertising tactics which I felt is too similar to the ones listed above. For example, Sex Sells is very similar to Attractiveness in #4, and Door-in-the-Face (where you intentionally ask people for a big favour before following up with a small one, thus increasing conversion) is somewhat similar to Foot-in-the-Door in #1.
In any case, I hope these 10 examples of manipulative advertising can be a starting point in your media literacy journey. I don’t know about you, but I am sick of Malaysians being told to use willpower alone to save money, as if environmental cues which influence our behaviours do not exist.
I’ll stop here. Tell me your experiences with manipulative advertising, if any. Would love to have more examples in Malaysian context.
Read more: Why We Can’t Stop Spending Money