You might think you’re immune to advertising – that your decisions are entirely conscious and rational. But many of the commercials you encounter every day – on your TV, on your computer, on the street – will include psychological tactics you’re not even aware of.
They play on the mental short-cuts we use to make sense of the world.
As Richard Shotton, behavioural researcher and author of The Choice Factory, explains: “Consumers are faced with thousands of choices every day.
“If they tried to logically weigh up each decision, they’d be overwhelmed by the sheer volume and their lives would grind to a halt.
“Instead, people rely on rules of thumb that help speed up decision-making.
“These short-cuts are prone to predictable biases. For example, we assume that expensive goods are of high quality or that things in short-supply must be worth having.
“If businesses know what these biases are, they can design their products and adverts to work with human nature rather than against it.”
Here are five of the most influential ways advertisers tap into our brains’ biases:
“Anchoring is the idea that if you communicate a number, however spurious, at the beginning of a discussion, it influences the listener,” says Richard.
“Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who discovered the bias, believed that anchoring works because listeners inadvertently use any arbitrary number as a starting point for their deliberations.
“And in situations of uncertainty, the listener doesn’t adjust enough away from the anchor.”
The diamond company De Beers used anchoring to great effect in the 1930s, by suggesting to customers that they should spend a month’s salary on a ring.
“Buyers aren’t silly; they recognised that salesmen have a vested interest in suggesting exorbitant sums,” Richard explains. “But the benchmark served as a starting place for their deliberations and they didn’t adjust down enough.
“The results were staggering. People began spending lavishly. De Beers’ US diamond sales rose from $23m in 1939 to $2.1bn in 1979. Even accounting for inflation, that’s a nineteen-fold increase.
“The approach was so successful that in the 1980s De Beers updated its advice, suggesting that people should pay two months’ salary for a ring.
"Again, people recognised that sum was a little bit much, but the number acted as their anchor and they spent more.”
Social proof is the idea that, consciously or subconsciously, we copy how others behave.
“The most famous study on this bias was conducted by Robert Cialdini, Professor of Marketing at Arizona State University,” says Richard. “He ran an experiment with an American hotel chain to test which messages left in the rooms would best encourage guests to reuse their towels.
“The control message, which reminded guests of the environmental benefits, was successful among 35% of guests. In contrast, the social proof message simply stated that most people reused their towels. This version, shorn of any rational message, boosted uptake to 44%.”
Social proof works across a range of environments. The UK tax authority, for example, reduced the number of people paying their taxes late by writing on reminder letters that “nine out of 10 people in the UK pay their tax on time”, while virtually all online retailers now use customer testimonials to boost sales.
The pratfall effect
This bias was discovered in a 1966 experiment by Harvard University psychologist Elliot Aronson in which an actor was recorded answering a series of quiz questions.
“In one strand of the experiment, the actor – armed with the right responses – answers 92% of the questions correctly,” says Richard. “After the quiz, the actor then pretends to spill a cup of coffee over himself (a small blunder, or pratfall).
“The recording was played to students, who were then asked how likeable the contestant was. However, Aronson split the students into cells and played them different versions: one with the spillage included and one without. The students found the clumsy contestant more likeable.
“Aronson called the preference for those who exhibit a flaw the ‘pratfall effect’.
“It’s a counter-intuitive insight but one that has been profitably harnessed by brands as diverse as VW Beetle (Ugly is only skin deep), Stella (Reassuringly expensive) and Avis (We’re only No. 2 so we try harder).”
It works because admitting weakness can make the company sound more truthful and honest and therefore makes other claims more believable.
“The best straplines harness the trade-off effect,” Richard explains. “We know from bitter experience that we don’t get anything for free in life. By admitting a weakness, a brand credibly establishes a related positive attribute.
“Beetles might be ugly but that’s because VW care about engineering excellence, not aesthetic fripperies.”
This bias is related to anchoring. It’s the idea that consumers don’t have a fixed conception of what is good value. They don’t weigh up options thinking they’re prepared to pay one pound per unit of happiness. Instead, they consider what they have paid for something similar.
“This means price sensitivity can be tweaked by altering the competitors in the comparison set,” says Richard.
“I ran an experiment among my colleagues using King Cobra, a little-known variant of Cobra lager. It’s a strong Indian beer, with an ABV of 7.5%, and it comes in a 750ml serving, the same size as a wine bottle.
“A little subterfuge was required. I told my colleagues that we needed to run some tastings for a client. I organised two separate tastings of the beer alongside half a dozen other drinks. The participants rated the taste of the drinks on a scale from one to ten and said how much they’d be prepared to pay for each one in a supermarket.
“The twist was that in each tasting, Cobra was served alongside a different selection of drinks: in the first case, bottled beers; in the second, wines.
"The accompanying drinks had a significant effect on the amount people were prepared to pay for Cobra.
“When it was accompanied by bottled beers they offered £3.75, but when it was served with a selection of wines that figure rose, by 28%, to £4.80.”
Windows of opportunity
Many people buy habitually. Since habits are context-specific, if their environment changes, shoppers don’t stick so religiously to these habits.
This is particularly true during a major life event such as getting a new job, starting university, having a baby or getting married.
Richard and his team carried out an experiment in which they asked people about recent life events and whether they had changed brands in ten specified categories. The categories straddled a diverse range of sectors such as make-up, coffee shops, lager, broadband, mobiles and even opticians.
“The results were conclusive,” said Richard. “Consumers were more than twice as likely to switch the main brand they used if they had recently undergone a major life event.
“That’s more than an academic finding.
“Considering the range of digital data at marketers’ disposal it’s easy to identify and then reach consumers just after they have moved house or got married. By doing so, their advertising is likely to be more effective at winning other brands’ customers.”