Subtle Marketing Tricks We Fall For Every Time

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“Would you look at that? Buy one, get one free AND no shipping fees! Quite silly to pass up, no?”

I have exclaimed a similar statement more times than I can count to my husband, my sister, my mom, whoever was ready to hear and join me in catching the latest and greatest deal. Saving money is a wonderful thing (even if that means spending it). Or is that contradictory? Perhaps I am a marketer’s dream…

Recently, I joined a group on social media that alerts shoppers to online shopping deals. Thousands of shoppers, mostly women, keep tabs on the group, waiting for posts that share lightning deals, deals of the day, promotion codes, and more. Day in and day out, we fall into tempting sales and keep the economy rolling one purchase at a time.


The Science Behind Marketing

None of this is by chance. There is an entire science behind this kind of subtle marketing. Mentions of discounts and upgrades, strategic menus, and product placement are just the beginning! The rabbit hole is deep, with vast benefits for companies. A lot of time and energy is spent understanding consumer behavior. It is tracked and studied; then, the data is used to further expand and market more effectively.

Ari Zelmanow, PhD, a consumer psychologist and researcher, says, “Studying consumer behavior helps businesses improve their marketing strategies by understanding issues such as: how consumers think, feel, reason, and select between different alternatives (e.g., brands, products); the environmental impact on consumer behavior; consumer behavior while shopping and in context; [and] how marketers can adapt and improve their marketing campaigns and marketing strategies to more effectively reach the consumer.” It’s a practice of engaging people, watching how they react, and responding accordingly.


At the heart of it, marketing builds a relationship between a person and a product. The goal is to create buy-in and allow that investment to naturally lead to a sale. Furthermore, when a person so deeply believes in a product or service, they commit long-term. The relationship, in turn, drives sales.

So although we all know when we are being “tricked” by a marketing scheme, our innate desire to be in a relationship keeps us coming back for more. Experience after experience promotes a deeper relationship, and from that, trust—trust in a company or product leads shoppers to not question sales tactics. It’s a tried and true cycle, which is why marketers play such a key role in the business of sales.

Marketing Trickery

Understanding how people think is the fuel behind marketing tricks. Zelmanow says that businesses are eager to understand “the why” behind shoppers and their purchases, because, of course, once they have a handle on that, they can play into our weaknesses and desires, as well as plant “tricks” that we will fall for every time (tricks like free shipping, the one I fall for every time).


When it ships for free, consider it bought!

Amanda Austin, founder and president of Little Shop of Miniatures, an online store, shares, “One tactic I use in my online store is to calculate the average order and then make the free shipping threshold a bit higher than that to get people to add one more item in their cart. I then have a bar along the top of my site that tells people they only have to spend ‘$X more to get free shipping.’” Through this tactic, Austin, and countless other businesses, increase their average sales.


Last week, I actually caught a thread on social media where reader after reader admitted to falling for free shipping, even on items they didn’t feel they absolutely needed. The promise of free shipping convinced them to proceed with payment. Just the same, quite a few noted that if they added something to their cart and saw a shipping charge populate, they backed out and did not commit to the purchase.

The Story of a Full Restaurant

When you walk down the street and see a restaurant hustling and bustling, you assume that they have amazing food in comparison to the empty restaurant right around the corner, right? Not necessarily.


Jordan Harling, a marketing executive at Roman Blinds Direct, calls this “social proof in action.” He expounds, “Social proof [is] a shortcut your mind uses that equates popularity with quality.” Harling believes it’s one of “the most powerful, yet subtle, psychological trick that some marketers use is manipulating.”

Can popularity be bought?

Harling transfers the restaurant theory to a scenario we see consistently online. It’s pretty contradictory to pay people to visit a restaurant, but online, it’s definitely more plausible to, say, buy likes or followers. “Followers, likes, and views provide an easy number that people use to estimate how popular a brand is and thus, due to social proof, how good it is,” says Harling.

An account with thousands of followers appears more trustworthy than one with only 100. Harling cautions shoppers to be aware that those numbers are often a result of paid followers, fake accounts, and bots. Not always, of course, but often enough that it’s worth noting.

The Power of .99

We all know that 99 cents is practically a dollar, but still, we’re drawn to savings even if it is only a penny less. Rich Harris, founder and CTO of Insomnia Graphix which specializes in target marketing and growth strategies, gives some insight on this: “I think it may be because we still internally monologue the numbers to ourselves. Even if you look at $1.99 and read it as $2, you might be consciously translating it from one dollar and ninety-nine. The first impression you get is one tens-digit less than the effective price, and first impressions are powerful.”

I’m currently teaching my oldest child money sense, and we’ve been practicing evaluating all sorts of dollars and cents. Over and over, I’ll present a combination like $4.99. I’ll tell her that it’s $5, and she replies, “No, mom, it’s only $4.” Technically, she’s right, but I’m bound and determined to help her learn rounding up so she’s not so easily tricked when she begins making her own purchases.


Anchors aren’t just for ships.

When it comes to marketing, anchoring in pricing is a likely tactic. For example, they say the best way to sell a $2,000 watch is to place it next to a $10,000 one. “People tend to evaluate the $2,000 watch relative to the cost of the $10,000 watch,” says Zelmanow.

Austin applies anchor pricing on her e-commerce site like this: “I have a dollhouse kit that retails for $1,199. When people see that kit, the $400 dollhouse kit doesn’t seem so expensive!” Isn’t that true? Sign me up for that $400 dollhouse, what a deal!


Secrets of the Menu

Consumables, like food, are a prime location for marketers to get inside our heads, especially when dining out. Harris asks, “Ever wonder why one of the appetizers is in a colored box or just one main entrée is bolder and larger than the others?” He explains, “Often, if we can’t make up our minds, our eyes are drawn to the highlighted option. Statistically, that one is selected more often—so long as the effect isn’t overdone. Subtle variations work as well, keeping to the restaurant menu example: chef’s recommendation, house specialty, customer favorite, etc., or simply an arrow pointing at an item. Ideally, this item is the most profitable, not necessarily the best value. Claims of most popular are often deployed and very effective.”


Another popular menu trick is removing the dollar sign from pricing. After all, if it reads just “18” instead of “$18,” you’re not spending real dollars, right?

What Shapes Say

When it comes to subtle, the shape of a logo takes the cake. This is a marketing tactic I had never really thought about, but Harling provides a perfect example of shapes in action: “… the FedEx logo. Take a second look at the logo, and consider the invisible arrow made by the E and the X. That arrow implies forward movement and swiftness, the ideal representation of a package delivery company.”


Hurry up and spend!

Zelmanow’s study of consumer behavior has found that urgency and scarcity are both common and effective marketing strategies. “Urgency can manifest in a few ways,” he says. “Sellers use messages like, ‘Buy now!’ or ‘For a limited time!’ to elicit action. They also use tactics like item or countdown timers. These things create a scenario where the consumer believes they will miss out on something if they don’t take some immediate action.”

In regard to scarcity, it has been found that people are willing to pay more for an item that is less available. A key reminder of this is the hunt for toys deemed hot ticket items around the holidays. Last December, I witnessed specific colors and styles of Fingerlings selling for two to four times more than their retail price of $15.


“Taking the time to familiarize yourself with the tactics that businesses use will help you to recognize them when they are being used to shape your behavior,” says Zelmanow. So be diligent in your shopping. Pause, assess, and make sure that you’re making purchases of your own accord, not through some marketing ploy. Tricks abound, and they’re easy to fall for.

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