The Shifty Strategies of Advertisers


A new book, titled Hidden Persuasion, identifies and investigates 33 of the shifty strategies employed by advertisers. A psychologist and creative director from Amsterdam, Marc Andrews, co-authored the book with Rick Baaren and Matthijs van Leeuwen, both social psychologists. Andrews says that these practices are more commonly utilized than consumers may suspect.

One excellent example is the Heineken logo. Though it may look innocuous enough, there is a subtle psychological effect used within the typeface. The three “e”s are slanted ever so slightly back and upward, causing the letters to look as if they are smiling. The subtly is key to an effective advertising campaign. The less aware the consumer is of why they are buying a six-pack of Heineken over some other brand, the better the end results for the company’s bottom line.

Andrews explains that even though consumers believe that they are making their product purchasing decisions based on their own motivations and interests, the truth is, the unconscious mind controls a huge portion of daily decision-making. That is what advertisers with their hidden persuasions are relying upon. They are essentially preying upon the consumers’ innate susceptibility by exploiting and manipulating people’s behaviors.

One shifty strategy used is anthropomorphism. The smiling Heineken logo is an example of how advertisers place human characteristics on a decidedly non-human thing, like letters, in the hopes of creating a connection between the product and the consumer. At an early age children learn to add human features and behaviors to non-human objects, causing attachments. These tendencies to anthropomorphize continue into adulthood. Advertisers know that if they can cause the consumer to have feelings for a product, there is a good chance that an attachment will soon follow. Brand loyalty is a highly desired outcome for advertising.

Trustworthiness is another tactic employed by advertisers. Even if the actor auditioning for a role in a commercial is the sneakiest person in the room, if he/she “looks” trustworthy, then that is all that is required to land the job. Eye color, facial width to height ratio and certain distances between facial features are all considered in choosing faces for advertising.

By creating a sense that something is in short supply, sales are generated. Yet another shifty strategy used by advertisers is called scarcity. If a consumer believes that there are only a few products left at a desirable price, they are not only going to be more liable to make that purchase sooner, but will likely buy more. Andrews says that part of why this works is that somewhere in the recesses of the human psyche, scarcity is equated with value and popularity. He also points out that scarcity works because a consumer’s freedom of choice is at risk.

Social proof is the way in which people tend to buy based upon what their peers like. By exploiting people’s insecurities about social situations, advertisers are able to generate sales. When celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce do a Pepsi commercial, it is assumed that their fans will drink more Pepsi. When 200 users on Facebook “like” a new yogurt flavor, another user will not only “like” it too, but may be more likely to try the product themselves.

Reverse psychology is also an excellent tool that advertisers use to their advantage. By acknowledging that the consumer may not even need their product, they are encouraging the buyer to make the purchase. Transparency, product comparisons and even going so far as expressing the sentiment that this may not be the product for the viewer are all used with much success.

Everyone knows that advertisers use various tricks to sell their products. What may not be known is just how deeply psychological advertisers’ shifty strategies really are. On one level, this could be looked at as just a way of doing business in a highly competitive world. On another level, manipulation of the consumers’ psyche can bring advertisers to dark places. That may be why the advertising industry has an estimated 30 percent annual turnover rate. Despite all the trustworthy faces and smiling letters, advertising is cutthroat and overall not a happy place to utilize talents that can be used for good works elsewhere.

By Stacy Lamy


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