25 unconscious reactions that affect what we buy

This article aims to provide an overview of how to apply the results of social psychology and behavioral science to advertising.

Studying decision making is a key topic for advertisers as it provides an explanation of why people buy a particular product. People do not have time to logically evaluate all the decisions they face daily and rely on shortcuts of biases (prejudices, unconscious reactions) that make the decision-making process immediate.

Brands capable of adapting their products and their communication to these  biases  can have an important advantage over their competitors.

Which context works best for a brand?

It is the tendency to overestimate the individual personality with respect to the context when we try to explain behavior to ourselves. Contextual factors can determine our behavior regardless of our personality.

This fact undermines one of the most deeply rooted beliefs of advertising, namely that brands must identify a target audience and concentrate their communication on this target.

To find out which context can work best for our brand, it is necessary to test our hypotheses, verify the effect of this  bias  in our specific market.

Look at how people behave, not what they say

We adopt certain behaviors because the same behaviors are adopted by a large number of people. The best tactic to apply this bias to marketing is to declare the popularity of your brand.
Don’t assume that your brand is known, if you’re popular don’t think people know it, say it clearly.

Despite the effectiveness of a bias like this, its use in marketing is still not widespread. The reason is that brands often indicate a survey to decide which message to convey, the fact is that what people say in surveys does not correspond to their actual behavior. So it is better not to listen to what people say but to watch how they behave.

Why pay attention to the message

It occurs when social proof is used incorrectly, obtaining the opposite effect to that desired.
Communication fails when it stresses that unwanted behavior is normal because people tend to think “so I’m not the only one”.

Since we are social animals that imitate others, this type of communication encourages the behaviors it intends to stop. The same situation can be communicated differently. Be sure that your communication emphasizes the desired behavior.

If you are facing a blood donation campaign, don’t say that only 4% of people donate blood, but even though there are millions of donors, they still need more.

If competitors zig we zag

We are made to notice what is different. What makes a brand memorable is its ability to stand out from the rest. Like? Subverting the category rules. All beer brands sponsor football, all car advertisements show their models while traveling on country roads, in all fashion advertisements we see beautiful people looking straight into the room.

Your job then will be to identify formal rules of behavior in the category you work in and subvert them.

How to persuade consumers to change their behavior

Many behaviors are habitual but they are invisible and we only realize it when the environment changes. How to persuade people to buy your brand if they are on autopilot and buy the same product most of the time?

When a consumer faces a vital event (birth of a child, marriage, divorce, start of a new job, start of university) the environment changes sufficiently to destabilize habitual behavior. In these moments, a consumer is more likely to change brands.

To apply this effect you have to shake consumers from their automatic behavior; target them after they have undergone a vital event; communicate before a habit has taken root.

“Relieve” the pain of payment

It has been shown that the pain associated with the payment is more mitigated when we pay by credit card, and that those who pay in cash overestimate their spending by 9% while those who pay by card underestimate the 5%.

To take advantage of this bias: invest in cashless payment technology; make the same price seem smaller, for example by removing the currency symbol, use attractive prices, set prices that end in 9 that is 3.99 or 39 (since we write from left to right we tend to remember the first number ); manipulate the time frame (an agreement appears cheaper plus the time frame between one installment and another is short, 10 installments of 5 seem cheaper than 5 installments of 10 or a single payment of 50).

Avoid asking to find out what consumers really want

People lie about themselves and their habits, so if you listen uncritically to consumers, you can be misled. Complicating the situation is the fact that often people do not know their real motivations, do not lie, they are simply unaware.

Some advice: learn from lies, they can be illuminating and revealing; you must be prepared for deceptions and build surveys that take them into account; don’t ask, watch; uses the data that consumers unintentionally create when they do their daily activities.

They are very useful because they are not stained by the bias of social desirability. (For example, searches made on Google).

In a happy moment it is easier to catch the consumer’s attention

Anyone who has a relaxed mood or is in a good mood is more likely to notice an advertisement than someone who is stressed or in a bad mood. A good mood means absence of danger therefore less need to think critically.

Apply this effect by targeting your consumers when they are more likely to be happy, that is, while carrying out fun activities (sports, cinema) or at particular times of the day or week (during the weekend).

How to change the perception of the price

Products are not cheap or expensive in absolute terms but in comparison to other products. The perception of the value of a commodity is always relative. Therefore:

  • The comparison set changes (as did Red Bull which to justify the higher price compared to normal drinks used smaller cans, positioning itself in a different category).
  • Introduce a new comparison set by inserting a higher-end offer, a higher-end offer establishes a new comparative benchmark and, therefore, immediately makes the offers of the other bands appear cheaper.

The effective order in which to build communications

The order in which we listen to information affects how we interpret it. In a list of items, the final and initial elements are more easily remembered.


1) be sure to focus your communication on a single purpose, if your ads contain multiple messages you risk that the consumer’s attention span is saturated by the less convincing message. If consumers encounter your ad along with other messages, make sure yours is the first.

2) be sure to make a strong first impression: if a brand establishes a strong association with a positive characteristic, it will also tint the other characteristics with the same positive association. The launch of a brand is very important since the first impression lasts, and once it is formed it is difficult to modify.

Image and copy affect the perception of the product

Expectations for a product affect the way we perceive the performance of that product. Try what you expect to try. This is why presentation is as important as the product. The power of presentation is not just about the physical aspect of a product, a positive set of expectations can be established through the right image and the right copy.

Negative opinions don’t change

Experiments have shown that it is difficult to change a negative opinion. people tend to want to confirm their acquired beliefs. Those who reject your brand are difficult to convince because they interpret your message through a negative lens.

Identify the target audience, avoid those who would not follow you or who would follow you regardless of your communication and focus only on those for whom communication could make a difference.

Take advantage of consumer presumption

It has been proven that we tend to overestimate our abilities and performance. The presumption of the consumer represents an opportunity to be exploited. Since everyone thinks they are above average, by communicating typical behavior, a brand can encourage people to overcome that point of reference.

For example, if a charity communicates the average level of donation to potential donors, it would encourage them to exceed that amount.

For each situation there is a different approach

Our perception is not a passive recording of reality but is conditioned by our desires and motivations.

In recent years, for example, advertising agencies have promoted a theory only because they wanted it to be true, that of brand purpose, that is, the idea that brands that have a purpose beyond profit exceed those that do not. Experiments have shown that this theory was unfounded. The idea that an approach can go well in any situation is wrong.

The search for a guaranteed formula for success is pure madness. In a competitive market economy, performance is relative, not absolute, success or failure depends not only on the actions of a company but also on those of its rivals. Many well-managed companies have not gone bankrupt for internal reasons but for a radical change in their competitors.

Choose the media context to encourage interpretation

The positioning of an ad, the media context in which it appears, affects its interpretation. The information is not processed in a neutral way, we are influenced by contextual signals.

Programmatic advertising allows advertisers to reach their audience regardless of context, to bid in real time, to exploit the wealth of digital data and to make targeted offers individually.

When knowledge can prove to be counterproductive

That is the difficulty of imagining what it would be like not knowing something we know. To put yourself in the consumer’s shoes you should:

  1. strive to be a listener and not a creator (change the context of evaluation, judge your ad from the consumer perspective)
  2. find out if your audience is maximalist or satisfied and communicate accordingly.

The former wants to know that the product is perfect, the latter that it is not crap. Aiming for perfection often means getting lost in details that do not interest most.

Goodhart’s law is the real purpose of advertising

Godhart’s law states: “When a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure”, Setting targets is particularly dangerous in online advertising, this approach tends to measure only the short-term effects ie sales, visits, visualizations (easy to measure) while the purpose of advertising is to generate a long-term impact (difficult to measure).

Plans that optimize short-term effects lead to sales but not to sales, convert those who are already interested in the brand to action but do nothing to increase interest in others.

Know the Pratfall effect and increase the attractiveness of the product

It is a psychological mechanism according to which the attraction towards a person who is making a mistake increases or decreases in relation to the overall result of his performance.

If someone perceived as competent to make the mistake, a defaillance will make him more human in the eyes of his interlocutors, arousing their sympathies. The same thing happens for products.

The best application of this effect is to admit that your product has a defect, to admit a weakness is a tangible demonstration of honesty and credibility, in addition, in this way, you can convince consumers that the weakness is in insignificant areas.

How to avoid the “curse of the winner” when buying advertising space

This is the situation of those who buy an asset at auction, paying it more than its actual value. The tendency to sell and buy advertising space through auctions has increased in recent years.

If this is your case, find unique ways to identify your target audience, in order to avoid a standard approach that will involve you in highly competitive auctions (the more participants in an auction the more accurate the average bids will be) where it will be impossible to avoid the “curse of the winner” effect.

Arouse a reaction in advertising

As theater managers know well that they have always hired professionals to laugh, cry, applaud, ask for an encore on command, the effect of humor is contagious.
The comedy of an advertisement is not only a creative problem, but of media exposure. The effect of funny or moving advertisements is amplified by a group vision.

Focus on higher-end products

They are those goods that consumers perceive as exclusive goods and that want to buy more their price increases, a decrease in their price would no longer make them perceive as high-class goods and would decrease people’s desire to buy them.

Many brands have a portfolio of products that vary in both quality and price, and normally invest in advertising according to the sales volume of each line. Instead, since price conveys quality, smart brands should invest more in their higher-end products thereby conveying an aura of quality across the portfolio.

Just as high prices increase expectations compared to a product, low prices and discounts lower it. What works in the short term will damage the desirability of a product in the long term.

Evaluate the results of the studies with the right weight

The experiments of social psychology are difficult to replicate because the context, one of the cardinal principles of the matter, is difficult to maintain constant. This does not mean that the results of this science should be rejected, only, it is good not to consider the results of a single study as a definitive test.

If you believe you have found a relevant bias, test it on a small scale before making a major investment.

Biases that work and don’t work

There are cases where some biases don’t work, for example social proof can have the opposite effect in some groups. Those who manage big business see themselves as unique and believe that the behavior of others is irrelevant. In this case the social proof would be counterproductive. A bias can work in one situation and have the opposite effect in another, so it is essential to match the bias to the goal you want to achieve.

The power of personalized advertising

It is the brain’s ability to isolate the things that deserve our attention from background noise. This is what happens, for example, when at a party we hear our name uttered in the buzz of the crowd.

Customizing advertisements is a way to get attention, however it is a dangerous strategy because consumers are disturbed that their data is treated as public property. Brands need to make sure they are relevant without being intrusive.

How to take advantage of the scarcity effect

The scarcity effect is the tendency of goods to become more desirable when their quantity is limited.
Restricting the number of items a customer can purchase will have a positive effect on sales, as well as announcing that the product will only be available for a limited time.

One explanation for this bias is the so-called “loss aversion” ie the fact that the pain of losing something is more powerful than the pleasure of getting that same thing.

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