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.