It’s no secret that advertising companies will go to great lengths to make it seem like it’s your idea when you buy their product. They have spent and continue to spend billions on understanding the psychology behind why we buy the products and services we buy, which advertisements are going to be most successful in getting us to buy said products and services, and trying to predict what the next trend will be. All the manipulative and misleading ads you see are meticulously planned based on the psychological findings marketers study on a daily basis. The psychology of advertising runs deep and understanding it can help you limit the amount of manipulation you fall victim to. In this article, we will focus specifically on the manipulations some companies have employed in order to get you to purchase their (sometimes sub-par) products.
The New York Times
We almost feel bad sharing this ad, which uses images of Syrian refugees to promote The New York Times. That is until we remember that The New York Times used images of Syrian refugees to sell their newspaper!
Why is this manipulative?
It triggers a highly emotional response to a terrible situation that is happening in the world. Why wouldn’t you want to learn more? Shouldn’t you be an informed citizen, well versed in today’s current events?
The Times is banking on you feeling heartbreak and even anger upon hearing words like “Syria” and “refugee.” Add that to the images of children and families struggling to escape oppression, somber music, and a voiceover talking about the tragedy in Syria, and it’s no wonder you want to rush out and pick up a copy right away—or at least purchase an online subscription (as if that subscription helps the situation a world away.)
eHarmony is one of the most well known dating sites out there. In this ad, the founder, Neil Clark Warren, boasts that the site has helped millions of couples fall in love. That statement alone is manipulative in that he doesn’t explain what exactly that means.
Did they stay together? Are they all married with 2.5 kids now? Did all the eHarmony couples somehow beat the odds and escape the looming fact that 50% of all marriages end in divorce?
Furthermore, the ad is misleading in that every actor used was above average physically. While looks aren’t everything, if eHarmony had employed some more average-looking actors to promote their site, it’s highly likely that fewer people would have decided to try the service.
The Fast Food Industry
For this example, we are shifting gears a bit and focusing on an entire industry.
Fast food ads can be manipulative in a number of ways, from enticing language that isn’t necessarily true (“mouth-watering” or “flavorful”) to sales that create a sense of urgency (e.g. offering an item for a limited time only).
But if this image shows us nothing else, it’s that the most dishonest promise given to us by the fast food industry is obviously the food itself. The images show what their products are made to look like in an ad vs. what you actually receive. What a huge disappointment.
Sometimes misleading information is advertised right on the package.
In 2016, Duracell (Procter and Gamble) was sued for misleading consumers on the life of their Ultra batteries. The batteries were marketed as having a longer shelf life and longer use times when in fact the batteries proved to be no stronger or more durable than Duracell’s average battery. Customers are drawn to the package by the buzzwords “ultra” and “advanced” and are lead to believe they are purchasing a higher quality product, when they’ve simply been duped.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
PETA is well known for having controversial, heart-wrenching advertisements, but this one takes the cake.
Their “What will you do with the shelter dog you kill?” ad kind of sneaks up on you. When first watching it, we didn’t realize what those black bags were supposed to be. Give it a moment to sink in, and you’ll hold our breath and squeeze your pooch a little tighter. While PETA isn’t technically selling a product, they are definitely using some dark manipulation to sell you their idea that purchasing a dog from a shop or breeder is downright shameful—and to compel you to consider donating.
It’s clear that the advertising industry’s mission is to rewire your brain. The best way to avoid being manipulated by advertisements is to think about them critically, from the point of view of the company, and to limit your emotional involvement. Just remember when it comes to advertisements, the ultimate goal is to coerce your thoughts and actions. Some companies are gentler than others, but in the end manipulation will always play its role in advertising.