I don’t think anyone could have explained this better than Augusten Burroughs did in the opening paragraph of his book, Dry:
Sometimes when you work in advertising you’ll get a product that’s really garbage and you have to make it seem fantastic, something that is essential to the continued quality of life. Like once, I had to do an ad for hair conditioner. The strategy was: Adds softness you can feel, body you can see. But the thing is, this was a lousy product. It made your hair sticky and in focus groups, women hated it. Also, it reeked. It made your hair smell like a combination of bubble gum and Lysol. But somehow, I had to make people feel that it was the best hair conditioner ever created. I had to give it an image that was both beautiful and sexy. Approachable yet aspirational.
This also applies to any kind of marketing, PR, politics… The list goes on.
Basically, our world is one in which we are being sold on products, people, places, ideas, experiences and views 24/7. And it’s up to us to stay in touch with reality and reason to make good decisions about which things we’ll buy and which people we’ll believe.
This is where learning more about psychology comes in. Because when we’re smart and rationally engaged, we’re more likely to make good decisions.
The number one thing everyone should know and remember, if you’re only going to know and remember one thing, is that evoking strong emotion makes it easy to exploit people. So to avoid being exploited, keep your emotions in check!
Politics especially thrives on this, getting us to see each other as enemies—one side is “bad” while the other is “good”. And politicians, the press, even well-meaning activists, will paint strong emotional pictures to stir up this reaction in us and keep the “us vs. them” dynamic going. That’s how someone engages and gains followers, and engaging and gaining enough followers is how you win elections, sell the most product, get famous, etc. When you hear that the election candidate with the most money won, it's because they had more money to sustain keeping the public aware of their message via campaigning and television advertising. In the end, money won't matter, shameless advertising won't matter, if we're all in control of our emotions and thinking rationally.
Anecdotes and imagery (photos, video) engage emotion, and emotion inspires action. We do this all the time with brand storytelling and it is usually a positive thing, especially when done with nonprofits. But fraudulent charities, for example, can also do it to get you to make big donations by showing you a photo of a little girl or boy, or even a puppy, and telling you a story about something upsetting that happened to them, then motivating you with a call to action to "help".
Also, if I wanted you to believe me and trust me, one of the simplest things I could do is pay for a celebrity endorsement... If I could get lots of celebrity endorsements, then I’d really be able to strike gold. Because the popular attitude is, “I like [enter name of celebrity you love]! I trust him/her and if he/she believes in this product or service, it must be good!”
It’s not all shady, though. UX designers can use psychology to understand the way people use websites, use apps, print tickets from ticketing machines, and work through any number of everyday experiences. This allows them to design experiences on these platforms that will work the best for the most people. In this case, psychology is being used with design to benefit society.
But what if I’m selling my brand, my product, or my views and I don’t really care much about how what I’m selling will affect you personally, or want to trick you into thinking it will benefit you immensely even though it most likely won't? Here’s where it comes in handy to recognize some of the “dark arts” in order to stay focused on making the best decision for you.
When we study psychology, we learn that there are many cognitive biases, or patterns of deviation in judgment that may predispose us to making decisions illogically. I’m going to list a few key ones used in marketing and advertising below (see Wikipedia’s List of Cognitive Biases for more):
The Halo Effect: Our overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character. Essentially, your overall impression of a person ("He is nice!") impacts your evaluations of that person's character ("He is also trustworthy!").
Here’s where celebrity endorsements come in, because our overall impression of celebrities is a great example of the halo effect in action. Since we perceive them as attractive, successful, and often likeable, we also tend to see them as intelligent and trustworthy.
Repetition bias: We’re willing to believe what we’ve been told most often by the greatest number of sources.
Check the number of testimonials that candidate, company or product is listing on their website and via social media. They’ll be sure to show you as many positive testimonials as possible to help you feel really good about buying what they’ve got to sell.
Rhyme as reason: A saying is judged as more accurate or truthful when stated as a rhyme.
This one is amazing. Remember, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”? Johnnie Cochran used this saying during O.J. Simpson’s murder trial.
Social proof: People assume the actions of others, in an attempt to reflect “correct” behavior in a situation.
Remember when you wanted to do something stupid because Billy was doing it and Billy was really cool, and everyone else would laugh at you if you didn’t do the stupid thing? Your mom would always say no and then ask, “If Billy jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too?” That.
Reciprocity: We feel more compelled to reciprocate when someone offers us something first.
A great example of this one is those fake monks that have been wandering Manhattan. They’ll approach you with a big smile and offer you an amulet before asking for a “donation”. If you’re unaware that they’re not really Buddhist monks at all, you’ll be more likely to give them a “donation” since they appear to be monks and they’ve offered you a nice little amulet. This is genius panhandling in two ways: they're dressed as monks to make you feel comfortable being approached and giving because they appear religious, and they use reciprocity to compel you to give.
This is all just the tip of the iceberg. And while it’s true that a lot of this stuff can very well be used for social good—or at least not with truly sinister intentions—it’s never a bad idea to be aware, take a minute and switch over from our emotional response to our response based on reality and reason.
If we’re on the flip side and want to use some of these principles when we engage with consumers, here are a few simple ethical points to keep in mind:
Are you acting in others’ interest?
Are you exerting influence in proportion to your level of confidence?
Are you allowing reason and reality to guide your efforts?
Are you dealing with the world as it is vs. how you want it to be?
Are you giving people time to think (not pressuring them to “buy now”)?
As long as we all act in alignment with ethics and keep ourselves in check, there’s no reason to worry about taking advantage of someone, or about being taken advantage of.