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How Marketing Unconsciously Manipulates What We Buy

The forces behind our impulse purchases are often hidden.

Jose Francisco/Pexels
Source: Jose Francisco/Pexels

We live in a society where money makes the world go round. If we’re fortunate enough to have a consistent job, we spend an average of 90,000 hours during our lifetimes earning money. And we use the rest of our time spending it.

Nearly everything we do requires money, including paying the rent and putting food on the table. According to a 2018 study, however, the average American spends $5,400 per year on impulse purchases. Much of that goes toward food items we don’t really need (think ice cream or dill-pickle flavored potato chips). But a large portion of people also make impulse buys in the categories of fashion, household items, and, of course, shoes. Stack this statistic against the fact that total credit card debt in the country has climbed to just short of 1 trillion dollars—meaning that the average person owes credit card companies around $6,000—and it begs an important question: Why do we buy what we buy?

Often, we buy things out of need, of course. Particularly during these trying times, meeting basic needs is something that many people are rightly concerned about. But too often, we make buying decisions for less rational or necessary reasons. Marketing and advertising are psychologically advanced industries, with the goal of influencing us—often outside of our awareness—to spend money. That’s the topic of the new book, Blindsight: The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes Our Brains, by fellow Psychology Today Matt Johnson and Prince Ghuman.

“As we go about navigating the consumer environment, we make decisions, we orchestrate behaviors, but we’re not always aware of how or why we do the things we do,” Johnson told me during an interview on KPFA Radio’s About Health. “Over the past 20 or 30 years, marketers have become much more sophisticated in how they persuade us to buy certain products and acquire certain services.”

For instance, we may think we’re choosing a particular food from the grocery store shelf because it tastes the best, but the reality may be more complicated. One study involved a blind taste-test of patês. Participants were invited to taste five patês, which had been plated in appetizing ways with a parsley garnish. The catch: One of the samples was actually dog food, ground to a fine paste in a food processor to disguise its texture. After tasting all five samples, participants were asked to guess which sample was actually the dog food. The results were startling: Their guess was no better than random chance.

Similar results were found in a 2001 study by researchers in the department of oenology (wine science) at the University of Bordeaux, France. The participants, who were students in training to become sommeliers, were served red and white wines and asked to describe their flavor. Tellingly, when red dye was added to the white wine, the students often didn’t realize anything was amiss. They used words typically reserved only for red wines to describe the flavors.

“It just goes to show that the reasons why we make a decision, especially around food, oftentimes really isn’t why we think it is,” Johnson says. “We go to a fancy restaurant. We spend a lot of money, sometimes outside of our means, to have what we think are delicious plates of food. But actually the deliciousness doesn’t stem from the interaction that happens at the level of the tongue. It happens in the brain ... And that’s the marketer’s playground. That’s really where they have a lot of influence.”

Some of the major factors that influence our consumer choices besides the goodness of the product include packaging and brand recognition. Most of us are familiar with the famous “Pepsi Challenge” taste test. Even though Coke consistently outsells Pepsi, most people prefer the taste of Pepsi. “They set out on a series of experiments to try and prove that,” Johnson told me. “The apparatus basically was, you’re sitting down and you have two bubbly sodas in front of you. If you believe you are drinking Coke, but it’s actually Pepsi, you’ll actually report enjoying it more than if you are drinking Pepsi alone. ... So, despite having almost universal brand recognition with Coca-Cola, they’ll still spend billions of dollars every single year, because with each new advertisement you see of Coca-Cola, it actually influences your preferences.”

None of this is necessarily bad. Packaging and branding are often part of the joy of consuming a product. There’s something pleasurable about unwrapping the luxurious packaging of a new iPhone and noticing the embossed Apple logo. Nonetheless, many of us might prefer to be influenced less easily by such marketing strategies. For this reason, Johnson and Ghuman offer tips for how we can take back some of our power.

They suggest that, by realizing the sway that marketing can exert over us, we can make wiser and more deliberate choices. “Whether we like it or not, we’re in a deep relationship with the consumer world. But this realization can actually be empowering,” they write.

Their biggest, yet simplest, suggestion for how to do this involves shopping in a more conscious way. In particular, they exhort, don’t shop while you’re emotional, distracted, or hungry. “Thinking is difficult,” says Johnson. “It requires mental energy.” Here’s the basic idea: Our brains only have a certain amount of processing power. When a portion of our mental resources is being occupied by distractions, we simply have less brain power left to make good buying decisions. Likewise, whether we’re shopping for food or any other product, when we haven’t had a meal in a while, our brains don’t have the energy to make the best decisions possible. That means we’re more susceptible to making impulse purchases.

As simple as these suggestions sound, they work. And in this time of financial hardship for so many due to the COVID pandemic, anything that helps us make better consumer decisions and save money is worth its weight in gold.