"Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people they don't like."
I'm overwhelmed. It's 2003 and I'm in a men's clothing store buying my first suit. I'm kind of nervous because I'm not used to fancy clothes. On the other hand, I know I need a suit because I'm going to start interviewing for jobs where I'll be expected to be in a suit and tie.
I don't know my size; I didn't even know there were sizes to suits. I thought they came in size S, size M, or size L. I chose this store because I've seen their ads before and it looks like this is the place to buy suits. Plus, I drive by this place all the time.
The salesman who helped me must have known immediately that I had no idea what I was doing. He very confidently walked me away from the less expensive suits to the more expensive ones. I was easy to convince; he knew what I wanted to hear - or rather, what I thought I needed to hear.
He helped me find a grey suit that he told me would be perfect for interviews. He brought me up to the front and processed my payment. As a consolation, he told me that if I change my mind I can bring the suit back.
I never did bring the suit back, and I spent almost twice as much as I wanted to. It's good that I had a credit card at this point, because I didn't have this much money in the bank!
I fell for so many advertising tricks that I believe this salesman is probably telling stories about me to this day. How was I so susceptible?
Marketing and Advertising
I want to make clear that marketing and advertising aren't the same things. Marketing is about letting people know that there is a potential solution to their problem. Marketing is about getting the word out. It's about understanding people's problems and helping them solve it.
If you knew there was a product or service that would make your life better in a way that you could afford, you would be happy to learn about that product or service.
That's not the same thing as advertising. Advertising is one kind of marketing. Advertising is about hijacking attention. There are good ads, to be sure, but most advertising is about hype, interruption, persuasion, and pressure.
This post is about avoiding the pressure that comes from advertisers.
The Psychology of Advertising
Advertisers are very skilled at using language that appeals to the animal part of our brain. There is an intense focus on our need to belonging (everyone else has this), safety (you won't be safe without this), and connection (this will make your relationships better).
Advertising has become so ingrained in our culture that we take a very passive approach to ads. As a result, we often have our guards down. This is the gateway to unintentional living.
Without having our guards up, and even sometimes when we do, advertisers understand psychology very well, and not in a we-want-to-help-you kind of way. Interested readers would do well to research the various psychological biases that we very easily succumb to. These include anchoring, loss aversion, status quo bias, regret aversion, the endowment effect, reciprocity, social proof, scarcity, and others. This isn't the place to talk about all these biases, but they are worth knowing.
I have written about several biases before. If you want to really be amused, check out my post about confirmation bias - which was one the first posts I ever wrote!
I have written about other biases. You might also be interested in reading my thoughts on gambler's fallacy, correlation vs. causation, mental accounting, availability bias, the framing effect, and sunk cost.
Social Media and Advertising
If it was easy for advertisers to manipulate us before, social media makes it a walk in the park. On social media, we publicly display things we like, things we don't like, people who interest us, and the people we like. Author Seth Godin says that, with social media, we are the product - that's why it's free. The platforms we use collect data not just about the obvious things I mentioned, but additional things such as how long you watch videos, what kind of videos you watch, how often you like posts, what kind of posts you like, share, and repost, how often you log in, when you use the system, whether you log in on a computer or phone, and so on.
All this data is then used to sell ads to advertisers. And those advertisers use those data to make their money back.
Confidence and Clarity = Less Susceptible
There are ways to become less susceptible to advertising. When we aren't paying much attention, or not living intentionally, we are far more susceptible. So without having a clear "why" you won't know how new products and services relate to the life you want to live. Further, we can say that if you have unmet needs, feel deprived, or don't fully understand your values, you are more likely to be swayed by marketing messages.
The flip side is that having a sense of purpose in your life and using your money to fulfill the life you want, you will have more success being intentional with how you spend your money. You will be free from the strings of advertisers.