"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.