A pandemic has already infected a large part of humanity—but we’re not talking about tuberculosis, which used to be called consumption and which in fact is on the rise again. We’re talking about a different kind of consumption, a kind of virus that strikes not only our pocket books, but our very system of values. Humans, the erstwhile masters of life, have somehow imperceptibly devolved into Consumers, beings whose spur-of-the-moment desires pull them in different directions and distract them from the Great Issues of life. One feels a need to empathize with the “patients”: how can Consumers actually discern their own path if they live life floundering in a hash of other people’s raisons d'etre, symbols, and priorities?

Many Consumers can’t say exactly what they need besides money, or even why they need it. They may answer with some one obvious step forward: “I need money to replace the car,” or “I need money to buy a house,” or “I need money to go on a vacation,” and so on in that vein. They can’t bring anything further into focus because their ability to think strategically is limited, as a result of which a kind of bottomless pit opens up and swallows all their efforts, time, and money. Marketers, the task of whom it is to sell stuff, have long understood how to successfully manipulate Consumers: it’s enough to suggest ever newer “goals.”

If you want to avoid the consumption bug, or if you sense that the “illness” has already infected you and you want to “get well,” you’ll need to be aware of some basic psychological tools that marketers use to hook Consumers. We’ve leaned pretty heavily here on Ginny Mineo, a marketing specialist and past Manager of Content Marketing Strategy for HubSpot, who has written an article for their Marketing blog entitled “Marketing Psychology: 10 Revealing Principles of Human Behavior” that names essential secrets of the trade and describes how they work. Readers can check out Mineo’s article for links to further reading.


Mineo says that priming is a kind of pre-programming. An ad sends a subtle signal that you associate with something else. The marketer wants you to remember the ad and to be influenced by the association to buy the product.

As an example, Mineo cites a study conducted by Naomi Mandel and Eric Johnson in which participants were asked to choose between two similar products. The background and design of a Web site were changed to test whether consumers could be influenced to buy one product or the other. Some visitors to the Web site were primed for cost by a money-green background and images of pennies; others were primed for safety with a red-orange background and a flame. Here’s what they found: those who were primed for cost looked longer at pricing information than those who were primed for safety. Savvy developers of marketing sites routinely apply the principle of priming to create designs capable of influencing consumer behavior.


You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Reciprocity is a behavior seen in other animals as well as in humans. As applied to marketing, Mineo gives an example from the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Dr. Robert Cialdini. A diner at a restaurant will tip according to evaluation of service, but waiters can increase tips up to 20%, he says, just by bringing a couple of mints with the check, the point being that even a small gesture invites a reciprocal response. Coupons and “free gifts” are other examples.

Social Proof

People are generally influenced by the attitudes of those toward whom they orient themselves, such as people they admire or trust, or groups with which they would like to be identified. The need to belong is vital to us as social animals. Mineo points out that taking advantage of this “me, too” phenomenon through prominent display of social media buttons on a Web site or blog is a simple way to draw attention to a message or product; the greater the number of saves, shares, and likes, the more subsequent visitors to the page will save, share, and like—and stay to browse and perhaps buy.

Decoy effect

Mineo shows us how a decoy is used to impel a potential buyer to choose the most expensive of several choices. To induce buyers to choose an expensive item, they must believe that the expensive item is a “bargain,” so they are shown other options with which to compare the target: similar but less expensive items, a somewhat better version that is not particularly attractive on its own, and the expensive item, priced the same as the less attractive one but presented in a “combo,” perhaps with a “free” product piggybacked on from other, slow-moving stock. The decoy is the one they’d be unlikely to buy but compared to which the expensive item looks like the best deal.


Supply and demand is the name of this game. The greater the supply, the less valuable the commodity. But perception also determines value: people will consider an item more valuable if they are led to believe that it’s scarce. So when an ad is checkered with words like “most sought after” or “only three left at this price,” buyers imagine that the item is good and popular but almost sold out—and they want in. But, as Mineo warns, words like “limited edition” imply an artificial scarcity of some niche item whose value is thus artificially set and whose appeal may be mostly to those who want unique status as an exclusive owner.


The anchor effect is based on the principle that the first bit of information we learn about anything provides the mooring to which we attach further information, comparisons, and decisions. In Mineo’s example, if a customer knows that a certain store usually sells jeans for $50—the anchor price—but has them on sale for $35, the customer will be enticed to buy. But for this technique to work, the customer has to know the anchor price, and the sale price has to be lower than what the customer is used to paying. The smart seller sets the anchor in the ad by showing the usual price next to the sale price. Striking through the anchor, giving the sale price in bold color and larger font, and prominently showing the percentage off are also components of anchoring.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

We’ve all had the bizarre experience of meeting a new word and then suddenly seeing it everywhere. Named after the German terrorist gang whose name often appeared in the news forty years ago, this phenomenon is also called frequency illusion. As explained by Professor Arnold Zwicky of Stanford, we pay selective attention to new information and are then especially alert to its appearance. And each subsequent appearance confirms our conviction that it is appearing more and more frequently.

This phenomenon is extraordinarily important to marketers. Mineo explains that when consumers discover a brand, they need to begin to see it everywhere—as she says, they need to be “nurtured” with further exposure in the form of targeted emails and online ads in addition to encouraging them to spend time browsing the pages of the Web site.

Verbatim effect

A study done by a group of scholars in Canada explored the question of why we tend to remember the essence of what is said but not the exact words, a quirk of the hippocampus that they called the verbatim effect. Mineo points out that we are not so much reading online these days as skimming, which presents marketers with the problem of how to convey content; that’s why they like succinct, gaudy headings. Mineo suggests honing headings to draw maximum attention while describing the product accurately, making them searchable and sharable to encourage viewers to explore the site further, and memorable so consumers will remember the key search words that bring the page up again, ideally at the top of the search results.


When we’re getting ready to go on vacation, we tend to set out in groups the things we want to pack: clothes in one heap, footwear in another, swimming gear, toiletries, electronics… That’s because our short-term memory is limited to just a few bits of information at one time. It’s easier to remember to bring each item if it’s clustered with other items of the same type; a general category acts as a mnemonic device for the associated items.

Marketers try to cluster content just as we group the stuff we’re packing for that trip, or as we list items under bullet points or use larger or different fonts to mark headings and subcategories, making it easier to read and remember clusters of analogous topics

Loss aversion

Mineo reminds us of the truism that we don’t like to part with the things we acquire. She describes a study conducted by Daniel Kahneman in which most of the subjects who had been given a mug—a keepable—chose to keep it rather than trade it for chocolate—an edible—when offered the chance, and those who had been given nothing chose the mug over the chocolate when given the choice.

Marketers successfully exploit this possessive instinct. For example, an IT company may offer a free version of its software with a premium feature available for a limited time. After the trial period runs out, the users lose the premium feature unless they upgrade—and pay. There’s a risk involved, but many customers will become accustomed to having the premium software and will be averse to losing it.

Victims of the consumption epidemic have been infected with goals and values instilled by advertising and a society of excess. They live by the slogan “More is better”; pressured by advertising, they feel the need to earn more to buy still more. They don’t seem to know anymore how much is enough. Only by understanding the difference between sufficiency and surfeit and honestly examining their own behavior can they establish appropriate limits for themselves and recover from the disease of over-consumption; only then can they be masters of their lives once again.