Jul 21 2009

Marketing Psychology

Skepticism is, among other things, a useful shield against manipulative sales techniques. Consumer protection is certainly part of our mission statement, and not just by exposing pseudoscientific products but also mechanisms of deception.

I remember taking a social psychology course in college that covered the psychology of salesmanship, and soon after getting a first hand experience. The family of a friend, knowing I was interested in science and education, asked for my help in evaluating a product. The traveling salesman was in their living room and they wanted me to pop over and help them assess what he was selling.

The 20-something man was indeed sitting in their living, one leg in a removable cast. Apparently he had just suffered some injury, and had to hobble around on crutches to make his living. He was selling an all-in-one textbook designed to help students through highschool. He sat on one side of the room with the family across from him. As he showed the features of the large tome he would also follow up with a question, such as, “Do you think that would be helpful?” He also made a point of telling us all the people in the neighborhood who had purchased the book.

Armed with my recent study of such techniques I pulled aside my friend and their father and told them what was going on. This guy is using every cheap trick in the book – gathering sympathy, using peer pressure, and trying to get them to agree that the product is useful so they would seem inconsistent if they then declined to purchase it. I speculated that the cast was for show only. Further, the product itself was all but useless. Costing over a hundred dollars, it would likely sit on their shelf collecting dust, never to be cracked open.

After I explained all of this to the family they still decided to buy the worthless book. The psychological manipulation was just too great – they could not send the salesman away without a purchase after he spent so much time in their living room.

Since then the science of manipulation has only become more sophisticated. Companies are now armed with statistics and psychological experiments to optimize their sales. Most people are surprised to learn how easy we are to manipulate and feel that other people can be manipulated, but not them. We all think we are the exception.

Much of the manipulation derives from the fact that we are intensely social animals. We need to fit in, and to feel a connection to others and the community. That is why we are susceptible to peer pressure, and fear seeming inconsistent to others. Recent studies also show that the feeling of connection can be exploited to make sales. In one study subjects who were told they shared a birthday with the salesperson were more likely to by a product and be happy with their purchase. In another study subjects who were told they shared a birthplace with their dentist rated the experience more favorably.

It seems that just the coincidence of a common connection makes us feel good, and we are more likely to buy. Keep that in mind the next time a sales person chats you up and just happens to share something in common with you.

Other recent research suggests that we judge unfamiliar products by the company they keep – what other products they are surrounded by. This is partly why company reps obsess about where their products are placed on shelves. They want visibility, but now also they will want a familiar context – place their cheap and new product among more expensive brands.

These are just a few examples, and unless one is an expert or makes and extended study of this subject you can’t know all the ways in which we can be manipulated. But it is helpful just to know that we can be manipulated and that anyone trying to sell us something is probably trying to do so in one or more ways. But you can protect yourself just by engaging your skepticism whenever confronted with a sales pitch. Be wary of your emotions, social fears, and assumptions. Try to rely on objective information about the product – evaluate it as if it were an extraordinary claim.

But it does also help to learn the most common tricks of the trade. A savvy consumer is skeptical and knowledgeable.

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