Of Sheep and Peacocks: How Advertisers Get In Your Wallet

Among the many tricks advertisers employ to persuade consumers to part with their money, two are particularly common. You’ll recognize them.

Blending In and Standing Out

In one technique, known by psychologists as “social proof,” advertisers make claims such as: “We are the number one dealer in the area!” or “YourCity’s most popular night-spot!”, or “America’s Number One…” This technique is intended to appeal to the universal human desire to fit in with others. The other common technique makes the opposite appeal, but is equally familiar. In the “scarcity” appeal, advertisers appeal to our desire to be unique, to distinguish ourselves from the crowd and to express our individuality. Such claims often suggest that “this is a once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, a “one-of-a-kind”, “limited offer” and that “time (or supply) is running out.”

As it turns out, we are all persuaded by both types of messages — but for different reasons and at different times. Recently, a team of researchers led by Vladas Griskevicius from the University of Minnesota asked whether the content of the programming surrounding these advertising messages might help determine which was more persuasive. Evidence from previous research examining the effect of emotions on people’s motivations suggested they might be on to something. For instance, when people feel threatened, they naturally become more inclined to blend in with their friends and loved ones. When people are feeling romantically inclined, they are more inclined to seek opportunities to be unique and stand apart from the crowd.

This makes sense: like sheep gathering in a herd to seek safety from predators, in our evolutionary past people inclined to seek out the company and comfort of others in times of distress would have been more likely to survive and pass on their genes. Conversely, in order to attract a mate, it is necessary to stand out from the crowd somehow — think of the peacock displaying its tail to attract peahens. In the mating frame of mind, people are no longer interested in fitting in — they want to be noticed. So, these two strong but opposing motivations — to fit in or to stand out — occur to everyone, but under different life circumstances.

What did the researchers find?

In the experiment, people were first shown a clip from a scary movie and then shown either a social proof ad or a scarcity ad. Another group of participants were shown a romantic movie, then shown the same two ads. What the researchers found was that people who were shown the scary movie were persuaded by the social proof (everybody’s doing it) ads, but were not persuaded by the scarcity ads. In fact, when feeling threatened, people were inclined to dislike offers that were couched in terms of scarcity or uniqueness. As expected, when people watched a romantic movie, just the opposite pattern emerged. People watching a romantic movie were more persuaded by the opportunity to be (or buy) something unique, but were inclined to dislike messages using the social proof approach.

So, next time you are watching a scary or romantic show, try paying attention to how you feel about the advertising messages you are presented with during and after the show. Notice whether you are particularly drawn to the social proof or the scarcity messages. Being aware of why you are feeling persuaded may help you resist that “once in a lifetime” or “everybody’s doing it” urge to splurge.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habits - how do you spend your money and who do you spend it on - and social emotions. To learn about your spending habits, how much you experience prosocial emotions, and how you define the good life, first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then take a few of our spending habits surveys (Experiential Buying ScaleMaterialistic Values Scale, and Compulsive Buying Scale), our Dispositional Positive Emotion Scale, and our Beliefs about Well-being. We think you may learn a lot about what causes you to part with your hard-earned money.

The research discussed above was based upon research published as: Griskevicius, V., Goldstein, N., Mortensen, C. R., Sundie, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., & Kenrick, D. T. (2011). Fear and Loving in Las Vegas: Evolution, Emotion, and Persuasion. Journal of Marketing Research, 46(June), 384–395.

This post was written by Kerry Cunningham, a graduate student in the Personality and Well-being Lab at San Francisco State University.

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About Kerry

Kerry has an M.S. in Industrial-Organizational psychology and something just short of 20 years experience as a manager and executive in b2b direct marketing. Currently, Kerry works with organizations to improve processes and practices in the area of people management. In addition, Kerry has a deep and abiding passion for all things evolution, but particularly evolutionary perspectives on organizational and economic behavior. When not geeking out with research literature and data, Kerry is generally playing tennis and/ or enjoying a restorative cocktail.
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