Subliminal sales techniques are meant to influence you on an subconscious level. Do they work? We’ll get back to that. First, let’s start with the definition of subliminal:
“…existing or operating below the threshold of consciousness; being or employing stimuli insufficiently intense to produce a discrete sensation but often being or designed to be intense enough to influence the mental processes or the behavior of the individual: a subliminal stimulus; subliminal advertising.”
According to Snopes, James Vicary coined the term “subliminal advertising.” He was the guy who did those famous experiments in a movie theater. He flashed the words, “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Hungry? Eat Popcorn” on the screen for a fraction of a second, boosting concession sales dramatically — or so goes the myth.
Vicary couldn’t duplicate his results and finally admitted he had faked them. So you can relax the next time you go to the movies. There’s no evidence that words flashed on the screen can manipulate you into buying that $8 popcorn (the smell, and your hunger, will be sufficient motivators).
However, the lack of evidence for that particular strategy doesn’t mean subliminal sales tricks don’t work. In fact, there are many others that have been investigated and found effective by scientists working in the field of behavioral economics.
Here are three examples of those discoveries and how they’re used to subliminally manipulate you, followed by some suggestions for defending yourself.
1. Weber’s Law: Why Expensive Extras Sometimes Feel Affordable
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Weber’s law “states that the change in a stimulus that will be just noticeable is a constant ratio of the original stimulus.” It came from weightlifting research done by Ernst Heinrich Weber in 1834, and it takes a bit of explanation to see how it might affect your next shopping trip.
Suppose you lift a 10-pound rock, and then lift others to determine if they’re heavier. If the minimum additional weight needed to notice the difference is one pound, you have a ratio of 1:10, and that should hold for heavier rocks.
So, for example, if you lift a 30-pound rock, you won’t notice the difference if another weighs 31 pounds. According to our ratio you will only notice the difference when you get up to 33 pounds.
Eventually economists started to look at how Weber’s law is applicable in marketing and pricing, and business journals began to suggest ways to use the knowledge. Even a website for event managers mentions Weber’s law in relation to how to price tickets for maximum profit.
Some information suggests that differences in prices, or in total expenditures, become psychologically significant at about 10%. But the concept is easy to understand in its simplest form, without the need for exact ratios or percentages.
For example, most of us feel that the difference of a dollar is a big deal on a can of beans, while even a $100 difference is almost meaningless if we’re looking at new cars.
Car buying is a great place to see this principle in action. You might never pay an extra buck for beans but you can probably be talked into spending $26,000 for a car, even if you planned to limit your purchase to $25,000. After all, $1,000 more is only 4% of the “original stimulus” of a $25,000 price tag.
Car sales people know this (at least intuitively) when it comes to extras. You might never pay $500 to put a stereo in your existing car, but that same $500 feels less significant when you’re buying a $26,000 car.
How to Protect Yourself
Watch for how Weber’s law is used to subliminally influence you. For example, once you decide to buy a large-ticket item the salesperson might start pushing upgrades, extended warranties, or other extras, which might suddenly seem affordable in relation to the much larger cost of the primary purchase.
To determine if buying those extras really makes sense, do a little thought experiment. Imagine that you already purchased the product last week or a year ago, and now someone has come along to offer you those extras. Would you buy them? If not, just say no.
When you negotiate any large purchase, keep in mind that saving $100 has the same effect on your bank account whether you’re buying a $100,000 house or a $300 bicycle.
2. Extremeness Aversion: Our Tendency to Move toward the Middle
Like Goldilocks choosing the bowl of porridge that’s neither too hot nor too cold, but just right, we often shy away from the cheapest or most expensive items when shopping. This is called “extremeness aversion” by psychologists and behavioral economists.
How is this subconscious tendency used against us in the marketplace? By simply providing us with another expensive choice so we increase our price expectation.
In an experiment on extremeness aversion shoppers had a choice of two microwave ovens, a Panasonic for $179.09 and an Emerson for $109.99. A second group of shoppers was offered those same two plus another Panasonic model, this one priced at $199.99.
In the second group some people bought the expensive oven. Not everyone is a frugal shopper, after all. No surprise there.
The more dramatic result was with sales of the Panasonic that cost $179.99. It was bought by 43% of shoppers in the first group (who had only two choices), but 60% of people in the second group bought it. The researchers summed it up like this:
“Adding a premium product to the product line may not necessarily result in overwhelming sales of the premium product itself. It does, however, enhance buyers’ perceptions of lower-priced products in the product line and influences low-end buyers to trade up to higher-priced models.”
Now there’s a nice trick if you own a store. Add some expensive items to the shelves and even if you never sell any of them you’ll increase sales of the next-highest-priced items.
Of course, those “buyer’s perceptions” were not enhanced based on reason. The microwave oven that we might call the “compromise choice” didn’t get better just because a more expensive one was nearby. So you may want to know…
How to Protect Yourself
There are several ways you can overcome this subconscious tendency and avoid being manipulated. Let’s suppose you’re looking at bicycles.
Start with the cheapest bike and ask if it meets your needs. If so, look no further. If not, move on to the next higher-priced model and do the same. Don’t even consider the expensive ones unless none of the lower-priced models have what you need.
Another strategy is to have a friend offer an opinion on his favorite models, but without letting him see the prices. If there are six that might be right for you, have him choose his favorite three. Then use the first strategy to make the final choice.
You might also counter the influence of the higher-priced models by considering more-frugal possibilities, like waiting for sales or buying a used bicycle. Thinking about lower prices might drag down your price expectations and make you realize that one of the cheaper models is the best compromise choice.
3. Regret Aversion: Our Fear of Loss
Our fears are powerful and always there, waiting for salespeople to use against us. In particular, our fear of loss motivates us to make irrational decisions.
Consider an experiment on regret aversion in which people who had lottery tickets were given the choice to exchange them for new ones from the same lottery. They were even offered a bonus for making the trade.
Many subjects refused the offer.
Any ticket had an equal chance of being a winner, so refusing to take the bonus couldn’t be the rational choice. The ever-logical Spock would certainly have made the trade. But then, Spock wouldn’t be thinking about how he might feel if the ticket he traded away happened to be the winner.
The researchers concluded: “The experiments show that people are willing to forego a material gain to prevent future regrets and that the reluctance to exchange lottery tickets is (partly) caused by regret aversion.”
In a second experiment more people were willing to trade tickets when there was “an increased potential of regret over not-exchanging.” In other words, if you get people thinking about how they’ll feel if the new ticket is the winner and they pass up the opportunity, they’re suddenly more willing to trade.
We humans are so easy to manipulate.
In a store a salesperson can use regret aversion to manipulate you in various ways, and many do so instinctively. For example, you’ve probably heard a salesperson say things like “I wouldn’t want you to miss out on this opportunity,” or “You won’t be able to get this price next week.”
A statement like “These are going fast” might be meant to suggest the popularity of an item, but it also implies “If you wait you’ll regret it because there won’t be any more.”
Those salespeople could be right. The item might be sold out later, and sale prices do expire, and you really could regret not buying that… whatever. Still, you don’t want to be manipulated into buying things you don’t need, so let’s look at…
How to Protect Yourself
Start by thinking “subliminal sales technique” every time you hear a statement that brings up a feeling of potential regret or loss.
Then, unless you’re sure that whatever purchase you’re considering is the right one, just wait. There are at least six ways procrastination can save you money. Perhaps the most important way is by simply giving you time to discover you don’t need the thing.
Will you regret not making some purchases? Yes, and you should simply accept that as a possibility, but balance it against the benefits of buying less stuff you don’t need.
After all, there will be other sales and promotions, and for every time you actually regret passing up a good deal there will likely be ten more times when your hesitation saves you money — and when waiting is the right decision.
If you think you’ve been subliminally manipulated into buying something, tell about your experience… and keep on frugaling!