In his new and compulsively readable book Brandwashed, author Michael Lindstrom shows us how companies use psychological tricks, mind control, our susceptibility to addiction and various other methods to get us to spend, spend, spend.
Here are more than two dozen signs to be wary of...
28. Vitamin Water
The very name "vitamin water" implies a healthy drink. It does contain many vitamins: C, B3, B5, B6, B12, and E. It also contains 33 grams of cane sugar and crystalline fructose — which translates to 125 calories per bottle. A class action law-suit was filed against Vitamin Water for false advertising as a healthy beverage. Vitamin Water executives dismissed the allegations as ridiculous.
27. Food Stylists
The most mouthwatering food is often the least edible. That ice cream cone? Made out of Crisco and plastic wrap. The whole roasted chicken? Washed with dish soap and cured with a blow torch. An entire industry has grown up around photographing food to make it look impossibly delicious. Don't be disappointed when the real stuff comes out on your plate.
26. Tax, Title, and Licensing Fees
The difference between the sticker price on a car and the out-of-door cost can differ by upwards of $1000. Some unscrupulous dealers will reel you in with a low sticker price. They then make their profits with high, unstated tax, title, and license fees. An honest dealer should be able to give you the exact amount for these fees before you commit to a sale.
25. "Going Out of Business" Sales
Even though calls of "80% off!" or "everything must go!" are tempting, buyer beware. On closer examination, the deals may not be all that great. Prices may be artificially inflated before they are discounted. Liquidated merchandise cannot be returned; some stores take advantage of that by selling shoddy products. Don't buy just because you think you're getting a great deal.
24. Free Stuff
You can't get something for nothing, but retailers would like you to think otherwise. They offer a "free" cup of coffee with the purchase of a sandwich, or a "free" dessert for valued customers on their birthdays. The word free is meant you get you in the door to spend money you might otherwise keep in your wallet.
23. Eliminate the Dollar Sign
Have you ever noticed that in fancy restaurants a steak costs 32, rather than $32.00? A study by Cornell University showed that when the price is listed minimally, diners focused more on the food than its cost. Consequently, they spent more.
22. Obscure Reference Pricing
One of the ways we know we're getting a good deal is by comparing the price of our purchase to the price of similar goods. But when we buy something that doesn't have an obvious reference point it's harder to know what the price should be. Think of movie theatre candy, for instance. Because the bulky, square package doesn't look like any other kind of candy we end up feeling fine spending $5 for Skittles.
All over the web, Facebook has placed Like buttons. According to their help center page, "the Like button is a little piece of Facebook embedded on another website." Whether or not you are a registered user, Facebook is still able to receive information about your browser and the date and time you visited the site. Again, according to the help center Facebook will only keep this information for 90 days.
You may feel that you can't be tricked by stores who list their prices as $9.99 instead of $10. Obviously, there is only a penny different between the prices, but stores use it because of something called "left-digit effect." Because we read left to right we tend to encode $9.99 as just $9 if we're in a hurry. The sale is therefore created without the store losing a dime.
19. Personalized Advertising
18. Loyalty Cards
Loyalty cards, especially those that offer you rewards for continued purchasing, are one way that stores ensure you'll keep coming back. They serve another purpose as well. These cards become a record of your purchasing history. By analyzing your past behavior, stores can target you with personalized ads in the future.
17. Small Price Signs
In our minds, we tend to equate large things with high prices and small things with low prices. If a price sign is done in a small font we have an unconscious tendency to think the price is lower overall.
16. Eye Contact
Avoiding eye contact is associated with shameful behaviors. A straightforward gaze means a person is loved and accepted. In pharmaceutical commercials, the "before" actor never looks at the camera, but the "after" actor stares directly at you from the screen. To your unconscious mind, this means taking drug X will not only make you healthier, but also more popular and loved.
15. Fresh Food
Fresh food is healthy food, right? In order to market their fresh produce, health food stores create a holistic "fresh" environment that makes you forget their produce was probably flown in from Argentina a week ago. Fresh flowers at the door, fresh prices scribbled on chalkboard signs, fresh foods nestled in tubs of fresh ice, and freshly fallen "dew" (from a spray bottle) on produce all create the perception that shopping at "environmentally-friendly" stores is a fresh and healthy choice.
14. Appealing Fruit
Even before the advent of GMOs, large fruit companies, such as Dole, were selectively breeding bananas to get the most appealing color. More vibrant bananas sell better, even if they have been in the store longer. The same holds true for apples, some of which have been picked over a year before you eat them because of apple harvesting schedules.
13. Lip Balm
Certain types of lip balm may be deliberately addictive. If your lips tingle when you put it on, that means there's menthol in it; a substance that many claim makes tobacco more addictive. Other lip balms contain carbolic acid which dries out your lips instead of moisturizing them. Look carefully for balms containing salicylic acid, a chemical which may actually be eating away at your lips. Rethink before you reapply.
12. Manly Merchandise
Beauty products aren't just for women anymore. In order to get men to buy body wash, facial scrub, and even makeup, companies start by giving them manly names such as "Ripped Fuel" or "Axe." This way, even when you're buying a lemon-scented foot scrub you're still an axe-wielding warrior — with smooth feet.
11. Vanity Sizing
It feels great when you can still wear the same size of jeans you have since college. The problem is, the number on the jeans may be the same, but the size certainly isn't. In both men's and women's clothing the listed size may be up to five inches smaller than the actual piece of clothing. So if you feel good about wearing a 36 at Old Navy, think again. Their 36 sized jeans actually has a 41 inch circumference.
10. Drinking Games
Some of your most beloved college memories may have been deliberately created by alcohol companies. Much market research has gone into the creation of drinking games that slow down the pace of drinking. Rather than slamming down a few shots and passing out, the point of the games are to keep you drinking all night which, in turn, make you buy more alcohol in the long run.
The word "time" acts as a kind of Pavolvian trigger that gets us to buy things we don't really need. Because time is fleeting, we feel that we need to "act now before it's too late" if we hear the word "time" in an advertisement.
8. The Good Old Days
Through sepia-toned glasses, the past seems like a simpler, more stable time than today. Advertising companies know this, and heavily use nostalgia to market products. Throwback advertising, iconic name-brands, and romanticized fads are all used to get us to open our wallets. Never mind that the past was just as turbulent as the present — nostalgia sells.
7. Natural Food
All-natural, multi-grain food seems like the obvious breakfast choice. The problem is, FDA labeling regulations are so lax that most foods can be labeled as all-natural if they so chose. For instance, as long as potato chips are made from real potatoes and oil they are all-natural. They are still, of course, laden with fat and calories. Fat is still fat, whether it's all-natural or not.
6. Magical Cures
It seems Ponce de Leon's dream is not dead — consumers shell out billions of dollars per year on products that promise them eternal youth. One of the tricks companies use to get consumers to buy their health or beauty product is to include a rare ingredient that is so strange it must have "magical" properties. Why else would you smear fish eggs (above) on your face or ingest horny goat weed?
Who would have ever thought that the direction in which you go through a grocery store effects how much you buy? Marketing companies, that's who. They have found that the average consumer spends $2 more on a counter-clockwise shopping trip than on a clockwise one.
4. Predatory Pricing
While you may think that you're getting a good deal when you buy-two-get-one-free, you're actually falling prey to non-linear pricing. This type of marketing encourages people to buy more than they planned because of the deal they can get. The problem is, when the sale sign goes up, so do the prices. In the end the sale might not save you a dime.
Music has the power to both trigger and alter emotions. The audio architects at Muzak harnessed to create narrowcast channels that alter shoppers' moods so they will buy more. Slower music makes you linger in the grocery aisles, faster music makes you eat quickly in restaurants. The right music can even change your perception of the quality of service.
2. Behavioral Targeting
When you shop online, many websites are equipped with data mining software which allows them to track your browsing history. You then see ads and receive coupon offers that are specifically tailored to your shopping preferences. Because you can easily access the products you're most interested in, you're more likely to buy them.
1. Doctored Search Results
Baynote is a software program that not only uses typical behavioral targeting algorithms to ensure that the most specific ads reach you, they also are able to change the order of your search results on certain websites. For instance, if you're searching for a certain brand of smart phone, when you search "smart phones" on the AT&T website, the brand you've been looking for is likely to appear first.