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Psychology of Gift Giving: How Retailers Manipulate Buyers

By: Andrew Deen


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It’s no secret that the be-all and end-all of advertising is to boost sales of a given product or service. What is a bit more clandestine is how some marketing teams go about making sure their product or service sticks in our brains and pulls on our heartstrings. Seduction, temptation, and even fear are all tactics used by marketers, especially during the holiday season when everyone’s spending habits are in high gear.

According to Jorge Barraza, Ph.D., professor in the online Master of Science in Applied Psychology program at the University of Southern California, “gift giving is filled with anxiety. Some of it has to do with all the costs associated with it, but a significant amount of that stress comes from finding the right gift. Gifting can signal who we are, for instance, it can communicate the thoughtfulness or generosity of the gift giver. Advertising can leverage this by showing how products can fulfill these consumer needs.”

Here is a closer look at how they do it, so you can stay sharp this Christmas season and base your shopping lists off desires of your loved ones, not on ploys from marketing agencies.

Kids Bring Clicks

For parents, it’s natural to see aspects of your own children when you see other children, both in their day-to-day activities, and in the world of entertainment (which includes advertising). Creating an ad that shows children being full of joy because of a product or service is sure to make parents think, “I want my kids to be that happy,” when they should really be thinking, “Do my kids really need that?”

Popularity is also a lot more important to youth than it is to adults, and making something look cool, or a must-have for kids to make friends is another tactic marketers use, and for good reasons. Even in the times of COVID, peer influence is a major factor when it comes to youngsters’ desires, and with that: a popular kid who uses a product immediately becomes an unpaid brand influencer, and marketers are very aware of this. Easier said than done, but it’s important to talk to your kids about why they want something, and if the answer is, “Because someone else has it,” it may not actually be something that will add value to their young lives. S

In extreme cases, marketers even play to babies still in the womb. Soothing music has been proven to make babies more calm and even able to recognize the calming music after birth, and those who market towards pregnant women often do so with music that has the same effect.

Panic Produces Reactions

It’s safe to say that 2020 has brought with it more uncertainty than any other year in recent and not-so-recent memory, and sure enough, the marketing world aimed to capitalize, just as they did during previous (albeit, not as serious) scares like SARS. Just as wars aren’t something that anyone wishes for, but do end up generating a lot of commerce, contagions and other disasters tend to lead to certain industries making a little extra cash.

How the marketers capitalize revolves around fear related to a given outbreak or disaster, and with COVID-19 still very much a part of everyday life, it’s a fine example to use. Paper products, for instance, don’t prevent viruses, nor do they cure them, but that doesn’t stop marketers from making people think that their house won’t be clean and sanitized without them. When an advertisement makes you feel like you need something or else your safety is in jeopardy, you should definitely think twice before making a purchase.

Overly “Transparent”

Some companies may play to the very emotions sparked by reading an article such as this one, and as the old adage goes, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” If advertisements focus more on their commitments to customer satisfaction, confidentiality, or transactional transparency, it’s okay to feel safe, but you should also look deeper at the product or service offered, instead of basing your decision on how an ad makes you feel.

Other Things to Consider

Though customer reviews can certainly be helpful, they should be researched independently. If a company shoves reviews down your throat, be sure to look up some of your own. Any sort of persuasive tactic should be thought about, and at the end of the day, remember that it is marketers’ jobs to make you want something, but it is your job to determine if you really do.

Published: December 23, 2020

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Andrew Deen

Andrew Deen has been a consultant for startups in almost every industry from retail to medical devices and everything in between. He implements lean methodology and is currently writing a book about scaling up business. Twitter @AndrewDeen14.

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