Advertising is powerful. Avoiding it — in print, on radio, on television — is one of the best ways to control your urge to spend. When you willingly expose yourself to commercial pitches, you risk spending more than you intend. I’ve posted two articles recently about how marketing manipulates us to buy things. Allow me to belabor this point one last time before I move on. It’s important.

Corporations manipulate us in subtle ways. We know television commercials are designed to sell us things, but how many really understand that their power is felt primarily at a subconscious level, beneath awareness? It’s not that a Taco Bell commercial makes you go buy a chalupa now; it’s that weeks later you’ll find yourself pulling into a drive-thru when you could have been home in a few minutes preparing a salad.

The other day I wrote that people who watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials may be sabotaging themselves. But it’s not just television — marketers target us constantly. I could just as easily write about my own foolish choices. Every time Steve Jobs gives a keynote address, for example, I follow the live text updates. When the speech is over, I download the video. I willingly expose myself to these marketing machinations. And wouldn’t you know it? My life is filled with Apple products. (My mind is working overtime trying to find a way to rationalize an iPhone.)

Paul Bausch recently gave us a guest review of Michael Dawson’s The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life. Bausch wrote:

Beyond emotional and demographic research, it was fascinating to read about Product Management techniques like planned obsolescence where products are specifically built to last for a limited time so markets for those products will continually renew themselves.

The manipulation runs deep.

In Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill describes methods retailers use to enhance sales. Some of these are obvious, such as placing sweetened cereal at kid-height, or surrounding the checkstand with cheap impulse items. But other techniques are more subtle.

One ploy I hate is the freestanding display in the grocery aisle. These racks are placed to impede traffic at locations where the store wants the consumer to stop and look around, the more likely to succumb to an impulse purchase of a high-profit item. This is remarkably effective. Since reading Underhill’s book I’ve made a point to note these at work in our local Safeway. Just last Friday I watched as an old couple was blocked by a display and my wife’s cart. The old man immediately turned his attention to the nearby shelves, spotted a package of cookies, and placed them in the cart next to his bran flakes. He bought something on impulse, something he would have simply passed by had the barrier not been there. (More about Why We Buy here.)

The fully-stocked shelves of a store not far from my home. Photo by lyzadanger.

One of my favorite anecdotes about molding consumer behavior can be found in Malcolm Gladwell‘s best-seller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell describes the work of Louis Cheskin. Cheskin was a prominent marketer who did pioneering work in package design. One of his projects was an attempt to increase the sales of margarine:

Now the question of how to increase sales of margarine was much clearer. Cheskin told his client to call their product Imperial Margarine, so they could put an impressive-looking crown on the package. As he had learned…the color was critical: he told them the margarine had to be yellow. Then he told them to wrap it in foil, because in those days foil was associated with high quality. And sure enough, if they gave someone two identical pieces of bread — one buttered with white margarine and the other buttered with foil-wrapped yellow Imperial Margarine — the second piece of bread won hands-down in taste tests every time. “You never ask anyone, ‘Do you want foil or not?’ because the answer is always going to be ‘I don’t’ know’ or ‘Why would I?'” says Masten. “You just ask them which tastes better, and by that indirect method you get a picture of what their true motivations are.”

Employees of the marketing firm that bears Cheskin’s name took Gladwell on a tour of a supermarket. There they pointed out subtle touches that can persuade a consumer to buy: the color of a 7-Up can, the size of Chef Boyardee’s head on a package of ravioli, the use of a glass container for canned fruit instead of a tin. (Look for a larger excerpt soon — Gladwell replied to my e-mail and granted me permission to post a long passage! This makes me giddy.)

Ultimately we must each bear responsibility for our purchasing behavior. We can try not to be swayed by advertising and marketing. But no matter what we do, we are all affected by attempts to manipulate our subconscious. Even when we believe we are immune to manipulation, we are not.

However, if we’re aware of these marketing tricks, if we can catch ourselves pulling into the Taco Bell drive-thru, or reaching for a can of 7-Up, we can make more informed decisions. We can shake off some of the manipulation and save money in the process. Education helps. Reading Why We Buy helped me view retail stores in a new way, to see the little things that are done to part me from my hard-earned cash.

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