How Marketers Take Advantage of Cognitive Bias

This is a great presentation by Scott Berkun, who is the author of the book Confessions of a Public Speaker. The talk which is titled “How to Call BS on a Social Media Guru” makes some interesting points about marketing and cognitive bias.

SMC Seattle May Event: How to Call BS on a Social Media Guru from SMC Seattle on Vimeo.

Berkun discusses how marketers take advantage of cognitive bias to persuade consumers to want to buy things without them knowing why they want to buy it.

“It’s research that has been done over the past 10-20 years…that basically points out how flawed our brains are… at making decisions about things. There’s all these inherent kinds of bias that we have that influences us in ways that we don’t notice. Good advertising and marketing take advantage of these things” (9:40 minute mark of video).

He describes the example of a car commercial which shows a good looking guy driving a car through a beautiful valley next to an attractive woman, but the ad tells us nothing about the car.

According to Wikipedia’s definition:
A cognitive bias is the human tendency to draw incorrect conclusions in certain circumstances based on cognitive factors rather than evidence.

There are a long list of almost a hundred cognitive biases that can be seen at Wikipedia.

Some biases that are really interesting are:

Confirmation bias: the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions

Negativity bias: the tendency to pay more attention and give more weight to negative than positive experiences or other kinds of information.

Herd instinct: common tendency to adopt the opinions and follow the behaviors of the majority to feel safer and to avoid conflict.

Basically, Berkun wanted to raise awareness of how cognitive bias influences us to encourage us to make decisions based on evidence. I agree that we should be aware of how cognitive bias can influence our decisions, however I would point out that there are many situations where cognitive shortcuts are very helpful. If you are making routine decisions like which brand of soap to buy, it would be very time consuming if you conducted research on the empirical evidence on which brand is best for your skin. You will probably base your decision on which brand you have had positive associations with in the past with and go with that one.

Is focusing on eliciting emotional feelings in ads rather than focusing on the hard facts manipulative? It does appear to be a more effective method of marketing, but I believe that while marketing can influence people to have a stronger desire for a product or service, the individual always has the freedom of choice to not make a purchase and save the money.