How Brands Addict Us

It’s done through through broken promises and spikes of dopamine

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Source: How Brands Addict Us

Douglas Van Praet

There’s a reason why marketers spend billions of dollars on advertising every year. It works! That’s because humans, and by extension, all consumers, are wired for the joys of anticipation more so than the pleasures of actual experience. It is this electricity of outlook more so than the pleasure of product that drives our desires to buy more and more.

As the brilliant scholar and best-selling author Robert Wright reveals in his latest book Why Buddhism is True, “Natural Selection doesn’t ‘want’ us to be happy, after all; it just ‘wants’ us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.” In other words, our satisfying feelings evolved not for our enjoyment, but rather for the survival of ourselves, and our DNA. This is why it should come as no surprise that we possess fanatical emotional devotion for activities involving food and sex.

Wright points to a seminal research study wherein scientists monitored dopamine-generating neurons of monkeys as they were administered sweet drops of juice. As expected there was a release of dopamine when the juice made contact with the monkeys’ tongues. The experimenters then trained the monkeys through classical conditioning to anticipate the arrival of the juice after turning on a light. As the researchers continued, again and again, to associate the turning on of the light with the imminent arrival of the juice, they found that more and more dopamine was being generated in anticipation of the juice, and less and less came after the monkeys actually tasted its sweetness.

It’s not a leap of faith to see how these findings might play out in consumer markets. As advertisers invest more heavily in sales promotion and advertising, consumers become more and more addicted to new pleasurable ‘goods’. As Wright says, “If you encounter a new kind of pleasure—if, say, you’ve somehow gone your whole life without eating a powdered-sugar doughnut, and somebody hands you one and suggests you try it—you’ll get a big blast of dopamine after the taste of the doughnut sinks in. But later, once you’re a confirmed powdered-sugar doughnut eater, the lion’s share of the dopamine spike comes before you actually bite into the doughnut, as you’re staring longingly at it…”

Consumer decision-making is about making anticipatory judgments, and our brain does this largely through the release of dopamine. This “gimme more” neurotransmitter is responsible for wanting, craving, and motivating us to do nearly everything, including sex, drugs, gambling, playing video games, even shopping, and yes, bingeing on doughnuts. The dopamine system also has a close relationship with the opioid system of the brain, which produces pleasurable sensations.

The neuroscientist Read Montague demonstrated that merely seeing a Coke label was enough to activate the brain’s pleasure centers without even taking a sip, by elevating the levels of dopamine, a naturally occurring chemical produced by the brain that signals feelings of reward. The way we plan future behavior is based upon present feelings that signal future expectations: The more rewarding it feels, the more likely we are to engage in that activity.

Dopamine is also the feel-good “drug” of anticipation. We do not need to experience the product to get the rush of dopamine. We only need to imagine and anticipate it in our minds by activating our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that lets us envision future possibilities. Montague’s team used magnetic resonance imaging of the brain to fairly accurately predict participants’ preferences before they would even take a sip! “We were stunned by how easy this was,” Montague said. “I could tell what they were going to do by looking at their brain scans.”

Dopamine is also the chemical responsible for making value judgments that guide decisions. This choice just “feels better” than the other choice. Preference and enjoyment of Coke is derived from not just the sweet taste but also the “sweet” emotions. Marketers are in the business of selling good feelings. And when we are exposed to a logo or an ad again and again, we become conditioned in a Pavlovian sense to enjoy the brand independent of the product itself. We love the brand, not just the sugary, effervescent liquid.

Advertisers lean into this human truth by focusing their efforts on what is known in the industry as ‘The Brand Promise’, more so than the actual product. As a result, they often spend far more on marketing the brand than developing the product. It is this ‘Brand Promise’ to consumers that is at the centerpiece of the marketing strategy and campaign.

If we borrow from Robert Wright’s powdered doughnut analogy, we can imagine how this line of thinking might play out in-market as we’re increasingly conditioned and triggered through media exposure. As Wright points out, “The pre-bite dopamine blast you’re now getting is the promise of more bliss, and the post-bite drop in dopamine is, in a way, the breaking of the promise – or, at least, it’s a kind of biochemical acknowledgment that there was some overpromising. To the extent that you bought the promise – anticipated greater pleasure than would be delivered by the consumption itself – you have been, if not deluded in the strong sense of that term, at least misled.”

Now it is important to note that it is evolution that it is doing the “misleading” here in the first place and not (necessarily) the advertisers. The marketers are leveraging the way consumption happens and advertising works by spending a great deal of money in the ads and media that facilitate market share growth, one dopamine spike at a time. But is that the way forward?

Now that you know how the ad game really works, you can also resist buying into the temptation of (over) promise, by focusing more of your attention on how the product actually delivers. And when you buy into a brand that really over promises and under delivers you can vote with your wallet next go ’round, and take to social media to inform your peers, and vice versa. The more and more we judge brands and write reviews based on product experience, the more consumers can convince marketers (for a change) to spend their millions on developing better products as opposed to creating better ads.

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How Your Brain Forces You to Watch Ads

…and how you can learn to ignore them

Related image

Source: How Your Brain Forces You to Watch Ads

Douglas Van Praet

Every day we navigate through a cluttered media environment of thousands of ads vying for our precious time and limited attention. Studies in North America have shown that on average we are exposed to 3,000 ads per day. If you think you can simply choose to ignore these messages, think again. The best ads are designed to slip through your best defenses.

That’s because every consumer, i.e., human, has an automatic hardwired process for attention and awareness. And our decision to pay attention to stimuli in our environment (such as advertising) is often determined by our emotions, not our thoughts. But here is the challenge for viewers. We don’t choose our emotions. They happen unconsciously. We can only try to choose how to think about our feelings after the fact. So when an advertisement triggers a strong emotion, brands can rise to the top of shopping lists and markets. Because at this stage of human evolution, our feelings influence our thinking way more than our thoughts influence our emotions.

Think of emotions as automated actions programs that guide us through our (media) environment without having to think. Ads that trigger emotions can literally hijack critical thought and conscious awareness. Research has shown that ads processed with high levels of attention are six times more impactful at driving brand choice as compared to ads that aren’t consciously recalled. And cognitive science experiments corroborate that familiarity breeds affection through mere exposure.

Every second your senses are taking in about 11 million bits of information, but you are only aware of about 40 of those bits. Because our conscious mind is so limited it works on a need to know basis. Think of the human brain as a survival machine vigilantly scanning the environment always making predictions about what will happen next. It works by recognizing and responding to patterns. Cognitive science tells us we don’t notice the world around us when it’s reliably predicted away, when what we are experiencing in the moment matches our intuitive predictions.

However, missed predictions fire a hardwired neural response that biologically commands our attention. This reaction is what neuroscientists technically call the “Oh Shit!” circuit. When we expect something to happen and it does not, a distress signal is released from the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The ACC is closely wired to the thalamus, a dual-lobed mass of gray matter beneath the cerebral cortex that plays a critical role in awareness by helping direct conscious attention. Nothing grabs our attention better than the element (and emotion) of surprise. Advertisers do this best by interrupting expected patterns.

In addition, novelty primarily activates the dopamine system in our brain, which is responsible for wanting behavior. The dopamine system also has a close relationship with the opioid system of the brain, which produces pleasurable sensations. Since learning is so important to human survival it makes sense that natural selection has also instilled within us feel good emotional responses to novel stimuli.

For instance, the Old Spice brand completely transformed its old-fashioned image thanks to an infectious effort that was brimming with pattern interrupts. This campaign embedded a much cooler and contemporary brand image in the minds of people by introducing the world to the charismatic hunk Isaiah Mustafa, or “the man your man can smell like.”

The magic behind this amazingly impactful campaign is not just the smooth pitchman of Old Spice body wash, but the equally smooth interruptions. The introductory commercial featured a series of seamless transitional pattern interrupts as Isaiah directs the viewer’s attention from unsuspecting scene to scene. He goes from his bathroom, to dropping in on a sailboat, and finally ending up atop a horse. Our brains are surprised and delighted with a blast of dopamine and the pay out of attention again, again, and again. The decision to watch this ad is not a conscious choice. It is the neurobiological equivalent of a forced exposure. Not surprisingly, this campaign generated an amazing 1.4 billion media impressions and a 27% increase in sales during the first 6 months post launch.

Similarly, there are certain stimuli—such as babies, for example—that come prepackaged with positive emotional responses. We don’t consciously choose to find babies adorable. No more than we choose to feel the “aww” reaction that commandeers our thoughts or the impetus to post pictures all over Facebook. The decision to find babies so compelling has been made millions of years ago through evolution and natural selection. If our forbears were not instinctually compassionate towards these innocent helpless creatures, they would have never survived. And our DNA and species would eventually cease to exist.

So when ads add novel twists to these mini mush magnets, attention and engagement soars. Take for instance the computer-generated Evian babies on roller skates who break-danced and back-flipped their way to what the Guinness Book of World Records declared was the most viewed online ad in history. More recently, the most watched ad on YouTube in 2013 was another spot by Evian called “Baby & Me.” This approach featured grown ups dancing while unexpectedly discovering their inner babies dancing in sync as their reflections in a mirror.

Just because you are aware of seeing an ad or buying a brand doesn’t mean you are aware of the unconscious forces that prompted you to do so. The only way to avoid the trap of becoming glued to these types of advertising is to become aware of the patterns. So much of today’s ads are based on interrupting patterns and generating deep primal emotions because our attention span is an increasingly rare resource. By becoming aware of these patterns your mind will intuitively learns to predict and ignore them in the future and you’ll gain back precious seconds of your busy life.

And remember to push the pause button in your mind and rationally contemplate what draws you to advertising and products in the first place. When it comes to buying brands we often don’t have free will, but we do have free won’t. We can’t help having the feelings tugging at our heartstrings and desires. But we can also rationally reject these suggestions come shopping time if it doesn’t make sense.

For more information check out my book: Unconscious Branding

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Credit Cards Make You Pay Attention to Benefits

Credit cards change the way you think about products.

Source: Credit Cards Make You Pay Attention to Benefits

Art Markman Ph.D.

Most people have had the experience that paying for something with a credit card seems less painful than paying for it with cash. In addition to this common experience, a number of studies have demonstrated that people are generally more willing to part with their money when paying with credit cards than with cash. They are also willing to pay more for a product when paying with a credit card than when paying with cash.

There are many reasons for this difference. For example, it is just harder to keep track of how much you are spending when you are just dealing with numbers on a credit card than when you have actual cash.

A paper by Promothesh Chatterjee and Randall Rose in the April 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research suggests another reason. People pay more attention to the benefits of a product when paying with credit cards than with cash, but they pay more attention to the costs associated with the product when paying with cash than with credit cards.

In one study, participants were first primed to think about credit cards or cash. This priming was done by having people use a set of words to form sentences. Some of those words were related either to credit cards (Visa) or to cash (ATM).

Next, participants read about a digital camera. They were given information about benefits of the camera (“It has a 12x optical zoom”) and costs (“Has a 2-year warranty that costs an additional $69.99.”). They were asked how much they would be interested in paying to buy this camera. Later, they saw descriptions of possible features of a camera and were asked to remember whether those were actually properties they saw in the description.

Consistent with the previous research, people who were primed to think about credit cards were willing to pay more for the camera than people who were primed to think about cash. In addition, the people who were primed to think about credit cards were more accurate at recognizing the benefits of a product than its costs. In contrast, the people primed to think about cash were (somewhat) more accurate recognizing the costs than the benefits. A second study found a similar pattern using a slightly different methodology.

In a final study, participants had the chance to actually make choices. Again, they were primed to think about cash or credit cards. This time, though, they saw descriptions of two mp3 players.  One of them had better benefits than the other. The second had fewer costs than the first. People primed to think about credit cards selected the player with the better benefits about 75% of the time. People primed to think about cash selected the player with the lower costs about 75% of the time.

Putting all of this together, then, the form of payment you use to make a purchase affects how you evaluate the items. Credit cards lead you to focus on the benefits of a product. Cash leads you to focus on the costs.

What should you do?

When making any large purchase, you should think about whether you would be just as willing to buy the product if you were paying cash as if you were paying with credit. This can be particularly important for purchases like cars and electronics where salespeople like to add on expensive warranties. In the context of spending thousands of dollars on a purchase, a few extra hundred dollars may not feel like very much. It is worth thinking about all that you could do with those extra hundreds. Thinking about paying with cash may help you to do that.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance

Follow a team of UCLA anthropologists as they venture into the stuffed-to-capacity homes of dual income, middle-class American families in order to truly understand the food, toys, and clutter that fill them. Series: “A Cluttered Life: Middle-Class Abundance”

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Are You a Shopaholic? Five Profiles of Compulsive Buyers

When does shopping become “compulsive buying”?

Source: Are You a Shopaholic? Five Profiles of Compulsive Buyers

Mariana Bockarova Ph.D.

Natalie never saw herself as someone who had a “problem” shopping: The only time she ever bought anything was when it was on sale. She truly enjoyed bargain-hunting and finding exclusive sales on shopping forums, and would often buy things for other people. To her, shopping was not only an activity she enjoyed, but stopping by her favorite outlet mall after a stressful workday always gave her a much-needed lift.

Does Natalie have a problem with shopping? According to research outlined in Benson’s “I Shop Therefore I Am,” compulsive buyers are those who are psychologically driven to shop. What matters to such shoppers is not the amount they spend, but the effect that the very act of shopping has on them. Here are five profiles of “compulsive buyers” outlined in Boundy’s “When Money Is the Drug.” Does Natalie — or do you — fit the bill?

1. An “image spender” is always the first to offer to pick up the tab or purchase logo-heavy items, often spending in a very conspicuous way, even when it’s unaffordable or unnecessary. For this type of compulsive buyer, image is everything, and their sense of worth is derived from being perceived as if they are more important or impressive than they really are.

2. The “bargain-hunter” — someone who searches for good deals and haggles with a seller — is easily mistaken as a savvy shopper. In reality, this person can usually afford to pay full price for the item, but instead derives a sense of power, control, and “victory” when bargaining over the seller. This form of compulsive buying is theorized to relate to childhoodissues, wherein the seller is a parental proxy, representing the mother or father who constantly withheld anything from their child. By “outsmarting” the parental proxy through bargaining down the price by pointing out defects or other similar strategies, or even walking away from the product, the buyer feels the thrill of having won over the seller and gotten exactly what they wanted — a sense of control over their possessions and life.

3. The “compulsive shopper” is one who shops unconsciously to avoid negative feelings, including depression, anger, fear, loneliness and boredom. When shopping, this type of shopper feels entitled, and often rationalizes spending as something “I deserve.” During shopping, this person often feel excited, in control, and has a sense of well-being, but once the shopping is over, and the shopper has settled at home, negative emotions — like anxiety over the amount spent and shame over not being able to control — take over, and the shopper feels let down over the items purchased as not giving the same high when first bought to boot. As a result, this type of compulsive buyer often has hoards of items in his or her home that go unused, and clothing with the tags still on. This type of shopping may be related to feeling deprived, and the act of shopping allows for indulgence or, more commonly, is a strategy to cope with negative emotions in the short term.

4. The “codependent spender” is one who purchases for others in order to win their approval, friendship, loyalty, or love. This type of shopper usually purchases items for family, friends, and acquaintances alike, or anyone from whom they seek approval, appreciation, cooperation, or control. The unintended effect is that through the giving, the recipient may feel the strings attached, resulting in confusion, incongruity, or even resentment. Though unintended, this acts as a sense of a self-fulfilling prophecy for the shopper: They give because of a fear of being abandoned, but the act of giving, in fact, may be part or whole of what drives the abandonment itself.

5. The “bulimic spender” spends until there are no more funds left to spend as a way to impose limits on oneself. This type of buyer, however, feels deeply ashamed once all of the funds are spent. As noted, “perhaps feeling bad is what the bulimic spender is driven to seek.”

If your spending habits are out of control, consider seeking professional help in case there may be underlying issues fueling the need to shop.


Boundy, D. (2000). When money is the drug. I shop, therefore I am: Compulsive buying and the search for self, 3-26.

Benson, A. L. (Ed.). (2000). I shop, therefore I am: Compulsive buying and the search for self. Jason Aronson.

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Shoppers are buying clothes just for the Instagram pic, and then returning them

The rise of social media has meant that everyone is expected to maintain and curate a personal brand.

By Hanna Kozlowska

Source: Shoppers are buying clothes just for the Instagram pic, and then returning them

Buying clothes for a fancy event, tucking in the tags, and returning them to the store the next day has for years been the strategy of thrifty shoppers. Today, people are doing it just for the ‘gram.

According to a survey commissioned by the credit card company Barclaycard, nearly one in 10 UK shoppers (9%) admit to buying clothing only to take a photo on social media. After the “outfit of the day” makes it online, they return it back to the store.

The survey of 2,002 adults showed that shoppers aged 35-44 are the most likely to do this, and men outnumbered women. (That being said, the survey omits teenagers, a massive demographic for Instagram).

According to Barclaycard, the introduction of “try before you buy” policies at online retailers—where people pay for clothing they ordered online after they’ve tried it on at home—could be contributing to this trend.

But the rise of social media has meant that everyone, not just celebrities, is expected to maintain and curate a personal brand. Since we’re constantly documenting our lives and posting them online for public judgement, getting caught in the same outfit more than once—which many see as a faux pas—is almost unavoidable. And the cost of all those #ootd’s adds up, making returns an understandable tactic.

There are brands that tailor specifically to the Instagram shopper, like the uber-popular Fashion Nova. “These are clothes made for social media: meant to be worn once, maybe twice, photographed, and discarded,” Allison P. Davis wrote in her deep-dive about the company in The Cut. Another favorite of the Instagram age is Rent the Runway, which embraces the return philosophy, and lets customers rent designer clothing for a fee.

Some, however, are moving in the opposite direction. Pieces embracing “work uniforms” have proliferated in recent years, aiming to liberate women from the tyranny of outfit decisions. The concept of the “capsule wardrobe”—which calls for investing in a small number of high-quality pieces instead of lots of trendy, discardable clothes—is also making a comeback. Environmentalists have also raised the issue of the landfill waste created by returns. And then there’s fashion icon Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, whose every outfit sells out in seconds, but who frequently wears the same outfit twice (as did former US first lady Michelle Obama, another trendsetter).

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Discount shoe retailer Payless opened a fake luxury store and convinced influencers to pay $600 for $20 footwear

Payless filled a former Armani store with its own shoes and added an extra zero onto its regular prices.

Payless managed to trick fashion influencers.Payless / YouTube

Source: Discount shoe retailer Payless opened a fake luxury store and convinced influencers to pay $600 for $20 footwear

  • Would you pay $600 for a pair of Payless ShoeSource sneakers?
  • Some influencers would.
  • As part of a viral ad campaign, the discount shoe retailer opened up a luxury shoe store and filled it with its cheap footwear.
  • The company branded itself as “Palessi” and managed to trick fashion influencers into paying more than 10 times as much as the original prices for its discount shoes.
  • According to AdWeek, the reactions of the prank victims will be used for cable-TV and social-media ads.
  • The influencers were given their money back and got to keep the shoes for free.

Payless recently had some fun at the expense of influencers.

With some help from advertising agency DCX Growth Accelerator, the discount shoe retailer filled a former Armani store with its own shoes and added an additional zero onto its regular prices.

It then invited fashion influencers to get an exclusive first look at the new brand.

What did they call it? “Palessi,” of course.

Naturally, the influencers fell for the experiment.

A series of videos released by the retailer showed their guests waxing lyrical over the “sophisticated” footwear, which they could tell was “made with high-quality materials.”

Some even paid $200, $400, and even $600 for shoes that are normally sold for $19.99 to $39.99.

Palessi sold more than $3,000 worth of shoes during its first three hours after opening.

However, the company returned the cash spent by the victims of its prank and let them keep the shoes for free.

Cameras caught the priceless reactions of said victims when they were told the shoes were not designer and, in fact, came from Payless.

According to AdWeek, these reactions will be broadcast in a series of ads on cable networks and social media.

Payless “wanted to push the social-experiment genre to new extremes, while simultaneously using it to make a cultural statement,” Doug Cameron, chief creative officer of DCX Growth Accelerator, told AdWeek.

“The campaign plays off of the enormous discrepancy and aims to remind consumers we are still a relevant place to shop for affordable fashion,” Payless’ head of marketing, Sara Couch, added.


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