How Marketers Manipulate You Into Becoming Their Friend

Shocking research reveals why you like people (and companies) that deceive you

Source: How Marketers Manipulate You Into Becoming Their Friend

By Douglas Van Praet

There’s a good reason marketers want you to be their friend, family, club member or part of their “in-crowd.” Advertisers have learned that it pays to establish a strong affinity with their brand community. Today, community building in marketing and social media is the brand imperative. And “Friends and Family” loyalty programs now abound.

But consumer psychologists have now also learned that our affiliation with a group can create a bias in our judgments in favor of marketers. This lapse in judgment is in play, even when you are aware that the seller is deceiving you.

Most people believe they are being fair and impartial when judging the transgressions of others and how they should be punished. After all, what’s wrong is wrong. People and companies should be punished in accordance with their actions to the extent to which they harm us. Right? Well, think again.

As it turns out, we have a built-in blind spot that’s easily exploited. And the irony is we recognize it in others, but not in ourselves. This error in thinking makes us treat people (and marketers) better, even when they don’t deserve it and take advantage of us! All they have to do is convince you that you are just like them!

In a recent study conducted at the University of Cincinnati, Scott Wright, John Dinsmore and James Kellaris designed a research scenario in which a marketer sells an unfair credit card described as being developed just for the city or town that the research subjects identified with most. But the product also penalized buyers with a high interest rate that would result in incurring significant amounts of debt.

The study sought to understand the role of consumers’ relationship to the marketer by creating an “us versus them” mentality. Participants had indicated in a preliminary questionnaire what town or city they identified with most. In some instances, the salesperson was described as being a member of the same region as the customer to create a perception of in-group affiliation.

When subjects were asked to judge the ethics of the seller that sold them the unfair product, they were more likely to judge in-group members who sold the card to other in-group affiliates more harshly, than in-group members who sold the cards to out-group members. In other words, they judged the marketers who claimed to be from the same region as them to be the most unethical due to the stigma of disloyalty.

But there was a big difference between what they said and what they did. Those harsher criticisms did not translate into harsher sanctions against the seller. Cardholders were upset, but they let their fellow community members slide. Specifically, the victims were asked how they would penalize the salesperson that sold them the unfair product. Card purchasers were more lenient to those salespersons from their region, even though they perceived their violation to be more unethical.

Loyalty to our social group is a deeply rooted byproduct of human evolution—one that makes us afford greater latitude to people who are similar to us as opposed to strangers. For over 99% of human history we depended on our tribe for safety and survival. These were bands of tightly-bound people, many of which were close-kin. Their opinions and feelings mattered.

So when marketers enlist you into their brand communities today it can create a bias in your behavior—one that makes you more likely to forgiveand forget and kiss and make up, even if the intent was to harm you. “Fundamentally, the research shows that we are programmed to treat in-group members differently than out-group members, possibly as an evolutionary legacy of survival in the ancestral environment,” says marketing professor James Kellaris. “We tend to go easy on fellow in-group members and harder on strangers, due to complications of loyalty.”

What is most disconcerting about this finding is how simple it is to manipulate people, and how easy it is to create the belief that a complete stranger can be perceived to be part of your in-group. Others can control your prejudices just by telling you that they share similarities that can be seemingly arbitrary or even false.

When marketers can demonstrate a perception of closeness to their customers, it can also create distance from their accurate sense of what is morally right. It can convince us that their slip-ups and even their transgressions are somehow less wrong.

But it would also be irrational to conclude that the brands and marketing programs that seek your loyalty are all designed to take advantage of you. Many of these brands and programs can and do offer substantive benefits.

What’s important is to recognize the blind-spot in you, and have the foresight to choose brands based upon the merits of their product and not your similarity to the marketer.

But always be wary of a salesperson who starts a conversation by asking you, “where are you from?”

To learn more about the many ways you are being swayed without your knowing, check out my book Unconscious Branding or my other articles, and follow me on Twitter.


Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He applies unconscious behaviorism, neurobiology, and evolutionary psychology to business.

About Donna L. Roberts, PhD

Dr. Donna Roberts has been involved in higher education at military bases for over 30 years, including both faculty and administrative positions. She has been with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University since 2003 and is presently assigned duties as the Department Chair for Social Sciences and Economics in the College of Arts and Sciences. As a faculty member Dr. Roberts has been involved in all aspects of the curriculum – from development to evaluation to delivery. Additionally, she has served as an Officer of the Faculty Senate and on various strategic University committees. Her research interests include media psychology, prison reform, human and animal rights, educational psychology and industrial/organizational psychology. Her background is in education and the social sciences with educational qualifications including: • Ph.D. in Psychology (Northcentral University) • MAS/MBA in Aviation (ERAU) • M.Ed. in Adult & Higher Education (University of Oklahoma) • M.H.R. (University of Oklahoma) • M.Ed. in Counseling (University of Maryland) Donna is originally from a small town in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York – Canandaigua (a Native American name that means “the chosen spot”). She currently resides in Europe with her husband and various rescue cats.
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