How Ads Take Advantage of our Cognitive Biases

While I don’t believe we pay attention enough to psychology in advertising many advertisers have made good use of the science. Below are common and easy to spot examples. Some of them are intuitive but it still helps to consciously add them to the repertoire.

Rhyme-as-reason Effect – Rhyming doesn’t just make things more memorable. It also makes us see them as being more accurate or truthful. The most famous example of this is John Cochrane’s memorable “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” defense of O.J. Simpson. Plenty of ad slogans rhyme as well: “A nose in need deserves Puffs Plus indeed”, “Drive sober or get pulled over”, “To save and invest, talk to natwest”.

Decoy Effect – The decoy effect is when an extra option is added to a choice that skews someone’s perception of their relative value and sways them in a certain direction.  One of the best examples of this is the economist’s print and web sale, which was explored in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. I pulled this old image off another site, since the economist has now changed their pricing strategy after all the publicity.

Economist Decoy Effect

As you can see, the online subscription was offered for $59 and the print option was offered at $125. But, the third option combines the first two. It is designed to pull people from the online option to pay for the print version as well. For the customer this probably feels like a good deal, but many of them probably would have been just as happy with the online subscription only (and  they would be $66 bucks richer too).

Another example involves restaurants and wine. People will typically buy the second lowest priced wine at a restaurant, which has led restaurants to strategically price their options, typically by raising the price of the cheapest wine so that it becomes the second cheapest thereby increasing their profit margins. It’s worth mentioning, since we’re talking about biases, that a lot of wine’s taste actually comes from perception of quality rather than inherent characteristics, so it actually might not matter to the consumer that the prices are rearranged.

Picture Superiority Effect – We are better at remembering images than words. In general this means products are going to be easier to sell than services. Either way, finding an image to say what we need to say is a winning strategy.  

That’s why verizon chooses to show you their coverage rather than tell you about it:

Verizon Coverage Map

Framing Effect – You could probably consider the Decoy Effect to be a component of the framing effect. Indeed, almost all of marketing can be attributed to the Framing Effect: How you say something has a big impact on the results of advertisements, even if the information conveyed is the same. 

Are you more likely to buy a package of beef that says “80% lean meat” or one that says “20% fat”? They convey the same information, but I know which one I’d put money on.

Anchoring – The first piece of information we receive about something affects the rest of the information we receive about it. That is, once an anchor is set people don’t tend to move from it as fully as they should. For example, quantity limits can be used to increase sales. If you’ve ever seen a sale that included a maximum limit of the good people could buy that limit actually carries information to us about how many people should buy. It’s creates a starting point for the number we should purchase that is likely far higher than we would have without it.

Anchors can also be set for the amount of something that should be used. You only need to use about a pea-sized shape of toothpaste, yet most people cover the entire brush because that’s what they show in the ads. There’s also the example of Alka-Seltzer, when they started advertising using two tablets sales increased dramatically

Bandwagon Effect or Herd Instinct – Normally in advertising this is exploited with an appeal to the popularity of the brand. It’s not always bad as surely many category leaders are good products, but it does work off our bias to trust in other people’s opinions when we aren’t sure (herd instinct) or off our attempts to fit in (bandwagon effect). 

Any brand trumpeting their success is probably operating on one of these biases. McDonald’s makes very good use of them:


Loss Aversion – We are more averse to losing a particular amount of a good than we are receptive to gaining that same amount. The best example of this deals with blood donations where individuals told to focus on saving lives were significantly less likely to donate than those told to prevent deaths.

Functional Fixedness – Functional fixedness is the idea that we are incapable of seeing alternate uses for products once their established purpose is known. The concept plays a role in quite a few riddles. It’s also a common topic for listicles  But, it can also be used to boost sales for some products. Imagine Duct tape or Baking Soda starting out. They’re each only used for one purpose each, but as time goes on the companies educate us on additional ones. What do sales do? Skyrocket, of course.