You may not realize it, but some of your favorite businesses may be manipulating you when you browse their sites. They use eye-catching graphics and other tricks to encourage you to make choices you might not otherwise make. Usually, you don’t even realize you’re being pushed into taking a certain action.
Though you might assume behavior like this would be limited to scammers, it’s surprisingly common — particularly among online retailers. A study by Princeton University found deceptive marketing on 11% of the shopping websites they examined, and the more popular the website, the more likely it was to use marketing tricks.
To avoid being manipulated, you need to be able to recognize the signs that a marketer is trying to prod you into making a specific choice — and once you do recognize these signs, you’ll be surprised by how often you’ll find them. These are the seven most common marketing tricks to look out for.
1. Misdirecting you into making the “right” choice
Deceptive marketing is all about misdirection. The things retailers want you to click will look very appealing, while the things retailers don’t want you to click will look less appealing.
This can be done with visual tricks, like having the the “subscribe” button be large and brightly colored while the “cancel” button in tiny text that you’re likely to ignore. Our eyes — and clicks — are drawn to the button rather than the less-emphasized alternative.
But some retailers use text to push you into an action by making one option sound right, and the other sound wrong. For example, a pop-up window may invite you to sign up for a retailer’s newsletter if you like saving money. Of course you like saving money, so entering your contact information seems like the right choice. The alternative is then presented as wrong, so to avoid signing up for this newsletter you might have to click “I don’t like saving money.” It feels foolish, and you may be cowed into giving up your information anyway.
Websites can also influence you by making the options too complicated to easily understand. Text may include double negatives to make you think they say one thing when they really say another, and check boxes may be automatically checked (or unchecked) without clearly explaining what they mean. When you don’t fully understand what you’re clicking, you’re probably doing what the retailer wants rather than what you want.
These tactics aren’t just used to get your email address and contact information — similar techniques can encourage you to buy pricy accessories, expensive warranties, or upgraded and more expensive products.
Keep your eyes open for these tricks, and don’t let retailers tell you where to click.
2. Sneaky shopping cart additions
Some retailers may add items to your shopping cart without your knowledge. They may automatically add items commonly bought together to your cart, but the deception can be more subtle, too. There may be a checkbox — that’s pre-checked — to add common accessories to your cart when you click to buy an item or you may be presented with a button to add these extras to your cart that you click without really thinking about it.
For example, you might see this with HDMI cables when you buy a new television or with extended warranties when you buy electronics — both of which could be just unnecessary costs.
3. Hidden costs and hidden subscriptions
Let’s say you’ve spent a half hour browsing a retailer finding the perfect product for the perfect price — but when you go to check out, it’s a lot more expensive than you thought it would be. While you probably expect taxes and shipping fees, you may be surprised by handling fees or other added costs. But because you’ve gotten this far, there’s a good chance you’ll click checkout rather than start the process over at another retailer.
Another sneaky added cost is the hidden subscription. In this case, at checkout you’re signing up for a reoccurring subscription when you’re lead to believe it’s just a one-time fee — or even completely free. These subscriptions may not show until you reach checkout and they’re often hidden in the fine print. Many subscription services work like this, offering a free or discounted initial subscription, but signing you up for an ongoing fee that you may not notice until it shows up on your credit card bill.
Remember to look for checkboxes that may let you turn off auto-renew features, or make a note to cancel your subscription before you get billed.
4. Encouraging impulse buys
Some online retailers pressure you to make a decision right now, without thinking it through. This inevitably leads to spending more money than you intended, all because of pushy sales tactics.
Shops may do this by telling you an item is almost out of stock or saying a sale will only last for a limited time. If you’re tempted to click buy, remind yourself that you never need to buy right now to get a good deal. Items will eventually be back in stock and new sales will inevitably come around.
Other retailers take advantage of your fear of missing out by making their products seem popular or in demand. They stress how much other people love their products by including testimonials, or listing how many times a product has been viewed or purchased. In many cases names (and even locations) are attached to these messages, like “Joan from Los Angeles just bought this,” adding an extra dose of realism. But these messages might not be based on real sales or inventory data. Testimonials can be vague and unsourced, while view or purchase numbers could be entirely fabricated.
Don’t fall for these social tricks — there’s never a need to impulse buy.
5. Hiding the price until the end
We’re used to seeing a price tag right next to a product’s description — but not all retailers make their prices that obvious. In this case, you may have to click through several screens to see the price of an item.
This can be common with subscription services with multiple price tiers. The tiers may be complicated and not show prices until you click buy, which makes it difficult to compare what you’re getting for your money.
If it’s a struggle to even figure out what a product costs, maybe it’s just not for you.
6. Making it easy to sign up and hard to cancel
It’s always simple to sign up for things, whether it’s a new streaming service or a monthly subscription box. But if you decide a product isn’t for you, it may not be easy to cancel. You may be required to navigate through multiple cancelation screens, and each step along the way you may be manipulated into making the wrong choices.
For example, the option to cancel a subscription may be tiny gray text at the bottom of the screen while the option to continue a subscription may be a huge, brightly-colored button. It’s easy to click the bright button, perhaps without ever realizing you haven’t canceled. Some retailers will require you to contact customer service directly to cancel, with no way to easily cancel online.
In some cases, the cancelation process can be so frustrating — or so confusing — that you just keep paying. If you’re trying to cancel a subscription, don’t be intimidated by complicated, confusing options: keep at it until you’ve managed to cancel.
7. Requiring account creation before you browse
One particularly annoying retailer trick is to force you to create an account or share information before you can browse. That means the retailer immediately has your contact information to fill up your mailbox with ads and sales to tempt you into spending money — all before you’ve even been able to browse the product catalog.
Requiring you to make that commitment up-front — even a small one — can make you more likely to buy. After all, you’ve already invested this much effort just to browse — you may as well buy something.
3 tips to help you avoid deceptive marketing
Even though you know what you’re looking for, it’s still easy to fall prey to deceptive marketing. But mostly it comes down to three key points:
- Read before you click. Be sure the button you’re clicking says what you think it says before you click and take the time to carefully read options and fine print.
- Don’t let yourself be pressured. Dark patterns — and online scammers — both make you feel like you have to make a decision now. When you’re pressured into making a choice, you’re probably not thinking it through, making it easy for you to fall for a trick.
- Don’t click if you’re confused. It bears repeating that it’s important to know what you’re agreeing to before you click — and some websites make it very hard to figure that out. Whether the prices are obfuscated or the options are excessively complicated, be sure you know exactly what you’re commiting to before you click.
While there are lots of different methods marketers use to push you into making decisions that benefit them, taking it slow and avoiding impulse buying — or impulse clicking — will keep you out of trouble online.
Laws may soon address deceptive marketing
Right now, the only way to avoid these manipulation tactics is to stay on your toes when you’re shopping, but legislation is being considered to ban them. The Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act would ban these practices on large websites — particularly websites targeting children. There’s not much movement on legislation yet, but legislators are working on making our online experiences better. Unfortunately, until they succeed, the only thing we can do is be careful when we’re browsing.
[Image credits: deceptive marketing via BigStockPhoto, screenshots of Speck, Amazon, Hotels.com, LinkedIn, ThredUp]