Why we buy what we don’t need

With the development of technology, advertisers have become smarter.

They use sneaky psychological tricks to influence our buying behavior.

You may have noticed some tricks that made you buy and think that is just a coincidence. But, when it comes to making money nothing is left to chance.

Here are some psychological tricks that marketers use to manipulate us:

Born to buy

Scientists have known for years that maternal speech is audible in utero. A fetus can actually hear the mother’s voice from inside the womb. Studies show that the music they hear leaves a powerful effect that can shape their adult tastes.

Music is powerful enough to produce fetal memories.

When the mother heard a tune every day and had a positive response to it, the fetus, and later the newborn, could have a conditioned response to that jingle.

The child will have a sense of nostalgia when listening to it and it may become a customer of that company.

You are what mom eats

Pregnant women around the world know what they consume has a big impact on the health of their unborn babies.  But, you may not know what they consume influences the child’s eating habits.

If a pregnant woman smoke it’s more likely that their child will become a smoker by the age of 22.[1]

Also, when mothers eat a lot of junk food, their children will have a strong affinity for junk food.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School conducted a study in 2007, in which 1044 mother and child pairs took part. Pregnant women who gained excessive weight were 4 times more likely to have a child who becomes overweight than women who gained inadequate weight.[2]

If a mother eats healthy foods, then the child will prefer healthy foods. As with music, we also develop preferences about specific flavors in the womb.

Companies have taken this to their advantage.

For example, Kopiko, a candy brand in the Philippines supplies pediatricians to give away to pregnant women. In focus groups, both parents and children say kopiko gives them a feeling of nostalgia. Women that consumed kopiko while pregnant say when they’d give small doses of Kopiko Coffe to their screaming babies. Instantly, it would calm the babies down.

Brands and babies

In surveying 2,035 children and adults, a research company found that 53% of adults and 56% of teens used brands they remembered from their childhoods. Especially products such as foods, beverages, and healthcare goods.

Companies use various psychological tricks to attract these young consumers. This may clarify why children under the age of three represent a $20 billion market to advertisers.

Younger and younger kids are being exposed to advertising more than ever before.

68% of children under the age of 3 are watching screen media regularly such as TV, games, or videos.[3]  By the age of six, a child is able to recognize brands and their logos like McDonald’s, Disney, Pepsi, and Toyota.

The younger we use a brand, the more likely we are to continue using it for the years to come. But that’s not the only reason companies are advertising to younger kids.

Another reason is that the child can influence their parent’s purchases. 70% of spontaneous food purchases come from a nagging child. And one of the two mothers will buy a product just because her child demands it.

When companies produce a desire in the child, it triggers desire in the whole family.


We all have sweet memories from the past. Maybe the taste of chocolate, a song, a memory from a summer holiday, or a memorable present you took for Christmas.

In a 2006 study carried out at the University of Southampton, 79% of the 172 students said they experience nostalgic thoughts at least once a week, while 16% said they have those moments daily.

But, does being nostalgic has any benefit? According to Scientific American, recalling past memories elevates mood, boosts self-esteem, and strengthens relationships.

Nostalgia is a source of psychological well-being.[4]

The point is, we tend to live in the past (and to some extent the future), and our brains like it that way.

We also tend to feel younger than we are. No matter how many birthdays we celebrate, there is an inner age that doesn’t want to pass.   No one likes the thought of getting old.

Marketers know well that our “perceived” age is a huge factor in our shopping choices.

The Ultimate Managed Hosting Platform

Why does a fifty-year-old woman buy anti-wrinkle cream or hair dye products?

Why does a forty-year-old man buys a sports car?

Not just to look younger but to shorten the bridge between the current age and the age they feel inside.

The power of peers

We saw different tricks that make us buy more.

But, do you know which is the most effective trick?

It’s your friend, your cousin, or even a stranger.

What the other person says, matters to us, a lot.

We watch what others are doing and change our own actions and behaviors.

In 2007 the Washington Post made an interesting experiment. Joshua Bell was playing with a $3.5 million violin on a subway during the morning rush in Washington D.C. Most of the people walked right by and ignored him.

All day, he had made only $32.17.

Top online courses in Personal Development

In another situation, they would be happy to pay $100 to $200 to see him perform.

One person was in a hurry and ignored the performer, and so was the person behind him, and so on. And during the morning the whole mass was brushing past a world-class performer.

Standing out, or differing from everyone else, causes us great discomfort.

When you show people a group picture on Facebook, they’ll first see themselves which is common. Then they’ll analyze how they appear compared to others. Are they making the right impression? Are others looking on at them positively?

It shows we’re social species, we asses our behavior in relation to everyone else.

Marketers know the rule: Humans want what other humans want.

Now, imagine you’re a parent thinking about the present you should buy for your kid for Christmas.

And as the previous Christmas, there is a present that everybody is talking about. Other parents you meet at the playground are planning to buy that toy.

Every Christmas a toy becomes a must-have for their child and they will pay 2-5 times more just to get it.

For example, the most popular toy on the Christmas of 2016 was Hatchimals.

The $60 version was scarce on store shelves, so the parents bought it on eBay for $200.

So, why the manufacturer didn’t produce more toys?

It is an old trick which is scarcity. The harder is for us to obtain a product the more we want it.

We’ve gotta have it

Sometimes we rely on purchasing a product based on what others are saying even if it’s a complete stranger.

A survey by brightlocal showed that:

97% of consumers looked online for local businesses in 2017, with 12% looking for a local business online every day.

85% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations

Their opinions are so convincing that we know that at least 25% of them are fake reviews written by employees or friends. We want to trust these reviews even though we are a little uncertain.

A simple example is “best-seller lists”.

Let’s say you want to buy a book.

You hesitate to spend $25 on a book that may result not be worth it later. But wait, you see “It’s a New York Times Bestseller with X million copies sold”.

Subconsciously you think: If so many people have bought this book then it must be good.

Followed by: If so many people are reading this book, would I be left out of the conversation if I don’t read it too?

This isn’t a fortunate accident for the publishing industry.

The main reason the best sellers list exist isn’t just to know the number of sales but to make us think these books have been “preapproved”.

To suggest that everybody else is reading it.

The fact that bestseller lists are persuasive other industries used them.

  • Best-selling cosmetic products
  • Most popular TV shows
  • Best toys for 2017

Now, let’s see iTunes. It has multiple lists such as:

  • What’s Popular
  • What they’re watching
  • What we’re listening to
  • Top songs, top albums, top movies

Here Apple is trying to imply that its team of experts has spent the past month parsing through thousands of songs to show their chosen picks.

It’s possible that companies pay big money to put their music/movie/show on the front page.

Now a two-tier system is possible to happen.

First, due to big exposure and from the fact people consider them as “best”, among all others end up making the top list.

And once there is a bestseller, we think: What do others know more than me? Am I missing out on something?!

A study published in Science magazine shows just how well this can work.

The researchers invited 27 teenagers to visit a website where they could download samples for free. They told to some teens what others had downloaded. And these teens downloaded the same songs as their friends did.

The second part of the study divided the students into 8 groups. The researchers found that teens not only choose pre-downloaded songs, but these songs became a “hit”.

All was clear: The song would become a “hit” solely on whether it was perceived as already being popular. 

It may not seem such a bad thing, but look at it this way: If we buy something just for being popular then we miss out on great products.

Researchers used fMRI to see what was going on in the teenager’s brain. They had 12 seventeen-year-old teens and they had to rate 15 seconds clips.

The results showed when the participants liked a popular song had activity in the caudate nucleus (a section of the brain linked to rewards).

However when teens preferred a song that was unpopular, an area of the brain linked to anxiety lit up.

Researchers concluded that this “mismatch anxiety” motivates people to shift their preferences toward consensus.[5]

Marketers and Teenagers

It is a fact that the world glorifies teenage years, just look at the movies with the subject of high school.

Teenagers are the most vulnerable to peer pressure than other ages. Not to mention that now teenagers spend 5 times more money than their parents did at the same age.

Why? Because teenagers don’t know who they are yet.

Studies have shown that when a teen asks for an iPhone, a pair of jeans or a Wii game is asking for more than the latest product. They’re trying to increase their self-esteem.

Deborah R. John at the University of Minnesota recruited 250 kids from the ages 8-18 and asked them to answer the question: “What makes you happy”.

The results showed that children with higher self-esteem chose words that described nonmaterial activities such as playing or getting good grades.

Children with low self-esteem chose possessions, like new clothes or an iPod. [6]

How do they sell us poison?

The UK banned all TV tobacco commercials on 1 August 1965, the USA on 1 January 1971, and Australia in December 1989.

Despite heavy anti-smoking campaigns, the tobacco industry has had an increase in its profits during these 15 years.

In 2016 their profits combined were $35 billion.

The governments raise taxes, make laws that prohibit consumption in closed environments, and ban tobacco advertising.

So, how do tobacco companies stand out?

With the TV ban, Tobacco companies have become more sophisticated.

Philip Morris (Who owns Marlboro), and Reynolds Tobacco Company (which owns Camel) funnel a huge percentage of their marketing budget into subliminal marketing.

For example, Philip Morris finances bar owners to use specially designed furniture, ashtrays, suggestive tiles, and many other subliminal symbols to convey the essence of Marlboro.

To ensure the highest exposure, Marlboro also markets clothing (gloves, boots, jackets, jeans, watches, bags) to invoke associations with the brand.

In Malaysia, Benson & Hedges has sponsored coffee shops to sell their products with their logo.


One of the best ways for advertising tobacco is by sponsoring NASCAR and Formula 1 cars.

Formula 1 is a popular sport mostly in Europe. And its popularity makes a great opportunity for advertising Tobacco. Why? When your TV ads are banned which is the best way to convey that feeling of risk, cool, dynamism, and youth than to sponsor a car race?

tobacco advertising, marlboro ferrari, formula 1

They paint the Ferrari car on Marlboro red. They dress the driver and the crew in bright red jumpsuits.

Studies have shown that when smokers see logo-free advertising associated with
cigarettes, like the Ferrari, triggers cravings more than the logos or cigarette packs themselves.

The reason is that since the subtle images showed no visible logos; the smokers weren’t consciously aware that they were looking at an advertising message, so they let their guard down.

It’s a little scary to find out that what we think doesn’t have to do with smoking, in fact, is the most effective technique.


Tobacco companies have been using movies for decades to advertise cigarettes. It is a powerful way to relate smoking to beauty, romance, sexual appeal, and manhood.

Silvester Stallone signed a contract where he would smoke Brown & Williamson cigarettes for a fee of $500,000.

$350,000 to have Lark cigarettes show up in the James Bond film, License to kill.

Superman 2 received $43,000 to show Marlboro.

They paid $30,000 to place Eve cigarettes in Supergirl

Selling cigarettes to kids

A huge part of the marketing budget goes out to the stores in signs, posters, and promotions.

tobacco advertising kids, shop, smoking

Behind the clerk, you can see the tobacco shelves at the same eye level as the kids.

Research shows that kids who visit convenience stores with tobacco marketing more than twice a week are more likely to smoke.

There are also cheap cigars with flavors and menthol cigarettes which makes smoking easier for beginners.

The largest neuromarketing experiment ever made

Martin Lindstrom in his book Buyology explains the details of the largest neuromarketing experiment.

The researchers choose 32 smokers from 2081 volunteers from the US, England, Germany, China, and Japan.

The purpose of the study was to see what was happening to the brains of smokers when they look at the warning labels.

Participants went through fMRI.

fMRI is a powerful machine that measures the small changes in blood flow that occur with brain activity.

When your brain is operating on a specific task, it demands more fuel- mainly oxygen and glucose. The harder the region is working the greater its fuel consumption.

So during fMRI, when a portion of the brain is in use, that region will light up.

The results showed that warning labels and fonts on the cigarette packs had no effect on suppressing the smokers’ cravings at all. All those anti-smoking campaigns and billions of dollars that world governments had spent were a big waste of money.

The fMRI results showed that warning labels not only failed to decrease smoking, but they also activated the nucleus accumbens making smokers crave more.

Companies are smart but tobacco companies are scarily smart.

Others are reading:

The Science of Influencing Customer Behavior

Sales techniques: How to use indirect hypnosis

How to sell over the phone like Jordan Belfort step by step

Sources: Brandwashed & Buyology by Martin Lindstrom

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19689599
  2. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2007/04/weight-gain-in-pregnancy
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3844496/
  4. https://www.researchgate.net/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2818406/
  6. https://www.twincities.com/2007/11/25/tweens-want-hip-stuff-but-self-esteem-is-the-real-need/
Scroll to Top