The Psychology of Marketing Being Conned

Every time I hear a story about someone falling prey to a 419 scam, whoever I’m with will sniff or roll their eyes. We like to believe that it’s all the result of being blinded by greed, that we could never fall for such a trick. We’ve all heard the stories of people sending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to people who promise that their money is coming. You’d think that after the first time the money transfer netted them nothing, they’d be smart enough to stop.

Someone at work linked me to this report from the University of Cambridge, which delves into the psychological principles behind a successful con.

The report is based partially on information from a British reality television show, so perhaps the scientific rigor is not entirely there. Still, it’s a worthwhile read.  In addition to descriptions of common scams, there is a section on the behavioral patterns that con artists exploit based on a few basic principles. The original report focuses on how these principles relate to security, but I think that recognizing these patterns is an important part of not falling prey to them – especially since some of these tactics align with the marketing techniques used by retailers.

1. The Distraction Principle
Much like the misdirection used by magicians, a hustler relies on our tendancy to always focus on the most interesting or the seemingly most important things going on around us. The 419 scammers, asking for yet another thousand dollars from their mark, focus his attention on how small this amount is compared to the millions he’ll be getting soon.

This is why male enhancement drugs are still a popular item. Show a man a sexy blonde and he’ll be so busy thinking about (ahem) doing things with her that he won’t remember that most penis enlargement pills don’t work.

2. The Social Compliance Principle
We’re trained to trust authority, and it’s amazing how little proof one needs of this authority; for example, a badge or a uniform is usually proof enough that we’re dealing with law enforcement. This is why phishing scams work so well. Using the distraction principle in #1, the thiefs send an emailing saying there has been some fraud on our accounts. When we’re worried about that, it seems natural to click through the email. The email links to a page that looks just like the bank’s webpage, making us feel comfortable with entering the information.

This is why seedy diet pill companies (and let’s face it, also some legitimate companies like GNC) will put a doctor in their ads. Remember the car ad where popular financial advice gurus talked about the awesomeness of the cash back program as a sound financial investment? It’s stupid to trust anyone who’s getting paid to endorse a product to give an honest opinion of said product, but we do it all the time.

3. The Herd Principle

Even suspicious marks will let their guard down when everyone next to them appears to share the same risks. Safety in numbers? Not if they’re all conspiring against you.

Con artists often use accomplices, or shills, to give the mark a false sense of security. If we see someone else having success with CashJar (something I made up just now), we’re more inclined to try it ourselves. Even if CashJar is a scam and the “successful guy” is an anonymous blogger who is actually a shill.

The iPhone is only cool because everyone else wants one, too.

4. The Dishonesty Principle
Once we realize we’ve been conned, anything we’ve done of dubious legality makes us less likely to report it. In a 419 scam, the mark is attempting to do something illegal (money laundering), and thus feels he can’t go to the police for help.

The report references the movie Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and a scam that one of the characters creates.  He places an ad for “male pleasure accessories” (sorry guys, I don’t want Google searches for sex toys coming to my blog!) in the classifieds section of gay magazines.  The checks can be made out to an innocuous sounding name, “Bobbie’s Bits.”  After cashing the checks, they send a letter apologizing because they couldn’t get the item in stock, and include a refund check.  The refund checks have an explicitly pornographic company name on them, ensuring that no one will want to be embarassed by depositing them.

5. The Deception Principle
All scams employ this principle. Things are not always what they seem, and any good scammer – or advertisement – will make us believe that something is what it seems. In a phishing scam, we’re familiar with the bank’s homepage and won’t question it’s authenticity unless something goes wrong.

The best example of this in marketing is with some cell phones that came out just after the iPhone. These phones were designed to sort of look like the iPhone and were marketed toward the same group of consumers, even though they didn’t have all of the capabilities that make the iPhone so popular.

6. The Need and Greed Principle
Of course, those people who roll their eyes at 419 victims are correct: there is definitely greed at play. I think most people feel that they need more money. If it’s not to cover staggering debts or medical bills, it’s just for the promise of comfort and security. The Prince’s inheritance just seems too good to be true.

Every advertisement appeals to our basics desires. Many of us want to be successful or attractive or cool. So an ad does all but scream, “THIS PRODUCT WILL GET YOU LAID AND ALSO MONEY.”

7. The Time Principle
The more quickly we have to make a choice, the less reasoning we’ll use to make our decision. We act on impulse, usually according to predictable patterns.

This tactic is also used in marketing, and is the basis of one-day sales and coupon codes. It’s also why sites like are so popular – only 3 days per sale, and a lot of the good stuff gets scooped up before you can even read the email! You have to hurry to add things into your cart, and then you have 10 minutes to decide if you want to buy it before the cart expires.  The website reminds you that everything is up to 70% off, so it keeps your mind focused on what a great deal you’re getting (back to #1) and steers your decision toward the one that nets them a profit.

(I would add here that the authors forgot to mention the Sunk Cost Fallacy, as that is a big motivator in people continuing with scams. It dosn’t seem to fit in any of the categories listed above.)

Now, I don’t think that marketing is evil because it exploits our behaviors.  That’s silly, because everything preys on our emotions.  Films, television, books, they all try to evoke our feelings, and the more we feel, the more we enjoy watching or reading. 

However, just because I don’t think these techniques are evil doesn’t mean that we have to fall prey to them.  Recognizing our behaviors and the ways that an ad will play on our desires is the first step in not succumbing.

I’m still working on that one.


One Response

  1. Often times, we don’t realize how greedy we were until after we discover we’ve been conned. At that point, we’re too embarrassed for being so greedy (and stupid) to admit we were conned. *Sigh*

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