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5 tricks marketers will use to get you spending big this festive season

22/11/21. By Associate Professor Billy Sung. 5 min read.

It’s nearly that time of year again when we embrace the sound of festive tunes, over-indulge in sweets, and make a mad dash to the nearest shopping centre for a frantic last-minute spending frenzy.

But have you stopped to think why you buy what you buy at Christmas?

Research shows that your purchases during the festive season could be prompted by marketers using psychological tricks.

Contrary to popular belief, our brain does not have a ‘buy’ button that can be turned on or off. Instead, our brain processes information through heuristics, or mental shortcuts, that allow you to solve problems and make judgements quickly and efficiently. Marketers are known to tap into these heuristics to prompt purchases, encourage ‘likes’ on their posts, and even curb brand-switching behaviours.

Here are five reasons your brain may be tricked into pulling out your wallet and spending big this festive season.

1. Festivities encourage overspending

Ever wondered why shopping centres and retailers are so eager to set up their Christmas décor up to three or even six months before Christmas?

Humans are creatures of habit and association. Festive seasons such as Christmas not only trigger an associated sense of joy and fun that prompts spending, but also festival-specific behaviours, such as increased consumption of sweets and lollies over Easter and Halloween.

Our brains learn to associate the Christmas period as a time for spending and gifting. By creating a sense of festivity through décor and jingles, it activates consumers’ learned behaviour and ultimately encourages more spending.

2. Nostalgic consumption

Time and time again, facial expression and brainwave research at the Curtin Consumer Research Lab (CCRL) has shown that emotions play a significant role in what consumers buy, why they buy it, and when.

Holidays generally involve traditions which surface holiday memories to the front of our minds, eliciting the emotion of nostalgia —a sentimental longing for the past. Nostalgic consumers tend to have a high propensity for engaging in authentic and familiar experiences, such as taking a snap with Santa or heading out for a bargain on Boxing Day. These behaviours serve as a medium to relive or experience the good times long gone.

Interestingly, evoking nostalgia also weakens the desire for money and therefore encourages spending. As a result, brands are known to leverage on nostalgic advertisements during festive seasons to get you forking over cash.

3. Reducing the pain of purchasing

You may not physically feel pain after paying for a product, but research has shown that the areas of the brain responsible for psychological pain and cost-benefit evaluation are activated whenever you part ways with your hard-earned money.

A way to reduce this psychological pain is to make the exchange as mentally abstract as possible. Studies have shown that consumers are more reluctant to indulge when transacting through physical cash, compared to more abstract modes of payment such as swiping a credit card.

In recent years we have seen the popularity of even more cleverly designed modes of payment, such as ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes. By mentally disassociating the benefit of receiving and using the product, from the pain and cost of purchasing it, these schemes not only provide a catalyst for indulgence but also create a false sense of financial capability to purchase more.

4. Sense of urgency

Humans value scarce resources. Unfortunately, this evolutionary urge has transpired even in an era of abundance for the human race and has a massive effect on consumer behaviour.

In fact, numerous studies at the CCRL have shown that products labelled as ‘limited edition’ or with limited time offers and discounts tend to trigger a sense of urgency to purchase. It also plays on consumers’ fear of missing out – the feeling of regret that we forfeited a rare deal.

Past research has shown that limited time offers work best when paired with reference pricing or the display of price comparisons, such as ‘originally $599, now $399’. This is because they cumulatively signal a good and rare deal that innately appeals to our brains.

5. Social norms and reciprocity

To gift or not to gift? That is the question – or at least it is for any other time of the year, but not at Christmas. Marketing executives have cleverly developed a normative culture of gift-giving at Christmas.

Humans are social beings. Our brains have evolved to include neural pathways that efficiently process and react to social information, which is also why we follow the behaviour of other consumers. When we see other people buy or give gifts, we tend to follow suit.

Recent research at the CCRL shows social information can be so powerful that consumers may ignore or disregard safety signs and messages when other consumers also don’t pay attention to them. Similarly, our social brain is prone to the innate need to reciprocate. When generosity and affection is experienced through gifting, we are compelled to return the gesture in some form.

So, how much are you going to spend (or not) this festive season?

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