Sales, Discounts and the Manipulation of People

One of the goals with the Social-Engineer.Org Newsletter is to analyze what might seem like normal everyday situations and see if there is something we can learn about social engineering, or at least human psychology.

This month lets think about how we purchase things with modern advertising and digital options.  If you are like most of us, you see something you want so you do some research online, find the best price then buy it. Even if we are out and about, if we see something we want, we will price check it to make sure we are getting the best deal. Hey, we work hard for our money, I don’t want to give one more red cent to anyone if I don’t have to.

The Sign Says It, So It Must Be True….

It is unfortunate, but not long ago Borders books announced they would be going under and liquidating their entire inventory. As I passed by the local store the parking lot was full, so I thought I would check out the sales and see if there was anything worth buying. As I entered the store there were signs declaring “Everything up to 40% Off! Nothing held back!”

I have been to Borders a lot over the years, and I never seen them that busy before. Tons of people hauling around loads of stuff. One family in particular caught my eye as the husband and wife each had an arm full of graphic novels. This wasn’t the only case, there were literally dozens of people with as many books as they could carry quickly walking around the store as if they books where being given away. My first instinct was obviously to think that I have come on the right day, as if I had waited one more day everything good would have been gone.

Thinking of the family I saw with all the graphic novels I headed to the comic section to see if there are any Batman books my kids might enjoy. When I got to the section I checked out the sale sign that says “10%” off. Really, I was sort of surprised that was all the discount was, so I double checked and yeah, they were all just 10% off. I then checked other sections, with other books marked at 20%, 30% and even 40% off. I started to understand why that family was so excited.

But that nagging feeling inside me to price check was overwhelming.  I pulled out my smart phone and loaded my barcode reader. In a few minutes of time I was comparing prices for books all over the web. What I found was nothing short of embarrassing. Amazon and other online vendors where still cheaper by 20-35% than the supposed “40% off sale of Borders.”

Now powered by curiosity I went around the store “price checking” all sorts of 10-40% off items and finding that in every case I could find them at major online retailers for much less. Yet, as I looked around the store everyone was buying like this was the last bookstore on earth. Everyone was convinced that they were going to get a good deal and the thought of verifying the “deal” they were getting did not even enter their mind.

Why? What happened to turn these normal consumers into mindless sheep running to the check out with handfuls of books?

Two Human Factors

Two things can create an atmosphere that allow people to feel justified for not taking the normal actions they know they should take. In this case it is consumerism and social proof.

Consumerism is defined as the act of buying or being influenced to buy above your normal living conditions. The practice of consuming beyond basic needs is ancient; one need only look at the lavish tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs for an example. However, consumerism in the modern sense really came into its own with the advent of mass production, and an increasing separation between producers and consumers. Historically, people produced many of their own goods, or lived and worked in close proximity to their producers, and production was primarily limited to basic needs, except in the case of goods aimed at the upper classes. This is even more prevalent now-a-days with product placements in TV shows and movies, influencing consumers to feel the y must have certain items.

Social Proof is defined by master of Influence Robert Cialdini as the act of people doing things that they see other people are doing. For example, in one experiment, one or more people would look up into the sky; bystanders would look up into the sky to see what they were seeing.

Lets take a deeper look into how each of these played a role in the Borders story.


I came across a great example of this in an article last month about something called Consumerism. In the article the obvious claim is made that when marketers market, they market to people with money. Let me quote the article:

For example, a research study that looked at magazine ads found that in the fifties and sixties they contained mostly ads for household and lower-cost products. The same magazines today contain ads for many more luxury items, such as Lexus automobiles, and Hilton Hawaiian Vacations.

We subconsciously believe that we are the targets of this advertising, and that the high-cost products and lifestyles portrayed are our birthright as Americans.

Experts in the field call it “referencing.” We reference, either intentionally or otherwise, to lifestyles represented to us (in the media or in real life) that we find attractive. We create a vision of ourselves living this idealized lifestyle, and then behave in ways that help us to realize the vision.

Think of how powerful this is. In the popular TV shows “Friends” Jennifer Aniston’s character enjoyed daily shopping in NYC, as well as a huge apartment in New York and at one point her shopping lands her a gig consulting on fashion… all on the salary of a coffee shop worker. What is the effect on the consumer? We are told it is ok to shop endlessly, it is ok to buy without thought, it is ok to be just like that character on TV.

But when we do, the effect is not a high paying gig in the city, but credit card debt and overdrawn accounts. How does this play into the Borders story above?

All we hear in the news is how there are no jobs in the market, the government is going bankrupt and taxes are going up to an all time high – but yet when the sign reads 40% off the store is packed with hard working people spending their money. Why?

ITS ON SALE. That is the simple message that needed to be conveyed to get the people to line up buying “discount” books.

Social Proof

Social Proof is a powerful force. On the Social-Engineer.Org SE Framework we have a video from an old episode of Candid Camera.
In this video it shows just how Social Proof works but having people face the wrong way in an elevator. If the number of people facing the wrong way outweighs the number of people being influenced it will generally work.

In the Borders story it worked much the same way, and almost work that way on me too. As I left without buying anything I was left with a feeling that I was missing out. That perhaps that everyone else there knew something I did not and I was going to regret it if I missed out. Even though I knew this was not rational, the effect of seeing how everyone else was behaving was enough to but that thought into your mind.

Social Proof is so powerful simply because it is part of human nature. Think about the survival advantages that social proof could provide you. You go into an area, you see what actions everyone else takes to get by, and you replicate them. Its the perfect way to quickly assimilate survival skills. But, what happens if the actions everyone is taking is not in your best interest?

You can see this demonstrated if you travel a lot. Every area has little idiosyncrasies when it comes to what is accepted driving behavior. Some places its ok to sneak through the light if it just turned red as everyone is doing it, other places if you happened to do that everyone on the road would flip out on you. In other areas, letting someone pull in front of you is considered horrible and you should never let them so you speed up to make them have to get behind you. But you might come from an area where everyone lets someone in if they use their blinker to keep traffic moving smooth. If go to an area that has different driving habits then what you are used to it does not take long for you to start adapting your driving to match. Its survival, as you begin to act more like the accepted “norm” in the area other drivers on the road know what to expect from you. For instance in an area where two or three cars sneak through when the light turns red and you happen to stop when it is still yellow, there is a good chance you are going to get rear ended.

Back to School

Right now is the perfect time to see these two factors interact with each other as stores start to prep for back to school time. Children are some of the most marketed too segments of society, and they are often heavily affected by their peer groups. Additionally, they are more open minded than most adults and as such often more willing to try something new.

Try to find some examples of for consumerism and social proof interact with what you see in the various back to school situations and send them in to us. We would love to publish some of what you find on the blog for everyone to learn from.

Until next time, Power to the People!

Written by James O’Gorman & Chris Hadnagy