"Make her feel guilty" and 4 other advertising tactics you're not supposed to know about.




Advertisers want you to buy things. This isn’t necessarily bad [yes, you are reading a sponsored post: we get the irony]. You need to buy products and services. People who publish in magazines, on the internet and on the telly need money to deliver content – and advertising makes money so that you can keep watching tv, browsing on the internet and reading magazines for free or at a lower price. Oh, and advertisers need to sell their products, too.

Just as an FYI, you should know that this post is brought to you by our partners at Fernwood Fitness. But all opinions expressed by the author are 100% authentic and written in their own words.

We all like to think that we are in control of our purchasing decisions – that we buy the things that we freely choose. It will come as no surprise to many of you that advertisers use strategy and manipulation to get you to buy their product. This manipulation may not obvious, but it can push your spending in a particular direction. Some of that manipulation may involve making you feel bad, inadequate or guilty so that you will buy a particular product.

Next time you see a commercial – consider how it makes you feel – and see whether you catch yourself being caught up and manipulated by some of these sneaky advertising tactics:

1. Scare tactics

Studies have shown that if something scares you and then you are flooded with relief, you will make the directed purchasing decision. It’s like a big game of Good Cop, Bad Cop: one person is mean and scares you and then the second person is so nice to you that you’ll give them whatever they ask of you.


Companies selling diet food or diet plans are notorious for using this technique – they show you a picture of someone who is sad and overweight (they are *always* sad – and the colour might be toned down in the picture. They are probably watching tv and eating chips. They are slovenly and there is food on their face) and then they show you a picture of a person who is thin and happy (with bright colours and happy images. There will likely be dogs and children in the footage). You get scared that you could be the sad person – but the advertiser has the answer to help you be the happy person. Buy! BUY!

Consider this use of a sad image of an overweight child who has been bullied used by a health department in the US to scare parents into addressing childhood obesity. It is hard to think of a more manipulative piece of advertising, designed to increase anxiety and alarm.

Working to get happy is important – and healthy eating and moving more is a big part of that – but don’t let advertisers scare you into purchasing a particular product or service by showing you images designed to terrify, worry, upset or repulse you.

2. Making you feel guilty

“Good mothers use X Brand of porridge because they care for their children (why do you hate your children?).”


“Chocolate hazelnut spread or chocolate granules for milk will make your kids healthier (and they will like you more).”

“Smart people buy this! (You must be stupid if you haven’t already bought it.)”

“Women who use our razors/tampons/cereal have hot boyfriends. (Why are you so unlovable?)”

You get it, right? You are not a bad person because you don’t buy a product. So, why can ads make us feel that way?

The irritating thing is that they are designed to just that. If an ad can make you feel inadequate, you will do almost anything they suggest to get rid of that feeling – including buy a product or a service. Nobody wants to feel stupid, or ugly, or a bad mother, especially if simply buying something will make you feel better.

When watching ads, you need to remember that you are neither stupid, ugly or bad. Because of some ridiculous quirk of human psychology, if someone puts us down, we are more inclined to do what they say to stop feeling so rubbish – when what we really should be saying is, “shove off”.

If an ad is making you feel guilty, try to recognise it for what it is: a simple advertising ploy to get your cash.

3. Fake images, fake friends, fake buses

“Look at this woman. She used Cream X. Now she is flawless. You have many flaws. You should buy Cream X.”


You know this already. The thing to remember is that the images that you see are not real. You know about Photoshop. You have seen the airbrushing before and after pics (if not, see them again – link). Go and have a quick look at whatever mag is running Stars Without Makeup at the moment.

“Look at this woman. Now she is skinny, she has friends”.

Pictures are not the only things that are fake. Settings are fake. Friends are fake. Homes are fake. Next time you see a diet company ad and you see weight-loss subjects talking with their friends, consider: is that actually their house? Are they actually their friends?

It’s not just ads that use these fake settings to manipulate how we feel. Despite appearances, cooking superstar Nigella Lawson isn’t actually cooking in her own kitchen, and the people tasting her food are not necessarily people she knows. What’s more, when she filmed a segment on her show where she took public transport to the shops, the bus was actually hired and the fellow passengers were actors (complete with fake newspapers).

Every time you see one of these images that make you feel bad about yourself or your life, use your mind to stamp it indelibly with FAKE. These images are not evil – but nor are the real. Never allow them to make you feel anything except intellectually curious about how many hours it took to get that image or scene.


So, how do you avoid these traps?

Just knowing that you are being manipulated is the first step. Sometimes these ads are designed to make you feel bad. Once you see that design, it’s your choice whether you take this on board.

Staying mentally active and asking yourself questions when you are watching or reading ads will not only reduce the chance of you being unconsciously manipulated, it will also prevent those bad feelings that might flow from seeing these images.

Remind yourself that what you are seeing is a commercial full of advertising tactics. It is designed to make you do something. Whether you do that or not is up to you.

And, just in case you need further reminding, here’s our gallery of photoshop fails we’ve found in advertisements and magazines:

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