Advertising Tricks That Trigger Impulse Buying

You go for a browse around the shops and come back with stuff you didn't think you wanted, and a depleted bank account. How does this happen? Somehow, advertising tricks are making you buy things you never intended to buy.

While part of the problem is caused by your own attitude around shopping, some of the blame lies with advertisers, who can feed your purchasing habits with manipulative marketing. Here are five of the most common advertising tricks used to trigger impulse buying—know them and keep your spending under control.


Time Limits

Couple shopping in Singapore

 PeTer_Lau / Getty Images

Today Only!!! For a Limited Time!!! While Stocks Last!!!

Time limits are one of the most common advertising tricks to trigger overspending. This strategy is designed to create feelings of panic, that if you don't buy now, you will miss your chance. This is actually quite unlikely unless the object of your desire is becoming obsolete or going out of style, in which case, you may be better off getting the next model. As long as it is in demand, the price will more likely go down, not up.

Time Limit Tips:

Anytime you feel pressured by a time limit to buy, slow down. Reflect on whether you really want or need it and whether you already have one at home. Finally, don't buy something unless you can return it if you change your mind.



Must Haves

Advertisers have become so bold that they now dictate what we must have. Really? Ask yourself what will happen if you don't have it. You probably already either own or have access to something similar. With this strategy, advertisers are appealing to our sense of wanting to be equipped with the essentials—yet most of the items advertised this way are far from essential.

"Must-Have" Tips

Ask yourself if you really need this item, whether something you already own will suffice, or whether you would like to consider other options. Don't just blindly slap down your plastic because someone says you must.


Discounts on Multiples

Buy One, Get the Second 50% Off!!! Buy Two, Get the Third Free!!! Buy Four or More at the Special Price of...

These are a real cheat, as they make you think you're spending less when you're really spending more. Rarely, if ever, do you actually save money. How can that be? Surely the discount on the second, third, fourth or fifth item saves you money? Not so.

Let's say the deal is on shirts for $30 each. You buy one like you originally planned, you spend $30. If you buy one and get one half-off, you think you've saved $15, but you've actually spent $45 ($15 more than you planned). And if you need to buy two to get the third free, you've actually spent $60. Did you really want three similar shirts anyway? Chances are, you have plenty of shirts already and needed one more at the most.

You could have gotten a better discount waiting until they went on sale for 50% off, and then you wouldn't have to buy more than you need. Of course, by the time they go on sale, they may no longer look quite so enticing, but if you went for a discount on multiples, you might still have one or two hanging in the closet with the tags on. And if you return them, you forfeit the discount. Not such a good deal after all.

Multi-Purchase Discount Tips

Decide how many you really need, and when you need them. Will you have to store the excess in the meantime? Is there a chance the spares could spoil, deteriorate, or go out of style over time? Also, make sure the discounted price isn't a minuscule saving compared to the hassle of buying multiples.



Mail-in Rebate! Spend $50 Now, Get $25 Off After Collecting Your Rebate!

Rebates are potential retroactive discounts that have a built-in time delay, meaning the seller has your money for the time you are waiting for your rebate. They also have many hidden terms and conditions that may mean you never get the discount at all. Reading the fine print is essential, and really, who has the time when you're trying to get your shopping done?

To collect your rebate, you often have to complete a complicated online or mail-in process. You may find that some minute detail—the date of purchase, your age, your location, etc.—invalidates the rebate in your particular case. Collecting the rebate may be time-consuming, demand personal information you would rather not disclose, and it may require you to spend even more money before you collect your discount. A lot of time and effort, and you may not have even wanted the original purchase if you were simply chasing the rebate.

Rebate Tips

Don't buy anything with a rebate unless you wanted that exact item anyway and were willing to pay full price for it—which you probably will anyway. And never be fooled by an unexpected phone call offering you a rebate or refund—these are a well-known scam to get private information like credit card numbers.


Images of Love and Sex

Sex Sells...Things You Don't Want or Need

Advertising relies so heavily on the imagery of love and sex that most of us don't even notice it. But starting to notice when this imagery is used will help you to make more objective buying decisions. If an advert implies that you will be loved or that you will be more sexually appealing if you buy a particular product, you can be pretty sure that it is preying on your insecurities. And it will probably not make you any more lovable or sexually attractive.

Love and Sex Imagery Tips

Try to imagine the product without the adoring couple, blissful family, or semi-clad models. If it has little to no substance without the imagery—perfume is a good example here—it probably isn't worth the money.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Gordon-Hecker T, Pittarello A, Shalvi S, Roskes M. Buy-one-get-one-free deals attract more attention than percentage deals. J Bus Res. 2020;111:128-134. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2019.02.070

  4. The Office of Minnesota Attorney General. Real deal on rebates.

  5. Federal Trade Commission. Hang up on fake "refund calls".

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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.