dubious online persuasion tacticsThe world of online marketing attempts to direct consumers to certain purchasing behavior. For this reason, influencing strategies are very useful. But how far can marketeers go to persuade their consumers? In this blog post, several dubious online persuasion tactics will be discussed. These are to be avoided!

Subliminal priming

Subliminal priming takes place when information is shown just below one’s visual and/or auditory threshold. Therefore, it is is not consciously perceived. However, it seems that, in a subconscious part of our brains, the information does get stored. A famous example is the experiment of James Vicary. In 1957, Vicary claimed he could increase the sales of sodas and popcorn after flashing subliminal messages during the movies.

dubious online persuasion tacticsAn example of one of Vicary’s subliminal messages in the movie theatre

Even though it turned out Vicary never really conducted the experiment, it did cause people to think twice about the ethics of advertisements. Later, the experiment was actually performed. It then became clear that under the right circumstances, subliminal priming can indeed influence consumer behaviour. To us, this certainly is one of the dubious online persuasion tactics.

Ego depletion

This strategy is about willpower. Willpower can be compared to the functioning of a muscle; after exercise, recovery is needed. Therefore, if willpower is used excessively, it causes a drainage of ‘mental energy’. During mental drainage, persuasion becomes easier. This is because people then tend to think using the short, simple thinking route instead of the longer, systematic route. Consequently, it leads to a less critical thinking style. An example is to place an option next to the ‘buy now’ button for people to share the product on social media. Suddenly the decision to buy the product is made more obvious because sharing it on social media seems to be somewhat pointless. Then the visitor enters the online funnel.

dubious online persuasion tactics

Buying the shoes or sharing them on social media?

Child marketing

Another, somewhat concerning, strategy is child marketing. As the name suggests, the target audience is very young. Examples of these tactics are the use of bright colours, funny images and popular cartoon characters. These often attract the attention of children very quickly. Especially during the holidays marketeers seem to know exactly how to apply these strategies. Through this, they influence the purchasing behaviour of parents. Unfortunately, it is often the big processed food producing multinational companies that use child marketing to sell unhealthy products.

dubious online persuasion tactics
McDonald’s may be the most successful business using child marketing

Fear Of Missing Out

Another quite common strategy is when marketeers use people’s Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO). You may be familiar with claims such as: “only 2 rooms left” and “only today 25% off”. We think using these tactics is fine, but only if they are based on true facts. The question is, however: who is keeping an eye on Booking.com and Transavia?

dubious online persuasion tactics

Because of scarcity, people will be more likely to book this hotel


Remarketing means that visitors of a website are tracked through cookies. Later, when these visitors are on other websites, banners from the previous website will appear. This is an attempt to persuade the customer to make the buy. Although this may be considered a legitimate way to persuade someone, this strategy is often implemented in a sloppy way. A famous case of remarketing gone wrong are the purple boots from Zalando, which haunt customers for months after they have already purchased them. Yet another example is Belvilla stalking their customers with a bungalow they have already booked. Or Booking.com thinking it’s effective to advertise hotels in Barcelona to someone who has just booked a hotel there. By using this remarketing approach in such a poor manner, it qualifies as one of the dubious online persuasion tactics.

dubious online persuasion tactics
This banner followed Hans for 3 months after he booked this exact house

Dubious online persuasion tactics: Conclusion

These tactics are smart attempts to persuade consumers to buy certain products. Should we, as consumers, worry about these ways of marketing and sales? On one hand, it is important to be critical of these tactics. On the other hand, there are clear rules to what is (and what is not) allowed in advertising. The Advertising Code Commission is an organization concerned with the ethics of consumers. As a result, it sets strict guidelines for marketeers. For example, the use of subliminal priming has been forbidden and the rules regarding child marketing have recently been restricted. Other tactics (like remarketing) aren’t forbidden but are used in a suboptimal manner, which may lead to a “spammy” customer experience.


At som digital we strive to make the customer journey as fluent and pleasant as possible. We keep in mind the side of both the consumer and the marketeer. Do you want to know more about our ethics? Contact us!