Don’t Let Ads Get You Into Debt


Most of us have experienced a moment when we’ve simply given into a spending temptation, despite being on a budget. While I could make a good argument that it’s a completely normal hiccup in a financial plan, it’s important to point out that we’re up against a lot when it comes to balancing our spending in our budget. Saving definitely isn’t always easy – and there’s a reason for that. Actually, there are tons of reasons for that. On a daily basis, there’s plenty at work to sway your spending habits. For instance, giant banners that scream “buy what I’m selling.” Or pop-ups on the side of your browser. Or Tina Fey making jokes while holding up a credit card.

That’s right, I’m talking about ads.

Ads can have a huge impact on how we choose to spend our money. Not only do they position a product in the best light (think along the lines of a shiny, pristine bottle of shampoo), they  do so in a very calculated way. Since ads are a tool to net more profit, their carefully crafted appeal can get even the best of the budgeters. But they don’t have to be the trigger for your spending, and as always, the more you know (or notice), the more power you hold over the situation.

Below we’ll look at what happens when your brain reacts to ads and we’ll give you some tips to ensure that ads don’t negatively impact your finances.

This is how your brain reacts to ads

You brain gets a little tired
Ads are everywhere. On the sides of buses, the grocery store floor, popping up left and right on your computer. In many ways, ads have become a normal part of our everyday life. They’re so common that you might not even realize just how often they infiltrate your life. But one things for certain, if you can dream of it, you can rest assured there’s an advertisement for it. With this over-saturation comes an interesting challenge for the consumer: limitless options. In many ways, this suits us. We’re curious creatures and we enjoy the element of choice. But there’s such a thing as decision fatigue and that’s where we can get into some spending trouble. When our brain tires from sorting through the noise around us it’s less likely that we make a decision based on logic and more likely to give into impulse for an easy win. A multitude of options causes our brains to become overwhelmed. That overwhelming feeling exhausts our  resistance and willpower. The result? The perfect climate for more spending.

Your brain gets a little love-sick
Ever heard of a company crush? I have one on Oreo. I think they’re smart, witty, funny, and they’re selling cookies to boot. Like I said, it’s a crush. And we all know how we act when we have a little bit of a crush: compelled to do things we might normally do, interested in interacting more with something, and those feel good butterflies when you’re around your object of affection. And while it’s not exactly the biggest expense to grab a box of sandwich cookies, my positive association with the brand (in particular, their ads) has been a guiding factor in whether I choose the store brand, or the Nabisco brand. Ads do more than catch our eye, they impact our opinions and habits as well.

Your brain shoots off some fireworks
Our response to advertisements goes beyond simply “liking” something. Ads are constructed and positioned in a way as to illicit a real, emotional response. And the larger the novelty, the greater the curiosity or “thrill.” That’s why seeing a funny commercial for the first time will get us to laugh, but seeing it subsequent times might have decreased impact. We will, however, positively associate the company or product if we find their ads to be continually interesting, humorous, or relevant.

NPR conducted an interesting experiment showcasing just how the emotional locations of the brain “light up” when confronted with particular ads (and accompanying elements like music, tone of voice, and message).

Because our brains can be counted on to react, companies are on a mission to create ever more interesting ways to communicate their product or service. That could mean using popular music, specific colors, or celebrity endorsements to charm you. More fireworks triggered in your brain equals more potential spending.

How to avoid the temptation of advertising

1. Avoid online ads that pertain to your particular demographic
I once clicked on an ad for Lord of the Rings salt and pepper shakers and was haunted by porcelain Gollum and Frodo sets for weeks afterwards. While that’s definitely not everyone’s downfall, it was a very real reminder that the internet allows marketers to target us (and our particular tastes) like never before.

How do they do it? Easy. Companies and advertisers use your search history to capitalize on desires you’ve already shared with them. If you do a Google search for “Detroit auto mechanic” you may start seeing ads for all kind of Detroit auto mechanics. One way to get out of the “danger zone” is to detour away from it. If you were allergic to ice cream, you wouldn’t visit an ice cream factory. You can do this by browsing in an incognito window to prevent ads from “following” you. It’s an easy way to start out fresh each time and avoid being targeted by specific ads. Another way is to clear your entire browsing history and all cookies (which you can do with your browsers settings). Even gmail will curate specific ads for your inbox. To avoid having the most tempting items flashed in front of you, you can opt out from these personalized ads.

2. Be aware of the tricks
Ads employ all sorts of techniques in order to stand out. Think about what they have to compete with! Do a 360 spin anywhere and you’ll probably see at least one ad – likely many more. Stores curate ads in an attempt to compel consumers to buy their product over any of their competitors. And there are no bars held back when it comes to the thought and effort they put into the design of their ads. An article via Real Simple explored the way that colors are used as a way to tap into the consumer brain:

“Marketing experts say that people subconsciously associate specific colors with specific social or cultural messages. Knowing this, retailers carefully select the colors they use in an effort to get you to loosen your purse strings.”

In other words, colors aren’t chosen just on the basis of simply looking nice. They have a function and that function is to get you to spend even more. In addition to colors, size, shape, and placement of an ad are also an intentional part of the equation. If you can begin to see ads as a compilation of details rather than be swept away by the whole then you can deconstruct (and weaken) the temptation.

3. Create a personalized, fail-safe counteroffer
Despite our best efforts, it’s still completely normal to be swayed by these marketing techniques. In order to combat some of the temptation, we need to put up our best defenses. And like any good strategy, it incorporates a little offense as well as defense. Because if there’s anything that you can take away, it’s that ads are a kind of opponent to your finances rather than a teammate. One of the best way to resist is to create a baseline goal that’s more compelling than the other offers out there. You could use the appeal of reaching a goal against the appeal of ads. This is where you can bargain for your attention and win out over the advertising competitors.

4. Challenge the attraction
There’s no reason you shouldn’t give your mind a little bit of it’s own medicine. If it makes a proposal to buy, go ahead and push back. It’s the battle of impulse vs. logic but the cool thing is you’re the one mitigating each aspect. Get as much information as you can out of your motives by asking yourself…

  • What’s so appealing about this item?
  • Are they showing a reality or an idealized version of the product?
  • In a year, will this have added any value to my life?

Questions like this help you to be fully mindful of where you (the consumer) enter into the spending conversation. Acknowledging that you have choice and authority in the spending is incredibly empowering and can save you from spending on items or things that you don’t want or need.

Bottom-line: Ads aren’t created with the purpose of saving you money. If nothing else, remember that. Despite their promise for discounts or deals, ads function as a lure to encourage targeted spending rather than act as a way to communicate opportunities for saving. These companies are businesses, and they operate as such. When you pull the sheet off the reality, you’re much better equipped to resist some of the tempting marketing ploys. And remember, if you’ve already been talked into debt, use ReadyForZero to set up your optimal debt repayment plan.

Do you have any techniques to help you keep your control around consumer ads?

Image Credit: Jason

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