I Saved Thousands After Understanding These 4 Slimy Marketing Tactics

Sah Kilic


Photo by Aleksander Vlad on Unsplash

You’ve 100% been there — we all have. We budget, consciously make an effort to save our hard-earned dollars. Yet we all have a random set of appliances, gadgets, or clothes we bought that one time, things we haven’t used in a year.

And although spending money on useless stuff can be an addiction, it isn’t for most people. It’s just the side-effect of an industry that invests a lot of time and money into manipulating our behavior.

Marketing is a psychological game, and unfortunately for us, we’ve got many mental shortcuts that are an evolutionary win, but a modern-day vulnerability.

It used to be fine with ads in newspapers and billboards, they were far and few. But now, our entire technological landscape revolves around a constant stream of ads, marketing funnels we don’t know we’re going down and copy designed to persuade rather than convey value.

Understanding the marketing artifacts that exploit our brain-glitches has saved me thousands over the years, and this small crash course will hopefully do the same for you.

Loss Aversion

When you see a sale, it piques your interest. But when you see a countdown timer showing you that the deal is going away very soon — that gets your attention.

A big offender that comes to mind is Udemy. Great products, but they’re always doing this — they’ll constantly shift the prices too, seemingly according to the number of times you visit the site.


Screenshot from Udemy

The counter isn’t real. If you visit the site from a different device, you’ll get the same deal most days. It’s just there to give you a sense of FOMO.

The psychological term for this is loss aversion, and it’s our very human tendency to avoid losses instead of acquiring equivalent gains. A lot of the time, the gains don’t even have to be equivalent.

In a coin toss where there’s a chance to win or lose $10, most people don’t take the bet, even though it’s 50/50. People won’t take it at $15 either, even if it’s still $10 to join the bet. In fact, it’s not until it’s over $20 gain for a potential $10 loss that people start to bet.

Logically, we should accept that bet even at $12 because, at the odds of 50/50, the bet is now in our favor — it’s overall value is $1 ($2 x 50%).

People don’t take the bet because it hurts to lose much more than the pleasure of winning. This is exactly what happens in our minds when we see a sale.


Udemy “Limited Time” Sales.

A mark-down from $200 to ~$20 feels like we’re losing $200 if we don’t buy the item. We’re not excited about the gain. We instead fear the loss of a great deal — that’s what makes us buy.

But there’s even more sleaziness at play here.


When negotiating, someone sets the initial price, and if we’re not careful, this becomes the frame of reference. The Udemy example above did this by setting the price to $200 and then marking it down to ~$20.

That seems like a crazy deal, but hey, they were the ones that set the price to $200 — who’s to say it’s worth it? What’s happening here is a cognitive bias called anchoring, and salespeople love this one.

You probably know exactly what it is; it’s like when a used car salesperson tells you the initial price then somehow knocks a couple thousand off. It’s when you see something marked down three times from retail price. It’s when you think, wow, that’s a huge discount.

If you were looking to install a window for your lovely beach house, and I was to tell you this premium glass windowpane costs $1000, how would you bargain? I don’t think you’d start at $50. Why? Because I anchored you to $1000, you’d likely bargain down to something like $800 instead, which leads me to the next bit of slime.

Decoy Effect

Using the premium glass pane example above, how much is that even worth? Who the heck is an expert in upscale windows? Figuratively nobody, the person selling it to you, sets the price. So not only do you get anchored to things, your only point of reference for purchase is the price, usually.

What’s the difference between a hammer that costs $12.99 and one that’s $29.99 — all it is, broadly speaking, is perceived quality.

Sure there are exceptions like spec sheets for microphones, computers, and more, but even then, who’s setting the price? What’s fair? And how do you compare them?

This is where the decoy effect always screws us over. The decoy effect is all about exploiting our judgment by introducing a third option for comparison.

The decoy can be either the cheapest, mid-range, or expensive option. It’s only there to nudge us into buying the one they want to sell.


Lloyd Melnick

If you only saw the prices for small and large, you’d think, well, more means more expensive, that makes sense. And you’d go for your preference. But then, if we introduce the middle option, aka., the decoy, your thinking changes.

The medium option is asymmetrically dominated by the large option, meaning the large one is better in every aspect. The difference between small and medium seems like such a bad deal now. Only a fool would upgrade to a medium; there’s a disproportionate benefit to upgrade to a large. So you do.

The cinema wants you to buy the big one, so they introduce another option for you to problem-solve in their favor. We know the best option is large, but what we forget is our initial wants/needs, our original preference. We go for a good deal instead.

At least with the decoy effect, you can pause and think. With this next one, they try to force a rushed decision.


When you’re booking a flight or buying a ticket for a festival, and a pop-up creeps in saying, there are only 3 tickets left at this price. That right, there is an artificial scarcity to make you hit buy.

Economically speaking, supply and demand, but psychologically speaking, the scarcity heuristic is what will make you and me subconsciously pump up the value of something scarce. The loss aversion we talk about a few sections ago comes into this as well, making it a marketing double whammy.

Hurry while stocks last! is the old version of drops and launches. Supreme, the pop culture apparel company, has built itself up to a $1 billion valuation by creating scarcity around launches. Products would sell out in a matter of minutes.


Supreme Store Launch

In fact, queuing, in itself, is a marketing tactic. Just like scarcity, it increases the perceived value of a product or service. So companies will purposefully keep a queue outside the business to snag more customers off the street.

So how do you deal with all of this?

How to Deal With These Tactics

The four tactics were my personal big offenders, but many more nudge shoppers to buy things. Some examples are priming, repetition, reciprocity, and more. You can’t get away from all of them, so my method focuses on the ones that make a difference.

Understanding and reminding myself of these four, particularly, let me exercise critical thinking when making purchases. Because of this, I’ve been able to buy flights at lower prices, comparison shop based on quality rather than price, and ignore the noise when it comes to the rubbish out there.

I’m hoping you keep them in mind too.

  1. Loss aversion or FOMO is super-common, remember you have the buying power, there are always alternative and other deals.
  2. When bargaining, people will always set an anchor. The key is to ignore this anchor, and instead ask, “If I hadn’t heard that, what would I pay/charge?”
  3. Prices are all made-up and usually relative to the prices of other items. If you can’t discern the difference, try not to assume that a higher price means higher quality — doing the research is better.
  4. In 2020, scarcity is usually artificial, so don’t fall for it. There’s a program behind that popup telling you there are only so many tickets left. There will always be more items to buy, likely at better prices.

Happy shopping, and happy saving.



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If you want a tour guide to everything mindset and digital, I'm your guy. I cover self-improvement, travel, entrepreneurship, startups, marketing, technology, and media. Find more of my stuff at https://sah.substack.com/


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