Common Heuristics And Cognitive Biases in Marketing and Advertising

All of the ideas behind marketing and advertising are designed to influence people to do something.

The basis of most of today’s marketing tactics are rooted in psychology, however, little attention is often paid to just how important some of these factors go towards influencing someone to do something. While much has already been written on the way advertising in today’s world impacts how we view ourselves, my goal in this article is to dive a bit deeper into some of the more useful tricks advertisers often use to help nudge someone in the right direction.

It is my belief that marketers pay too little attention to the actual psychology behind what they are trying to do in favor of what seems to appear as a trial and error method. They create an ad, or a campaign based on their personal creativeness and then send it out into the world, and wait for the results. This is often an ineffective strategy as it ignores the most basic parts of the human condition which marketers should be paying attention to from day one. When you dive deeper in, its quite often much more simple to devise an advertisement or a marketing strategy that has a higher potential effectiveness by just paying attention to some of the cognitive behaviors going on in the human mind.

Below I dive into a few of the more effective strategies in social psychology that can be leveraged when creating marketing and advertising strategies. I’ve also included an example of each to better understand how these appear in real life.


Priming, also sometimes confused with anchoring, is a common tactic in marketing, negotiation and social influence. We generally experience some form of priming every day when walking around through a busy city or browsing a website. It can often be easily understood by this simple explanation, priming is the result of introducing a stimulus to alter how people will react to another stimulus. You might have heard the expression priming the pump, or getting something ready for something else. Government might lower interest rates in order to stimulate consumer spending, that is an example of priming in the real world. One single action leads a follow up action to be more likely to occur.

“Use coupon code FreeGift on checkout” is a common example of priming in today’s web marketing. Before you’ve even figured out what, if anything, you are going to purchase from a vendor, you’re being shown a coupon code available to you offering something Free. People generally like things that are free, so they’re more likely to subconsciously look for something to purchase on a website in order to get the free gift.

Comparative Adjacency

The idea behind the popular trope “you are what you eat” is the comparative adjacency principle at work. Basically it states that when comparing one thing to another, an independent object, it is possible to paint either in a different light by simply changing the context you’re comparing them.

For example, if we have a 10 dollar bottle of wine from the grocery store and it’s featured in a list of “Napa Valley Wines” that particular grocery store wine will be perceived to be of higher quality than it actually is because it’s being compared against high-quality wines from the Napa Valley.

Mentioned in the book The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis, this phenomenon is described like this “By changing the context in which two things are compared, you submerge certain features and force others to the surface”

Subjective Validation

The idea behind something like subjective validation is that someone is more likely to believe a vague statement if it is positive and pertains directly to you or your current situation. Wishful thinking is another, more commonly used way to describe this phenomenon. Individuals exhibiting from subjective validation are more likely to believe pseudo-science because they’re more easily persuaded by a solution that seems to apply to them entirely. People are generally always looking for the most easily understandable solution to a given problem and that is where subjective validation comes in.

A good example of this is currently working its way through cannabis and CBD marketing where these two substances are used for everything from anxiety to pain relief to sports performance. While they do help in some regard, that is still a hotly debated topic. What is not debatable is the subjective validation that is being used to sell these products.