How tech giants use ‘programmed purchasing’ to manipulate you into buying stuff — without you realising it

Recently, I was looking for a portable pico projector when I found this website for something I’m going to call Projector X for anonymity.

At first I thought, you know, this looks nice. The website for Projector X was professionally designed, the specs looked good, and ooh! What’s this? I stumbled across the online shop when it was running a 50% off sale, and there are only 60 items out of 10,000 left in stock, and the promo event only lasts for five hours and 58 minutes. What a deal. I can’t pass up on this!

Despite the impulse to buy it right then and there, I decided to be a smart shopper and resorted to Google to do a bit of research.

After switching off Google’s auto-complete, of course, because I was at the office and I didn’t want my colleagues to accidentally see my dubious search history.

Anyway, the reviews for the Projector X raised several alarm bells of the “scam” variety. Curious, I went back to the browser tab which had that promo timer ticking down and refreshed the page, and whaddaya know! The promo reset back to five hours and 58 minutes, and there are still only 60 items in stock.

You had a fake promo!

I was quite chuffed, knowing that I was too smart to fall for Projector X’s terrible ploy, even if it was craftily designed to take advantage of classic urgency and scarcity tactics in marketing. Hah!

Then, five minutes later I received an email from my usual online manga bookshop. The shop noticed I haven’t bought anything in a while so it gave me a 10% discount coupon, valid for the next 24 hours. Ooh, better go shopping, desu!

It was only much later while I was reading my newly-purchased manga that I thought to myself, “hang on, did I just get played?”.

Because let’s be honest: the primary purpose of online stores is to get customers to pay for their products, and they have many techniques to entice you.

Some techniques are blatant and feel like scams, like with Projector X. Others are much more subtle and blur the line between “understanding your needs, for your convenience” and outright stalking/mind control.

I buy a lot of things online, and it goes without saying that those websites are tracking my behaviour. Steam knows the genres of video games I like. My online grocer knows my weekly spending patterns. Amazon can practically predict when I’m going to have visitors and desperately need cleaning supplies like two litres of bleach.

Heavens, let’s not even talk about Google – not only does it know everything about where I shop and what I shop for, it even knows about my forbidden searches.

With all this information, it’s really easy for businesses to manipulate my purchasing behaviour: advertise games similar to the ones I’ve put hundreds of hours into. Give me coupons for hummus on Sunday, when I’m inclined to spend more. Upsell me on that expensive bleach alternative because you know my parents are coming to visit and I really, really need to hide those stains.

I am 100% certain I’ve been nudged to buy things I wouldn’t have wanted or needed otherwise thanks to these tactics.

Look, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody – anyone who lives with the Internet should have at least a vague grasp of the concept of targeted marketing.

The question I have on my mind now is, how much have I been programmed to purchase things that I otherwise wouldn’t have?

How many of these techniques are so subtle that I can’t tell when I’ve been affected, because unlike Projector X, the bigger companies are really smart about their marketing? How many of my buying decisions actually come from internal needs vs external influences?

Follow up question: should I mind?

I mean, being tricked by a scam or fake promo to purchase something I never wanted or needed feels terrible.

On the other hand, being influenced to purchase something I actually end up liking – even if I never wanted, needed, or even knew about it to begin with – feels strangely fine. It feels like a convenience. Even if it technically meant that a huge faceless corporation could make me do so because it has a terrifying amount of data on me.

So in summation: I don’t know. I have mixed feelings about being subtly manipulated to purchase things I end up enjoying anyway.

I’ll come back to this when I’m older and wiser and have more cogent arguments on privacy vs convenience, but in the meantime I imagine I’ll continue to engage in the virtuous cycle of subtle manipulation, and benefit from it, while I enrich these businesses.

So, Nintendo Official UK Store, keep sending me those personalised newsletters recommending awesome games based on my purchase history. Amazon UK, continue suggesting all those great books based on my previous reviews. And Google… I guess I’ll keep paying you not to release all that blackmail material? OK? Cool.

(Raised by wild Nintendo consoles and trained in the ways of the computer scientist, Shaun A. Noordin tries to use his knowledge of web development, technology and video games for the greater good. Or for entertainment and amusement, whichever is easier. He has a lot of advice to share, but they’re all inadvisable to follow.)

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