Influence vs Manipulation in Web Design

Posted on: July 30, 2019

Industrial psychology has long been the foundation of advertising. The use of different colours, for example, to elicit feelings of excitement, trust, or luxury. That bright red “SALE” banner is no accident, nor is the choice of blue for IBM, Facebook, or BMO. Whether or not we actually trust Facebook, knowing what we know, isn’t the issue. The fact is, that North Americans subconsciously associate blue with trustworthiness, red with excitement, black with luxury, and we are calmed by shades of light green.

Green is also associated with environmental friendliness, so much so, that the word “green” is now synonymous with products that are not harmful to the environment. So, it seems to make sense to use a green-themed web design to sell eco-friendly products, right?

The “call to action” is also a traditional standard in advertising. Tell potential customers what to do and how to do it; or in the online world, show them where to click and what info to provide. We often use a commanding tone to influence compliance, like “Call now!”

So, here’s where ethics get a little trickier. Let’s say you are raising funds to save the whales. You have a great website design with blues and greens depicting nature, the oceans, and cute little baby whales. You make your pitch, and below have a bright red button that says “Donate Now.” All fair, so far. But, when you try to leave the page by any means other than clicking on Donate Now, a screen pops up that says, “Do you really want all these baby whales to die? They are relying on your donation to save them,” with two buttons below – “Yes, I want to save the whales!” and “No, let the whales die.”

That is an extreme example of a tactic known as “confirm-shaming” that tries to guilt you into doing something that you wouldn’t otherwise do. It is also used to convince you that you really should do something now, rather than think about it any longer. Some examples include things like “Are you sure you don’t want to order now?” With the choice of clicking “Yes, I want to get 30% off.” Or “No, I’m happy to pay full price tomorrow.”

Fair or not?

Here’s another trick (or is it?): providing you with the “most popular” options. Some would say that this is just making it easier for the shopper to find an item someone mentioned to them; but others say it is a way to manipulate you by associating these items with “popularity.”

Then there’s the false sense of urgency created when an item is shown with a note like “Only 3 left at this price.” If that’s true, well… but, some of these are simply random numbers.
There are truly devious tactics out there – the old bait & switch, the sneaking of extra items into your cart, misdirection, and more. Most ethical people would stay away from these on principal, and in the long term, they don’t work anyway because customers will figure it out and never come back.

Looking at these examples, the poles seem obvious enough: A standard call to action is fine, expected even, and deviousness is definitely over-the-line. But how to we deal with everything in the middle? Pondering this, I’m reminded of Rotary International’s Four-Way Test, and it seems a very helpful way to assess tactics in our very competitive world:

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

From a business perspective, if you can’t answer “Yes” to all of these questions, you will not be successful over the long term. Being truthful and fair, building good relationships with your customers, and ensuring that they derive the benefit promised from your product or service are paramount.

The more I think about it, the more I like this test as a measure of good advertising practices. So for those who are committed to ethical behaviour, like we are, thanks Rotary. And for the others, we’re on to you!