Have you ever heard stories about movies inserting subliminal ads back in the 1950s? Popcorn and Coca-Cola sales allegedly increased due to single frame messaging inserted into a film that was playing at multiple frames per second. It was too fast for the human eye to notice, but the subconscious could pick it up. Deploying this type of unconscious advertising brought marketing to a whole new level. Corporate pitchmen soon were barred from using subliminal ads in movies in later years, but that didn’t stop them from trying other ways to use persuasion techniques at the cognitive level.

Once advertisers discovered this new route to reach their audience on a deeper, more sensory level, it became a race to see how they could exploit it. They set out to connect to their target market on an emotional level, hoping to create measurable tendencies. Could they establish a cognitive bias in their messaging, and why would that be important to marketers?

What Is Cognitive Bias?

Cognitive bias is the propensity to think in certain ways, often deviating from rational, logical decision-making. Originating from behavioral psychology studies, it’s very much a part of everyday life. Cognitive biases impact communication with friends and strangers, and how businesses interact with customers. Many times people are unaware of their own cognitive biases and how they impact decision-making.

Cognitive bias is important to marketers because every customer is affected by its influence. It affects how your audience experiences your website, and how they feel about your company. These biases can even affect your site’s conversions and how likely your visitors are to share their experiences via word of mouth or social media.

This level of deeper understanding also affects individuals in circumstances that require an unbiased viewpoint. The ability to run rational tests, analyze results, and select a sampling can all be unintentionally swayed by a person’s cognitive bias.

Once you’re aware of the many different cognitive biases, you can start considering their influence on your audience’s thinking as well as your own. Below are some examples that marketers can start including in their planning.

Loss Aversion

One common example of cognitive bias that marketers have found is called loss aversion. This bias causes people to favor the avoidance of loss more strongly than pursuing gains. Provoking your audience to feel this loss will stoke a fear, making them react more strongly than if you provided a positive incentive.

A great example of this cognitive bias is the concept of paying for shipping. Online customers have a strong dislike for paying shipping costs and these facts support that theory.

  1. Online orders with free shipping average around 30 percent higher value.
  2. Unconditional free shipping is a number 1 criterion for making a purchase.
  3. Forty-seven percent of shoppers indicated they would abandon a purchase if they got to checkout and found that free shipping was not included.

Marketers and business owners should consider loss aversion and factor freight costs within the price of their products so that they can offer free shipping instead, taking advantage of this cognitive bias.


Another way for pitchmen to connect on a more profound level with their devotees is called the framing effect. To frame is to take away choices for how something is perceived until a compromise is reached, even though the option was chosen all along by its marketing creator.

This might be the most favored by marketers since using words creatively can shape how something is presented or defined. Framing the choice as part of a community, representing it as local or part of a niche group, can have a huge effect in loyalty. Check out these statistics that prove the framing effect:

  1. Ninety-three percent of online shoppers like to shop at small or local retailers.
  2. Sixty-one percent of online shoppers say they find unique products unavailable elsewhere by shopping at local online retailers.
  3. Forty percent of consumers shop at small and local retailers to support the local business community.

Most marketers engage in the framing effect everyday and might not even realize it. Understanding its importance can create new opportunities in which to expand its use.

Attentional Bias

The attentional bias is the propensity to pay more attention to emotional stimuli, and to neglect other relevant information when making decisions. So the more something touches people, the more attention they pay to it.

A great example of attentional bias is website design, as well as direct emotional appeals, such as testimonials, all of which have shown cognitive bias in a site’s layout. Below are some reasons that support how effective this bias can be.

  1. Forty-two percent of users base their overall opinion of a site on its design alone.
  2. Adding testimonials to a website increases conversions by 34 percent.
  3. Twenty-nine percent of consumers think testimonials are very important for building credibility.
  4. Placing testimonials on the lead generation page increases conversions by 50 percent.

Website designers should keep attentional bias in mind when designing their sites for a more powerful experience.

Final Thought

As long as there are human beings, cognitive bias will always have an effect. Being aware of your own tendencies can go a long way in helping you stay neutral when it matters. However, if you’re a marketer, take advantage of cognitive bias and exploit your audience’s buying decisions with how you craft your persuasive messaging. Just stop short of being subliminal, as it’s illegal.