Marketing, the Fine Art of Making People Buy Shit They Don’t Need

by | May 6, 2022 | Guest Article

An essay by Joshua T. Calkins-Treworgy

Author of “Motor City Shambler”


When was the last time you treated yourself to something special? After making your purchase, did you feel a sense of gratification only? Or was there a nagging little voice coming from the back of your mind, undercutting that small oy by pointing out that you didn’t need the thing you bought? If you felt your fingers clenching with the urge to grab and strangle that little voice, you likely are self-aware enough to know that it has spoken an ugly truth.

It is more than likely that before you went and picked up Item X, you had seen or heard a commercial for the product, either on television or in a YouTube video advert insert that you couldn’t skip. The odds of having come across the Item without an ad for it beforehand are next to nil, unless you’ve decided to avoid all television, online video, and podcasts. For God’s sakes, I have never used Field of Greens supplements, but after hearing their ad reads all over the podcast space, I think I could tell you all about their products.

Now, I will profess to having purchased plenty of products over the years that I didn’t really need to, and further, will admit that the ads for some of these things are what pushed me over the decision line to buy them. I can be tricked or manipulated by a slick enough ad campaign. Ah, ‘campaign’. There’s a word that deserves an etymological tangent. Not just now, for the time being, let’s get back to our regularly scheduled program.

See? An ad for a tangent in a ramble about ads. If I get too much more meta, Mark Zuckerberg’s going to ask me for a royalty check. Where were we? Ah, right, I’m a rube. The thing is, over a long enough timeline, everybody falls prey to one advertising tactic or another, and this is no accident; the arena of marketing has enclosed the field of psychology in a vampiric grasp, and drained it to a husk in order to power itself.

There are, broadly speaking, only a handful of general reaction behaviors that advertisers and marketers use as avenues to approach the potential customer, the ones with the lowest common denominators (a-ha! Math again!) I’ll explain what those are, briefly, but first, I feel compelled to get the ‘campaign’ thing out of my system, so here we go.

Now, what is a ‘campaign’? Per most dictionary sources, it is simply defined as “an organized course of actions to achieve a goal”. I would posit that the earliest common usage of the word, relating to war events and incidents, often in the name of conquest, is not by accident tied to political elections or efforts by corporations to create brand acceptance and loyalty. Pepsi wants to plant its flag in your psyche, and to do that, it needs to wage economic war against its competitors and your resistance to their efforts. It all wraps together rather nicely.

Okay, back to the main drive here. The avenues most advertisers take up are as follows:

A – Sex. It’s simple, straightforward, and plays on fundamental psychological and biological impulses.

B – Fun. The product will entertain you, or is an element guaranteed to enhance an already good time.

C – The Joneses. Hey, see this guy? He/they are awesome and successful, and they use Product X in your neighborhood, so you should too if you want to be like them or keep up with their progress or station in life.

D – Best of Necessity. Life now requires Thing X, and we think our version of Thing X is the best one on the market, so you should consider getting our brand of it.

E – Created Need. Hey doesn’t Mild Inconvenience Y kind of suck? Get Product X, and Inconvenience Y just goes away!

These five paths to your pocketbook are not the only ones advertisers and marketers use, just the most common. Above all else, though, what we should be on the lookout for if we really want to minimize our learned dependence on buying shit we don’t need is the persistent omnipresence of advertising. I don’t think it’s at all an overstatement to point out that marketing has spread like a virus into every corner of our lives. Just look at CNN’s coverage of the air raid sirens blasting in Ukraine not too long ago. In the midst of the siren’s haunting peal, a ¾ screen ad for a friggin’ chain restaurant comes on, promoting beer and wings with your family and friends at a great promotional price, so won’t you think about coming on down? Talk about inappropriate timing.

It’s Not All Bad

Don’t take this to mean I think all marketing is bad, evil or selfish. I’m quite glad when a commercial is either sincerely entertaining in its own right, or thankful when it informs me of the availability of a product or service that I was already vaguely interested in picking up. In those cases, the ads feel more like gentle nudges rather than ham-fisted cajoling, and are a bit more welcome on my screen.

As for targeted ads online, just, no. Those weird me right the fuck out, and remind me that I need to be more randomized with my online activity. I hate the reminders that I am constantly being spied upon.

The people who make products or offer services need to let people know that those goods and services exist, yes. Otherwise, nobody buys, and the company goes belly-up. So, marketing must be seen to boost sales. Now, the best ads will make me laugh; not just smile, but truly, no-bullshit laugh aloud. Why does that make them the best ads? Because laughter is an involuntary positive feedback response, one that releases dopamine into the system, and that means I’m going to want more of that. If I’m associating that laugh with your product or service, I highly likely want to try it.

Now, if your Thing X is actually dog shit, I’ll tell you, but by then, you’ve already got my money once. Maybe that’s all you need to post a profit, and if so, well, kudos to you, thanks for the laugh, now get Thing X and yourself the hell out of my house. I can’t be too mad, because the marketing for Thing X worked for me as a piece of art, and even corporate art deserves some measure of respect as art if it evokes a response from me.

What Doesn’t Work

There’s a phrase in the business realm of all artistic and business pursuits: “Know your audience”. This is not some horse puckey expression or suggestion, as it turns out, but really could spell the difference between success and doom for Item X. If your product is intended for men between the ages of 18 and 35, what is known as a ‘key demographic’ or ‘key demo’, you should take some time to find out what’s important to men between 18 and 35. If you discover that they’re presently paying  a lot of attention to MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), maybe try to work that into your commercial.

Example: Norelco Razors

Open on a tatted-up guy at an MMA gym, hitting the bag. Cut to him shaving with a Norelco razor and afterward, feeling his smooth cheeks and smiling.

Cut to him in the ring taking a hit to the face, but in super-slow-mo, his opponent’s glove just slides right off, and he counterstrikes for the KO.

Cut to our MMA guy holding up a belt and whooping and bouncing up and down before looking right into the camera and saying, “For a dangerously smooth shave.” Cut, print, you’ve got your ad, and though it’s probably silly as all get-out, hyperbole can sell, if you know your audience.

Likewise, if a set of surveys reveals that the target consumer base cares nothing for, say, horseback riding, then making a commercial for razors featuring jockeys and their mounts for Norelco is going to have very little impact. Worse still would be making a commercial that spends most of its runtime and resources lecturing the target audience about how terrible they are and that using their Thing X will somehow make them a little less of a piece of garbage than they inherently are according to the company behind Thing X.

I’m looking at you, Gillette…

That sort of major whiff can and will make folks actively abstain from your Thing X, and if your Thing X is something that nobody genuinely needs, you’re quite possibly deader in the water than a fish after someone used TNT to just do some ‘creative mass fishing’.

Need Vs Want

Marketing pros and gurus will try to convince you that you really need what they’re selling. Frankly, 90% of the time, that isn’t so. Their job is largely to change your desire for Thing X into a habitual need for Thing X. In the case of products that contain addictive components, this is lethally easy to accomplish. For food products, we’ve got salt, sugar, caffeine, and that’s just a start. Due to variability of personality types and neurological makeup, what is addictive to some is rarely addictive to all persons. For products and services that don’t have addictive elements, a chief means of establishing ‘need’ is by making Thing X ubiquitous. For example, when we get a small cut, how many people say, “Get an adhesive strip?” Okay, no hands. Now, how many say, “Get a Band-Aid”? Okay, just about every hand went up. This is another way of transforming want into need.

Perhaps that’s not the best example, as medical necessities are needs by their very nature, unless you enjoy getting infected cuts and wounds. Let’s say you want a soft drink, and due to regional popularity, the only one nearby is Coke. Your want only has one available response, so you need to accept the Coke.

Simplicity Frees Us

There is a style of home décor that uses a lot of empty space and lack of clutter either by conscious design or lack of funds, referred to as ‘Spartan’. Historically, the Spartans adhered as a subculture of Greek society to a minimalist stoicism, often at odds with their fellow Grecians. Part of their worldview stemmed from the stoic maxim, “If you do not need it, do not hold it.” While the aesthetic and philosophy remain studied and quoted in the modern era, it is difficult, especially in the West, to find many people who chose to live this way. Perhaps the Amish come somewhat close.

Marketing and advertising often have us, to quote “Fight Club”, working jobs we hate, in order to buy shit we don’t need. When we become too invested in the things we own, the things we have end up owning us, as Tyler Durden might suggest. Perhaps that’s why the pursuit of knowledge continues to lure those of us who try to be aware of marketing’s effect on us; because knowledge is a form of intangible ownership, one that simplifies our living space. Maybe owning more information will set us free.