Choice Words

Jim Wasserman

AS WE MAKE FINANCIAL, political and other decisions, we’re bombarded with messages that supposedly offer helpful information. But as savvy consumers of news and advertising, we need to realize that we aren’t nudged just by the content of these messages. It’s also the packaging that can have a huge influence.

Below are 21 ways that information is packaged to make it more enticing. Think of this list as a follow-up to my earlier article, Terms of the Trade, which has garnered almost 80,000 readers over the past year and is now used by many economics teachers.

Ad hominem. Where folks attack not the competitions’ products or ideas, but the competitors themselves. “Look at how he dresses.”

Anecdotal evidence. Using isolated examples as representative of most or all circumstances. “I know someone who once hopped on one foot at midnight and her warts went away.” If anecdotes are used that don’t accurately represent the overall situation, this is a sampling error.

Complementarizing. Positioning a product or idea as “necessary” if you’re also consuming another product. Think about fries with a burger or matching shoes with a dress. “If you buy this base model car, you really won’t get all you can out of it without the deluxe sport package.” “If you believe we ought to do X, then you have to be for Y also.”

Confirmation bias. Playing to consumers’ tendency to look for information that matches their already established beliefs. The consumers are then predisposed to accept the claim as true. “Of course, it’s better made. It was made in the U.S.” This is a major factor in today’s fragmented, polarized news consumption.

Curation. Selectively picking information that puts something in the best light, while omitting other information that—while accurate—may cast a negative shadow. This is what just about everybody does on social media when discussing their vacation.

Ethos appeal. Trying to get someone to accept a message because of the consumer’s trust, respect or belief in the endorser, even if the information is questionable or the spokesperson is unrelated to the product. Think about a brick company using an NFL quarterback as its spokesperson.

Fads. Consuming or believing something because “everybody” is doing it. (Yes, I still have my pet rock from the 1970s.) Some little-known products or ideas are declared popular by their purveyors, so that people will embrace them, thus allowing the sellers to then confirm their initial claim thanks to this feedback loop. Fads can also be indirectly communicated by tacit pressure. Ever go to a party where you’re underdressed compared to everybody else and, though nobody says anything, you feel out of place? Yeah, that’s it.

False scarcity. Making something appear more valuable—and hence desirable—because access to it is limited. “Only smart people will understand this” or the classic “limited time offer.”

Free good. Telling potential buyers that they’ll get a bonus, like a “free gift with purchase,” when the cost has already been factored into the product’s price. This is a common sales technique in women’s accessories, with Estee Lauder a pioneer. Think also about frequent-buyer programs that offer “rewards” after a certain amount of purchases.

Implied messaging. Beware folks who declare, “All I’m saying is….” They aren’t.

Negative honorific booty. A complicated name for a simple idea: If you own such items, you signal that you’re a badass and command respect as a rebel or disruptor. You’re your own person—along with thousands of other who have acquired the same booty.

Niche targeting. Saying that a product is tailor-made just for people like you. Yogurt is healthy for men and women, but the target most often is diet-conscious women. The purveyor often implies it’s rejecting popularity—maybe even sacrificing its own profits—to make sure people like you get what you want. A seller might also create an air of false exclusivity. This is often communicated by an inside joke or reference. There’s a wink that says we can prove we’re an “insider” by accepting what’s proffered, while non-consumption shows you aren’t “one of us.”

Othering. In many ways, this is the flip side of the “niche targeting” coin. It’s the suggestion that those who don’t consume the desired product are different—in a bad way. You don’t want to be like “those others.” Apple built its brand by othering personal computers that used Microsoft’s operating system.

Pathos appeal. Using emotional pulls to get people to consume products or information. The seller might play on sympathy or use fear mongering, in which the purveyor warns of the dire consequences of not believing its message. This is sometimes done by a visceral punch, where the ad opens with a gut-wrenching scene that makes you emotionally receptive to the pitch.

Pecuniary emulation. Coined by the famed father of behavioral economics, Thorstein Veblen, it’s the idea that we consume to look richer or more educated than we are. The message: If the elites do it, we should, too.

Sentimental value. Adds value to something because it reminds the consumer of “happier days.” Think of advertisements for products that we loved as kids and—tapping into our nostalgia—promise to make things “like they used to be.”

Strawman argument. Falsely claiming that the competition advocates something, only so the purveyor can then easily knock down that argument to make itself look better. “They say their product will make you never have to worry about money again, but no one can guarantee that.”

Trolling. Responding to competitors with emotional appeals that don’t really address the issue or facts, and instead are more geared to upsetting the competition and throwing them off their game. It might be an ad hominem attack or a wild claim about a competitor’s product. If used with humor, it can be a pathos appeal whereby the troller gets the potential consumer to enjoy the trolling, thus becoming more disposed to favor the troller’s product. This is a popular technique on the internet, where scoring quick superficial points often wins over thoughtful dialogue.

Tokenism. A more symbolic than actual representation of how diverse the consumers of a product are. This gives the impression that the product appeals to many demographic groups. You see ads with what seems like a forced attempt to show different kinds of people loving a product.

Trope. Using a familiar or recurring idea so that the message is more easily delivered. Having a genie promote a product makes it seem like a “magical solution,” even if the genie is slightly disguised, or telling the hero’s backstory of overcoming hardship to make him both familiar and admirable.

Viral marketing. When the marketers use plain folks to promote a product, so it looks popular or like a fad. Don’t like slick salespeople? We might forget our wariness if a neighbor, friend or even our spouse tells us the same thing.

Don’t want to be fooled by such packaging? The key, as always, is to be an “active consumer.” Read the labels. Ask if the information is accurate. Shop around. And, above all, ask yourself if it’s right for you.

Author’s note: I’m happy to have people use this list or my earlier one to teach economics or media literacy. All I ask is that you give proper attribution to both HumbleDollar and me. And if you have a minute, drop me a line, and let me know where the articles are used and how the lesson goes.

Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. His previous articles include A Poisoned ChaliceFalling for Flattery and Buying Power. Jim is the author of  Media, Marketing, and Me, about teaching behavioral economics and media literacy, as well as Summa, a children’s story for multiracial, multi-ethnic and multicultural families. Jim lives in Granada, Spain, with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they write a blog on retirement, finance and living abroad at

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