DTC 355: Reverse Psychology

Case in point: reverse psychology works.

The end. 😂

Joking aside, this powerful psychological tactic can be used in marketing to generate interest, curiosity, and motivation. 🔮

Why is reverse psychology effective? 

Because it triggers an innate response called reactance, which is a feeling of rebellion when someone tries to tell you what to do or think or comes off a little too strong. 

Reactance can make us want to do the very thing we’re being told not to do (something every parent knows all too well, amiright??) 😮‍💨

Most traditional marketing does its best to avoid the reactance response:

  • Providing proof to back up claims
  • Using humor or flattery to disarm the reader
  • Building trust with reviews, social proof, demonstrations, and authority figures

But the truth is, reactance is a very motivating force.

Here are three examples of brands that successfully used reverse psychology in campaigns and what you can apply to your own marketing. 👇

(PSA: This goes without saying, BUT reverse psychology isn’t as simple as putting “don’t read this” in front of all of your headlines. 🙃 It’s an art. It takes finesse and thoughtful planning. And it should be done honestly and ethically 'cause no one likes to be manipulated!)

1️⃣ Volkswagen's “Think Small” print campaign

Volkwagen’s ads from the 1960s are considered one of the greatest print ads of all time. And a classic example of reverse psychology in action. 

To understand the genius of this ad, let’s take a ride back in time to the American 1960s. 

Consumerism was at its peak, especially with cars. The bigger, the faster, the flashier, the better. 🚗 

So obviously, the small, slow, insect-like Volkswagen Beetle was a hard sell to the public.

But the ad's creators designed something unexpected

You'd be thoroughly confused if you saw it in your newspaper in the 1960s. “Think small? America’s slowest fastback? What in the world?” 

And so, naturally, you’d read it. At this point, Volkswagen has already won the first advertising battle: they’ve caught your attention. 👀

The ad generated interest in readers by being boldly honest about the car’s faults, almost insultingly. They even used images that exaggerated the compact size. 

And by not trying to hide the car’s supposed faults and even highlighting them, they created a desire for it. 🙃

As a result, the ad appealed to customers looking for a smaller, more practical vehicle… and the Beetle Boom began.

💡 Your takeaway: Be brutally honest about your product. When done well, it can spark curiosity, generate interest, and maybe even create a cult following of rebels.

2️⃣ Patagonia’s “Don’t Buy This Jacket” Black Friday ad

In the 2011 Black Friday edition of The New York Times, Patagonia published a full-page ad using a classic reverse psychology tactic… but with a twist. 🍋

What was the result of telling shoppers NOT to buy their jacket? 

Well… people bought their jacket (sales went up 30%). 🚀

But it wasn’t just a provocative headline that made this ad successful.

The unexpected call to NOT buy the jacket generated curiosity and broke the usual Black Friday pattern among dozens of other Black Friday ads. 👍

While sales were certainly a goal, Patagonia also used the subtext of the ad to spark a conversation about sustainability and get users to question their buying behaviors during a notoriously consumer-driven season.

Ultimately, the campaign was a call to Patagonia’s ideal customer: environmentally conscious individuals. ♻️

The person attracted to this ad would have appreciated Patagonia’s call not to buy the jacket, which may have triggered a reactance response to buy it anyway and support the company (or at least remember them for a later purchase). 

💡 Your takeaway: If you use a classic reverse psychology tactic, do it with a twist. Surprise shoppers with something unexpected, but stay true to your brand ethos to attract your ideal customer.

3️⃣ Hilton Hotel’s ridiculously long TikTok ad

Would you knowingly watch a 10-minute-long ad on TikTok?

The answer is probably, “Umm, I’ll pass”... 

Unless, maybe, someone turns it into a challenge. 👀 

That’s exactly how this 10-minute Hilton Hotel ad went viral on TikTok, a platform we usually love for rewarding our dwindling attention spans.

Hilton’s ad is long, indeed, but our breakdown of it doesn’t need to be. 

This marathon ad uses the power of reverse psychology in many ways. For example:

  • Goes against the norm of what you’d expect on TikTok (sub-60-second videos)
  • Honestly admits that it’s an ad (multiple times!), even though “people hate ads on TikTok”
  • Uses satire and humor to poke fun at influencer advertising while using multiple influencers and celebrities throughout

Frankly, the entire ad is a stroke of reverse psychology and satirical marketing genius. 👏

💡 Your takeaway: Boldly go against the norm and create unexpected ads. And even better if you can tie in satire and comedy to poke fun at yourself.

✨ TL;DR?

  • Reverse psychology works because of the reactance response: a desire to do exactly what we’re being told not to do.
  • Most marketing tries to avoid triggering the reactance response. However, it’s a very motivating response, and using reverse psychology tilts it in your favor.
  • If you’re going to use reverse psychology in your marketing, do it with transparency. No one likes to feel manipulated.
  • Reverse psychology can look like:
  • Being brutally honest and transparent, even to the point of highlighting your product’s faults
  • Surprising consumers with something truly unexpected
  • Boldly going against societal norms
  • Breaking the advertising “fourth wall” and stating the obvious
  • Using satire and comedy to poke fun at yourself, your product, or your industry
  • Ultimately, try to stay true to your brand, ethos, and ideal customer
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