Zombie illustration

Are you a zombie consumer?

In Business and Environment, Eco Fashion, Products and Services by Peter SteidlLeave a Comment

Why do you buy things you don’t really need?  Why do you buy one brand or product rather than another?  How much do marketers shape your purchase decisions? And is it really always a bad thing if they do?


Imagine you are looking for a snack to buy and you face dozens of options in your supermarket’s snack aisle. What are you going to do? Are you going to consider each option carefully, read the ingredients list and nutrition information panel on each label, look at the price per item and per gram, and then make a rational choice based on the strengths and weaknesses of each option?

No, you are not!

Like all of us, you are going to take a shortcut. Maybe you simply reach for the snack pack you bought last time without giving it any thought. Or a brand that seems familiar because you saw an ad for it recently. Or you go for the brand you consider the market leader – after all you can’t go wrong with the leading brand. Or perhaps you pick the one that’s on special or has the most appealing graphics on the pack. There are many shortcuts you can take to eliminate the need to think.

If you were asked why you chose the snack food you ended up with, you would probably come up with some sort of rational, compelling reason for your choice. We are all very good at rationalising the shortcuts we take, but the truth is that we are typically not even aware of what actually drives our choices and pushes us to take shortcuts.

Our brains are hardwired to use shortcuts. The brain accounts for 2 to 3 percent of body mass, but uses 20 percent of all energy. It follows that thinking less is a great way to save energy, and this has been hardwired into our brains.

Most of what we do is driven by our non-conscious mind, which I call the ‘doing mind’. So while we plan and make decisions with our conscious mind (or ‘thinking mind’), our doing mind drives us to act according to its own rules without our even knowing.

If you have any doubt, think about how difficult it is for anyone to follow through on their new year’s resolutions. Every year people decide to lose weight, stop smoking, spend more time with their family, work harder, or whatever it is they feel would improve their life. Yet we know that most of us are spectacularly unsuccessful when it comes to delivering. The vast majority of people who want to lose weight never reach their goal weight and, if they do, they usually put the weight back on within a year. The reason is that they make the decision to lose weight with their thinking mind, but their actions are driven by their doing mind. And their doing mind is much faster and, therefore, stronger than their more rational thinking mind.

The same happens when we shop.

Your doing mind will push you so hard to take a shortcut that you may even decide not to buy anything at all, if you are faced with so much choice that the task of selecting an option seems like just too much hard work.

Imagine you visit your local supermarket and are offered to taste a selection of six jams. You can taste these jams for free and, if you want to, you can buy any one you particularly like. The next time you do your grocery shopping you again see the tasting station, but as you get closer you count no less than 24 jams ready to be tasted. There are many exciting flavours and you have a great time tasting some of them, but, when it comes to deciding which flavour to buy, you may find it too difficult and simply walk away.

This is exactly what happened when such an experiment was carried out: a much larger number of shoppers stopped and tasted one or more of the jams when 24 different flavour options were on display. After all, it’s fun to taste so many different flavours, and how often do you get a chance like that? But when it came to actually buying, ten times as many jams were sold when there were only six to choose from rather than 24! The reason was that a large proportion of the shoppers who tasted the 24 jams found it too hard to work out which jam they preferred and should therefore buy – so they walked off and bought nothing at all.

Shortcuts decide what you do more often than you might imagine. Experienced marketers know this, of course, and will try to build shortcuts into their offer and how it is presented. This will encourage you to buy their brand when your doing mind wants you to make a quick decision without having to think through all the alternative options.

It should be obvious that none of these shortcuts is likely to help you end up with the best possible choice – but that’s not what your doing mind is looking for. It is simply looking for a way to cut back on your thinking effort and, by doing so, to save energy. All it wants is for you to end up with a good enough option.

Imagine you are in a restaurant that offers a fixed price French dinner including wine. You are offered a glass of cabernet sauvignon that you are told is from North Dakota. You are not that taken by the wine and feel the food is also pretty average. You don’t even finish each course as it is served and you decide that you won’t return to that restaurant as you had, at best, an average evening.

This is part of an experiment that was staged in a restaurant in Illinois, USA. A group of diners was served a free glass of a cheap cabernet sauvignon with a fixed price French dinner. However, half were told the wine came from California and the other half that it came from North Dakota. The group that thought they were drinking a Californian wine not only rated the wine higher than the group drinking wine apparently from North Dakota, they also rated the food more highly. They ate 11 percent more food and were more likely to make a return reservation.

Why did this happen?

Because the diners associated California with sunny weather and great wine, they enjoyed the wine more, and, because they enjoyed the wine more, they were in a positive mood and expected to have a good dining experience; so that when the food arrived they really did enjoy it more. This in turn led them to eat more of the food and, after such an enjoyable experience, they naturally felt it would be worthwhile returning to this restaurant. In other words, the alleged origin of the wine largely defined their dining experience.

Here is another example: You are in a bottle shop wondering what you should buy – beer, wine, or spirits? Or maybe you should buy something non-alcoholic from another shop? As you wander down an aisle you hear the sound of a cork coming out of a bottle and wine being poured into a glass. You don’t think about it – in fact, you may not even be consciously aware of these sounds – but you reach for a bottle of wine and head for the checkout. Your doing mind has made the decision for you by noting the wine-related sounds, relating these sounds to memories of good experiences you had drinking wine in the past, and therefore making the decision for you that you should buy wine.

The fact that we typically don’t know when we have been influenced by marketers contributes to the success of what they do to shape our purchase decisions.

A UK supermarket placed four French and four German wines, matched for wine style and price, on its shelves. A sound system on top of the shelving unit played French music on even days and German music on odd days. On French music days 77% of the wine purchased was French, and on the German days 73% of the wine purchased was German. Clearly, the music had an impact. Yet, when shoppers where asked if the music made a difference to their choice when checking out, the vast majority claimed they had not been influenced at all by the music, and some reported they hadn’t even been aware of any music playing.

None of us is immune to this kind of influence. No matter how well informed and astute a consumer we are, our hard-wired brain circuitry wants to take advantage of the shortcuts marketers use to get us to buy what they want us to, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it saves time and effort for the more important things our brain needs to do. What is important, though, is to be aware that this is what you are doing; so that you can put the time and energy into rational decision making when a purchase decision is worth the effort to you.


About the author

Peter Steidl

Dr Peter Steidl is an author, marketing consultant and neuromarketing expert. In his articles and books he shares the insights he has gained and explores new ways of understanding why we do what we do. His books include : Zombie Consumer. How marketers decide what you buy, Createspace 2016, and Find Your Happy Weight Without a Diet. The Neuroscience of Weight Loss, Createspace 2012.


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