Volvo tricked me with a decoy


After a few weeks of hunting I bought a new car, lured completely by a decoy. A decoy, in marketing or sales, is when someone offers you a thing knowing full well that thing isn’t really what you want, but will get your attention. The world is full of decoys — $1 appetizers at bars that get you to buy $20 in beer; $7 movie tickets that coerce you to buy $10 in popcorn and candy. A decoy likely put you in your house — Realtors use a classic strategy of showing you a home that needs repairs right before the pristine home they want to unload on you. That “whew, this house is OK!” feeling was completely a psychological setup, but you knew that, right?

The most successful decoy of the past 20 years was likely the New Beetle, released in 1998 with a brilliant redesign by J Mays. VW rode a wave of new sales, but many were Passats and Jettas purchased by consumers who strode onto the lot curious about the cute new bug, then decided they needed something more.

I just did the same thing, lured by a Volvo C30 and discovered an S60 with more power and room, for a few K more. I’ve always considered Volvo one of the most boring brands in the world. Safe. Secure. Yawn. A hot-hatch design got me on the lot to discover the Swedes have been playing turbo catchup to the Germans.

Decoys are a variation of “price framing,” a concept by behavioral economist Richard Thaler that customers are bad at judging value, so marketers must give them a reference point A to react to. A dress marked 50% off, down from $200, refers to a price of “$200” that never really existed — but makes the $100 price point feel so much better. Some decoys are magnets, pulling you into a sales ecosystem to buy something else. Some can be negative, showing what you don’t want so you’ll move over to item B. Decoys cut through the clutter of commercial capitalism by giving us a beacon. They help us fool ourselves into perceiving value, since we now have something to compare that value with.

I wanted something that I didn’t want, then ended up wanting another thing. The Volvo is a rocket and is safe and has room for the kids. I never would have found it without the impulse to chase a cooler design I didn’t need.

Decoys work really well.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

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