The Devious Devices Home Shopping Shows Use To Make You Buy

Posted by Jill Chivers in Fashion, Style and Shopping, Shopping Messages

I’m fascinated by home shopping shows.  Maybe you didn’t know this about me, but its true.  These shows are like watching B comedy movies or classic television shows from the 1970s to me.  They’re an intriguing spectacle, and I often find myself marvelling at what I’m seeing – could they really be saying that?  Don’t they know how obvious and utterly lacking in finesse what they’re doing is?  It continues to amaze me, but the answer seems to be: no, they don’t.

I’m never tempted to buy anything I see on home shopping television shows.  I’m dispassionate, disengaged and disassociated from them.  They intrigue me but they don’t draw me in – I don’t want to participate, I just want to watch.  And marvel.

And there’s plenty to marvel at!

I’ve noticed that home shopping shows use some obvious-if-you-know-what-you’re-looking-at tactics to get us to buy.  Because we need to be real here and recognise that is their sole purpose and reason for being: to persuade us to buy whatever it is they are selling right now – whether we need or want it, and whether we’ll actually use it or not.

Robert Cialdini wrote a fascinating book called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion in 1984.  Since then it has become something of a bible for marketers selling their wares.  In Influence, Dr Cialdini describes 6 pillars of influence:

6 pillars of influence

  1. Reciprocity – People tend to return a favour extended to them, thus the pervasiveness of free samples in marketing – we’ve gotten something for free, so there’s an internal drive to return the favour – by purchasing something.
  2. Commitment and Consistency – If people commit to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honour that commitment because of establishing that idea or goal as being congruent with their self-image.  So getting someone to say YES to buying something makes them more likely to follow through and actually make the purchase.
  3. Social Proof – People will do things that they see other people are doing. For example, in one experiment, one or more confederates would look up into the sky; bystanders would then look up into the sky to see what they were seeing. At one point this experiment aborted, as so many people were looking up that they stopped traffic.  The idea is if ‘everyone else’ is doing it, you should be too.  If ‘everyone else’ is buying the latest smart phone or colour/style of clothing, then you should too.
  4. Authority – People will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts. This is why celebrity endorsements work so well – we see the celebrity as an expert or an authority figure, even if it makes no logical sense to do so (what Andie Macdowall knows about anti-aging may not be very much, after all).
  5. Liking – People are easily persuaded by other people that they like. Cialdini cites the marketing of Tupperware in what might now be called viral marketing. People are more likely to buy something when they like the person selling it to them. And here’s something else: often we like physically attractive people more.  Another reason why celebrities are used to endorse and promote products – we like them, and believe we know them somehow.
  6. Scarcity – Perceived scarcity will generate demand. Making an offer for a “limited time only” encourages people to buy now, as there is a sense of urgency – they will miss out if they don’t buy now, before the limited offer expires.

So what does all this have to do with home shopping shows?  Well, they use all of the devious devices above to manipulate us into buying things we didn’t even know existed and possibly don’t need or want, or will ever use.  Let’s discuss two in particular.


home shopping show2

Social proof

Social proof on home shopping networks comes in at least two forms, sometimes three:

  1. The use of the item/s for sale by the host and the guest  (often the designer or creator of the product being sold, or their representative).  In a show I recently watched, the host and the guest were wearing the items for sale, which were designer-style coats and jackets with a special design feature (faux fur used somewhere in the design).  Item after item, the host and her guest (the designer) modelled the item being profiled at that moment, each woman wearing a different colour of the same style.  They complemented one another, almost purring and cooing at the delights they found in the items they were wearing, each one more beautiful, wearable and essential (it  would seem) than the last.
  2. Many home shopping shows use a counter to tell us how many of the items have been sold.  On a recent show I watched, this counter only came on screen when the number of items sold reached four digits (so 1000 items sold), and when they were being sold at a rate of approximately one item per second.  This meant we saw the counter ticking over like an odometer in a fast moving vehicle – click, click, click, click.  Jumping from 9402 items sold to 9403, to 9405, 9408, 9409 and so on.
  3. Social proof on home shopping shows sometimes also comes in the form of buyers and viewers who phone up the show to compliment the designer/creator on bringing to the world the item being profiled right now.  These testimonials sound like they are coming from the religious revival tent sometimes – the item/s have changed the callers life!  They are so blessed to have said item in their home, life, closet!  It’s more amazing than amazing!

Social proof on home shopping networks is essential: if you don’t see other people buying the item, in the forms above, then it can be difficult, or impossible, to imagine owning the item yourself.  And that’s the last thing home shopping shows want – they want the opposite, in fact – they want you to see, with your very own eyes, how easy, how essential, and how fabulous having this item in your life could be.  Just buy now.

And that brings us to the second devious device home shopping shows use to manipulate us.


Home shopping shows blatantly tap into our inbuilt sense of missing out and scarcity by constantly reminding us of how few items are available/left for purchase.  They use terms like “it’s gone limited!” to indicated a specific, small number of items are left, eg: only 100 left.  They also tell us how few of a certain size or style or type are left – “only 50 left in the Medium”, or “just 15 left in the pink!”.  They will even tell us items they expect to be scarce, even if they aren’t now, by saying things like “We expect the purple to go limited anytime now” or “The black is so popular, it’s racing out the door!”.

These tactics make us fearful – what if we miss out? What if we don’t buy this thing, and it has the power to change our lives?  We’ve just been watching, in glorious living and obvious colour, how fabulous the thing is  (social proof off the Richter scale, as per above) – we can’t miss out on getting our hands on it, surely!?

They’ll sell you anything

Home shopping shows have no clue about what you need or even want.  And that is not their business – that is your business.  Their job is to make their wares as tempting, as compelling, as irresistible as possible.  We can say and think and feel what we like about a world where that’s possible and happening on multiple channels in our homes 24 hours a day, but those are the facts.  Home shopping is here, and it isn’t going anywhere.

Our job is to be clear on what it is we want.  On what it is we really need.  And on what it is we can use in our lives, our homes, our wardrobes.  And something that has no place in that assessment is what anybody else is wearing, how many other people are buying it, or how few there are left.

It’s our job as consumers to get smart, and to stay smart.  Don’t watch home shopping shows with your brain switched to neutral, on auto-pilot.  Keep your wits about you, make sure you know what you need, what you want, and what you will most definitely use, before you pick up the phone to dial or log onto their website.

Better yet, if these kinds of shows are your particular kind of over-shopping temptation, then don’t turn them on in the first place.

Your life is far, far, far too important to spend it (home) shopping.

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