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Advertising With Numbers: Tricky or Truthful?

Updated on February 13, 2019
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Heidi Thorne is an author and business speaker with over 25 years of experience in sales, marketing, advertising, and public relations.

  • You can help these needy (children, animals, people with diseases, etc.) for just 50 cents a day.
  • 1 in 10 people will get (disease of choice) in their lifetime.

Ever see advertising like this? What if those same ads had these messages?

  • You can help these needy (children, animals, people with diseases, etc.) for just $182.50 per year.
  • 10 percent of people will get (disease of choice) in their lifetime.

One can imagine quite a different response to the second set of messages. While the intents of both ads are laudable (collecting donations for those in need, raising awareness), they have used a tactic utilizing number perceptions to trigger action.

Both sets of statements say exactly the same thing except that the first set is easier for people to wrap their minds—and emotions!—around. Most people have a couple of quarters jingling around in their pockets, cars and couches. So a 50 cent donation doesn't seem like a lot. And most everyone has at least 10 people in their social sphere. The thought of just one of 10 friends suffering from a dreaded disease is often enough to get someone dialing up for a doctor appointment to get checked out.

On the flipside, when asking people to shell out over $180 for a donation, they might think twice about doing so. What if someone was told that his chances of contracting or developing a life threatening disease was only 10 percent? How much worry would that person have? Probably some. But it would be unlikely to result in a "What if I have ____ and don't know it?" panic.

This is sometimes referred to as "breaking it down to the ridiculous (or absurd)." And it can be very effective in breaking down resistance to making higher priced purchases or taking difficult actions.

When "Reduction to the Ridiculous" Can be Beneficial to Customers

Reducing numbers and statistics to those that are mentally and emotionally manageable—even ridiculous!—is used so often, people seem practically conditioned to it. But it doesn't always have a manipulative or negative impact on a customer.

Take almost any newspaper or broadcast advertising for cars. What is usually promoted? The monthly payment or lease, with the number of payments and total cost (plus fees, of course) in fine print underneath. If a car dealer advertised that customers would need to arrive with a check for tens of thousands of dollars to purchase a car, it's unlikely that many would be wandering into the dealership.

Justifying the "monthly payment" advertising and promotion tactic is the fact that most car buyers are gainfully employed and receive regular paychecks. They will likely be making monthly payments from their paychecks, turning it into a monthly budget item like groceries.

So the tactic can help customers figure out how a particular purchase fits into their regular cash flow situation.

But They're Less than a Dollar Each!

Being in the promotional products business, I am very aware of how reduction to the ridiculous can be very enticing... and deceiving.

A large portion of this industry is dedicated to producing and selling promotional giveaways that are less than $1 each... pens, magnets, notepads, etc. Usually these items are advertised with their per-item price. What's in fine print is the minimum quantity that needs to be purchased. In this price range, minimum orders can be 250, 500 or even 1,000 pieces.

Can't tell you the number of times I've had to burst a customer's promotional dream bubble by informing them of the total that this "less than a dollar" per item order will be.

Ironically, if a promotional buyer is looking to save on their investment, considering higher priced items that have lower minimum quantities may be a wiser, money-saving choice. This is especially the case for small business owners and micro businesses who may not need 250 to 1,000 of ANY promotional item! A more expensive item may also provide more marketing impact for these smaller operations, too. Many of these businesses provide personal, one-to-one service, and an impressive promotion or gift can help make their limited number of clients feel special and appreciated.

Weigh In on the Numbers

Do you think using reducing numbers to the ridiculous is tricky or truthful?

See results

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2014 Heidi Thorne


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