Harness the Power of "Dark Arts" Advertising

This controversial advertising playbook wields proven social psychology to boost conversions. Read now to ethically influence customers and grow your business.

By Ashton Shanks | January 30, 2024

What You'll Learn...

Don't Be Evil

Humans are unique. However, our behaviors, the way we make decisions, the way we act, are not.

Surprise! You’re not as special as you thought.

Turns out, the way we act and interpret the world can be classified and quantified. 

The top advertisers, marketers, and PR agencies know the secrets of what I call the dark arts of advertising and they apply them constantly to change people’s behavior. 

Quick disclaimer: By reading this, you’re agreeing that you’ll use these ethically. My goal here is to show you tools that you can use, but it’s you that needs to use them correctly. Used in the wrong way, these can ruin lives.

So don’t be evil.

Each of these dark arts uses psychology and persuasion to drive better results. It trains the market how to think rather than telling them what to do. It crafts more potent marketing that is not reliant on constant promotion, the consistent lowering of prices and the constant fight to put your ads everywhere possible. 

Sound familiar?

If you use these right, these dark arts will align your messaging with your customers’ foundation-level motivations and it will convince them to take action.

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The Five Human Traits at the Heart of Dark Advertising

Conspicuous Consumption

Conspicuous consumption (I know, big words, hang with me) describes spending money on and displaying luxury goods and services that extend one’s prestige and indicate social status. It is a display of wealth meant to impress others and create an image of success, power, and sophistication. 

In other words,”check out this Rolex.“

This type of spending focuses on symbolic value and the image it projects to others. It is not primarily focused on its utility or practical use. 

One classic example of conspicuous consumption is the diamond market. 

Until the late 19th century, diamonds were only found in a few riverbeds in India and Brazil and really not considered for wedding rings. 

In 1870, this changed when huge diamond mines were discovered in South Africa and the De Beers company needed to control demand for the market. Using dark arts advertising they made wearing diamonds the status symbol of success and wealth. They did everything they could to get actresses and the wives of the rich and powerful to wear diamonds.

They even held school assemblies to make the upcoming generation believe that an engagement ring just has to be a diamond, or else what good is it?

And it worked.

In 1939, De Beers diamond sales in the US were around $23 million. These tactics, and the 1979 slogan ‘A Diamond is Forever’ helped De Beers expand its diamond sales to more than $2.1 billion in 1979. 

Ever shopped at any designer store like Gucci or Louis Vuitton? You probably got a text at some point from someone that had sold you something in the store. It probably said something like this:

“Hello Dan, this is Jen. We’d like to offer you a chance to come in and see a private showing of our next collection before it’s out, I think you’re going to love this.”

They’re trying to elevate the ego inside of you. They want to give you that feeling that you’re at a status that the majority of the world just isn’t at. You are special, so why not buy this bag that only special people get to buy.


Make your audience feel empowered and they’ll love you for it

Autonomy Bias

Have you ever been at a presentation or meeting that’s supposed to end at 12:30, but now it’s 12:32? That panic that wells up inside you is your brain saying “They’re not playing by the rules anymore! This presentation could last another three hours, maybe four, who knows?!” 

You feel trapped and your future is unclear and you freak out. And that’s normal.

Humans want to be in charge of themselves and their environment. 

You can make your customers feel more comfortable with you by offering them control. 

Here’s another psychological principle for you: Avoiding Hobson’s Choice. Hobson’s choice is the idea that when you give someone only one option to take it or not to take it, you are essentially creating an ultimatum for them.

And you know how people love pressure from an ultimatum. 

So avoid ultimatums. When you only give one option in their head, what they’re thinking is, do I want this or do I not want this? It’s all or nothing.

What you want to create is multiple options. You’ve probably seen this before, that’s the reason you see software companies give you like three or four options. This makes people feel like they have a choice, and people like having a choice.

Loss Aversion Bias

Have you ever realized something is missing, like a watch or a ring, but you realize it’s been missing for months? And now that you don’t know where it is you get a crazy need to find it right now?

People inherently hate losing stuff, including opportunities.

Loss aversion bias is the idea that the fear of losing is a stronger motivator than the prospect of gaining. 

As humans, we are wired to gather and collect, rather than remove or subtract. We get more pain from losing $50 than pleasure from gaining $50.

Examples of advertisers using loss aversion bias include CryptoManiaks’ advertising campaign that reminded consumers that if they had invested $100 in Bitcoin in 2010, it would be worth $2 billion today!

Also, there’s Credit Karma’s ad: “There is more than $40 billion sitting with state governments. Is any of it yours?” A perfect example of using loss aversion bias in advertising. It doesn’t matter your net worth; the thought of $100 just sitting there with your name on it eats at you.

People hate loss more than they love gain, show people what they’re losing.

Self-Serving Bias

The famous copywriter Blair Warren once said, “People will do anything for those who encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions, and help throw rocks at their enemies.” This perfectly describes the self-serving bias. People love to take credit for their successes and blame external factors for their failures.  

Remember when you failed that project in school? It’s because the teacher hated you, right? 

Remember when you passed the test? It’s because the teacher loved you, right?

People hate taking the blame for things. Tell people it’s not their fault they fail and they’ll instantly trust you. 

For example, an old Lucky Strike cigarette ad:  “20,679 physicians say Luckies are less irritating. It’s toasted.” What are they saying in that ad? They’re saying it’s not your fault your throat hurts after smoking. You’re just smoking the wrong brand because those idiots at the other companies don’t toast their tobacco. 

People also love being told they’re awesome. Think about Apple’s “Think Different” campaign. You ARE just like Jim Henson and John Lennon! 

Tell people that they’re awesome, and they’ll gladly give you their trust.

Present Bias and Hyperbolic Discounting

Present bias and hyperbolic discounting (so many big words, thanks for hanging in there) is the tendency to overvalue near-term rewards in the present over making incremental progress on long-term goals. We want instant gratification now over delayed gratification later.

Essentially, this is the reason you pay more for faster shipping even if you don’t need it right away. 

This is why AT&T will give you a phone for free. All you have to do is sign a four-year contract, which may actually cost you more in the long run. People are willing to sign things or commit to things that are not good for them in the long run because it’s perceived as better for them right now. 

For businesses, if you can give them more services, more features, whatever, up front, people are going to sign longer terms contracts, sign bigger deals. People working with or for an agency see this all the time. “If you sign a 3 month contract, great. But if you sign a 6 month contract, we’ll throw this service in for free…”

People love the now more than they love the later. Lean into it. 


People love the now more than they love the later.

A Recipe to Use the Dark Arts (Ethically)

You know when you buy a car and then you see that model everywhere?

Now that you know these five dark arts, you’re going to see them everywhere. Advertisements, product descriptions, sales letters, emails, press releases, etc. They are extremely powerful and effective. And now you know them.

So how do you know when and how to use each one?

Conspicuous Consumption: Give Them Status

When to Use It: If you have a differentiator that can tie to your audience’s identity, or if you have a high-priced, highly-branded product, lean in here. This is your play. Perfect for when your audience loves showing off who they are.

How to Use It:

  • Figure out what your audience wants to be seen as, and then make them feel like it. If it fits your brand, show them how your product will help them be seen as socially responsible and conscious. Maybe they want to be outdoorsy. Maybe it’s fitness. Show them what they want to be. 
  • Make them feel like a VIP via special exclusive events, early access sales, and behind the scenes information.
  • Use influencer or celebrity endorsements to appeal to the desire to be seen as fashionable, successful, trendy, etc.

Autonomy Bias: Give Them Control

When to Use It: Use this trick when your customers dig choices and personalization. It’s killer for tech, fashion, or anything where your customer wants to feel like the boss. Multiple options? This is your dark art.

How to Use It:

  • Provide multiple options to avoid your audience feeling like you’re giving them an ultimatum. 
  • Create a world where someone else will take their autonomy if the audience does not act.
  • Remind readers more about their freedom and autonomy. Think Nike’s “Just Do It” slogan. 

Loss Aversion Bias: Give Them FOMO

When to Use It: If you have a product that users consistently procrastinate buying, like self-improvement or health products, this is the one for you. If you have something that is truly only available for a limited time, lean into this one hard. Great for driving decisive action, but don’t overdo it, customers will start to see through it. 

How to Use It:

  • Replace ‘Take Advantage of’ language with ‘Don’t Miss’. Highlight deadlines and expiration dates.
  • Try framing your messaging in terms of loss rather than gain. Pose questions like: 
  • How much are your ad mistakes costing you per month?
  • Will you pass your annual physical?
  • Can you answer these 5 critical objections on your next sales call?
  • Put timers on your webpages, let people know exactly when this sale ends.

Self-Serving Bias: Give Them an Excuse

When to Use It: When you want to highlight the change in people’s lives that your product can give them, use self-serving bias. Tell them it’s okay they’re the way they are, it’s not their fault, and then show them how your product is the right way. 

How to Use It:

  • Pre-frame behavior you want to see more of:‘ You’re a risk taker and aren’t afraid to take action’
  • Emphasize how taking action directly influences their own success. Let them have the credit for the buying decision. (I.e. you are only a few steps away from unlocking your own path to success.)
  • Highlight the ‘Old Way’ vs the ‘New Way’.
  • Make people feel more special and smarter than other people when they buy your product. I.e. (Most people do x, but you are a better person because you’ll choose y.)

Present Bias and Hyperbolic Discounting: Give It To Them Now

When to Use It: It’s about making the now look way better than the later. If you can deliver fast you should. If your logistics can handle instant or fast delivery without costing too much, do it.  If you have a higher price point item, a pay later option can drive more sales, just make sure you have the cash flow and logistics to handle this.  

How to Use It:

  • Tell them what they could be doing the second they get it into their hands, and then tell them how fast they’re going to get it into their hands.
  • Implement ‘Buy now, pay later’ options
  • Give your customers more benefits and value now if they sign longer-term commitments or buy a bigger package.

Final Word

I said it at the beginning and I’ll say it again here: Don’t be evil, use them for good, and you’ll see your company grow.

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  • Ashton Shanks

    Ashton Shanks is a Visionary Leader in Marketing and Leadership Development who is a dynamic force in the marketing world. He is renowned for his passion for developing leaders and markers who drive success. Ashton is the CEO and Co-Founder of BAD Marketing and is the marketing mind behind strategies that consistently generate millions of dollars in revenue every month. From international stages to masterminds, Ashton shares his wealth of knowledge and experiences with audiences around the world. His captivating presentations inspire and empower with valuable insights into the ever–evolving landscape of marketing and leadership. Ashton’s first steps in marketing began at age 16. He now has over a decade of hands-on experience marked by innovation and adaptability, marking him as a key influencer in the marketing arena. Beyond business, Ashton is a proud father of two boys, Roman and Beckham, who are a constant source of inspiration.