The Implication of Dark Patterns and Personality on Marketing Solutions

There is a growing awareness of deceptive online marketing techniques known as dark patterns driven by high-profile court rulings (such as this 18.5 billion dollar ruling against Publishers Clearing House for its use of dark patterns) and articles in journals like Popular Science outlining how to detect and avoid dark patterns when shopping. The term dark patterns encompasses a variety of techniques, such as social engineering and false information, designed to trick a target into making an action, such as a purchase or revealing information, that they otherwise would not have made. An example of dark patterns is stating a limited number of items left on a product information page or having a countdown clock for a sale. Given the growing consumer and regulatory awareness marketing professionals and decision-makers need to develop strategies to deal with this growing issue.   


Social Engineering and Other Tricks

At first glance, dark patterns seem like simple deceptive advertisements but they are rooted in exploiting cognitive biases in our thinking and use the interactiveness and immediacy of online marketing to be far more effective and impactful. While these tools are used for legitimate products they are increasingly used for illicit activity such as identity theft increasing regulators awareness of the practice. To avoid using dark patterns in marketing solutions, and not unintentionally create new ones, a deeper understanding of who is affected by them and how to mitigate them is needed.


Personality Is Key

Research by my team at DeepLabs showed how psychological factors such as impulsivity influenced the effectiveness of common dark patterns techniques. You can read more in our articles, Dark Patterns In Online Shopping: Do They Work And Can Nudges Help Mitigate Impulse Buying published in Behavioral Public Policy, and The Role Of Dark Pattern Stimuli And Personality In Online Impulse Shopping: An Application of S-O-R Theory published in The Journal of Consumer Behavior. We showed that not only do psychological factors influence the effectiveness of dark patterns, but common psychological tools for impulse control help mitigate them. For example, if we delayed a purchase decision after a participant was exposed to a dark pattern its effectiveness was greatly reduced even for personality types who under normal circumstances would have been heavily influenced by them. This also underscored the immediate nature of digital payments enabled or enhanced many of these dark patterns.


Bad From the Beginning

One common response in our studies was anger when it was revealed to participants that a product information page had dark patterns. And those most influenced by dark patterns are the most likely to experience buyer’s remorse. This implied that while dark patterns are temporarily effective, they negatively impact customer relations almost immediately after a purchase resulting in returns, negative reviews, disputes, and other adverse outcomes such as court actions.   


Measuring the True Return

For decision-makers, this means the initial benefit of any marketing technique must be balanced against its entire cost. This is not a short-term vs. long-term view, the negative impact starts almost immediately after a purchase or even exposure to a dark pattern. And, you should be concerned about any technique used, not just those that could run afoul of regulations. When evaluating new marketing solutions and vendors, it is legitimate to ask about dark patterns, potential adverse outcomes, and best practices. Vendors who use dark patterns to trick consumers to crank up click-through rates are playing tricks on their clients as well. Given the new attention to dark patterns, it is worthwhile to review core metrics and key performance indicators to ensure they incorporate the complete cost when evaluating the ROI of a solution. If they do, chances are dark patterns could never enter into production. 


Empathy and Building Trust

For marketing professionals, if you want to maximize true returns for your clients you need to take into consideration the long-term psychological impact of your approach. Solutions should emphasize empathy and building long-term trust (from the five-pillar approach) rather than one-off gains. This will assure the post-action emotional state of the consumer is considered in the design phase and help steer designers away from potential dark patterns. The UX developer community is actively working to try and create best practice guides to help developers avoid inadvertently using or creating dark patterns. These efforts are a great step forward because, as our research showed, given the UX designer’s personality, they may not even be aware that what they are creating is a dark pattern.


Generative AI

This becomes more difficult as the marketing profession embraces large language models and generative AI. The power of generative AIs means modelers could use or even create new forms of dark patterns that may not be evident to them. If you are using these techniques and do not have a model governance policy similar to those for risk modeling, you are at risk for negative outcomes beyond just including dark patterns. Poorly built models can result in bad performance post-deployment, bias against sub-populations, inappropriate interactions with customers, and other embarrassing and potentially non-compliant outcomes. While generative AI promises to greatly increase the scale, effectiveness, and immediacy of new marketing solutions, they still require experts to create, validate, and monitor them.


Protective Layers

Our research shows that simple impulse control techniques such as distraction or reflection are powerful tools to mitigate the effects of dark patterns. This implies that you can employ mitigation techniques directly into the purchase experience to stop much of the negative consequences of any dark pattern; however, this will impact performance metrics such as abandonment rates. An example implementation of a technique is to have users click through their shopping cart before making the final purchase. This will force them to acknowledge and reflect on each item. In some circumstances, such as increased regulatory scrutiny, this cost is more than justifiable. And, for multi-seller platforms such as Amazon and Etsy, where product pages can be developed by anyone, these methods might be the simplest approach to assure users are not impacted by dark patterns. There are benefits of such a technique beyond mitigating dark patterns, such as reducing returns, controlling disputes, and better user policing of sellers within a multi-seller platform.   


Long Lasting Growth

Today’s marketing solutions must include controls for dark patterns due to legal and consumer awareness. But, in general, when evaluating the effectiveness of new marketing solutions a deep understanding of the post-purchase experience needs to be incorporated into measuring a solution’s true return. And, given the sophistication of the solution, a model governance process may need to be enforced. While, at first glance, this implies reducing the effectiveness and increasing the cost of a marketing approach, in fact, by eliminating or mitigating dark patterns, consumers will have an improved post-purchase experience and overall better emotional association with a brand or merchant. This positive emotional connection, and reduced exposure to potential regulatory actions, more than offsets the impact of dark patterns mitigation upon a few performance metrics.