Virtual Ownership: How Advertisers Sway You

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is virtual ownership? How do advertisers use virtual ownership to manipulate you into buying a product? How can you avoid it?

Virtual ownership is the feeling of ownership of an object before you actually own it. Advertisers take advantage of this aspect of human nature through advertising and trial periods.

Keep reading to learn more about virtual ownership.

How Advertisers Use “Virtual Ownership”

The effects of ownership don’t only influence our poor selling decisions. They can also influence poor buying decisions, due to the fifth particularity of human nature: You can feel ownership of an object before you own it. This is called virtual ownership, and it’s a powerful selling tool. There are a few common ways that companies use virtual ownership to influence your buying decisions: advertisements and trial periods. 

Advertisements

Many advertisements work by prompting you to imagine that you are experiencing the products advertised. When you see a commercial that features a smiling family on a cruise, you imagine yourself and your family in their place, enjoying a relaxing vacation under the sun. Or, you see a cologne ad in which a tuxedoed man shares dinner with a beautiful woman. 

These advertisements feed you a visual story that prompts you to imagine yourself in place of the actors, experiencing the same positive feelings. Once you imagine yourself owning the advertised goods, you naturally fall in love with them and your lack of real-life ownership feels like a loss. This thought process often drives you to buy—and therefore actually own—the product. 

Trial Periods 

Many companies go a step beyond visual advertisements, which merely let you imagine what it’s like to own a product, and offer trial periods, which let you experience what it’s like to own a product. 

Usually, trials have an “out”—you can cancel at any time, or the trial will automatically end after 30 days. This out tricks you into thinking that testing out a product can’t do any harm. After all, it’s free, and you can easily stop the trial if you find you don’t have any use for the item. However, this is usually not the case. Because trials are designed to replicate the feeling of ownership, you’ll naturally start to feel that the product is yours and become averse to losing it. Instead of giving up the product at the end of the trial period, you’ll often end up purchasing it—even if you don’t particularly need it. 

For example, many entertainment streaming services offer 90-day trials. Often, you’ll agree to these trials, thinking you’ll binge a few shows over the 90 days and then be done with it because it’s not a necessity in your life. However, the trial period sees you immersing yourself in a few new shows, and making a nightly habit of watching an episode or two. By the end of your trial period, the service feels like a necessary part of your routine that you’re happy to pay to maintain. 

You also see virtual ownership at play in companies that rent out furniture and other home goods. These companies rent to you with the knowledge that you likely won’t bring back that couch at the end of your 6-month rental period. By then, the couch has become a valued part of your home. You opt to purchase the couch instead of returning it—likely costing you much more in the long run than simply buying a couch at the outset.

Avoid the Temptation of Virtual Ownership

You can avoid the trap of virtual ownership in several ways. First, when you see an advertisement, think about how the product will really show up in your life. Often, you’ll find that it isn’t quite as you imagined it and the product isn’t necessary for you. 

Second, avoid trial periods if you don’t need the product—once you “own” the product, it starts to feel like a need. When it comes to renting, consider the cost of renting then buying, instead of just renting. With this new figure in mind, does it make sense to rent, or would it be better to buy?  

Virtual Ownership: How Advertisers Sway You

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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