A strong example of marketing psychology from Duckburg

Once a week the Donald Duck falls on the mat here. With great pleasure the magazine is devoured in an hour by my oldest. But last week’s edition also got my undivided attention.

I didn’t read the comics (okay, secretly too), but I especially thought the ad for the Creepy Special was a great example of applying marketing psychology. How responsible do you think it is that these techniques are applied to children, I leave up to you, because you can have that discussion endlessly. In principle, all marketing is an attempt to influence, let’s be honest.

8 years old and very stubborn

My son is 8 and like almost all 8 year old boys, he is competitive. I suspect the makers of the Donald know that too. They probably also know that children in this age group are sometimes rebellious. They discover limits and stretch them here and there. And Duck cleverly, perhaps deliberately, responds to that in this advertisement.

Reverse psychology

In psychology there is such a thing as reverse psychology. We say something to provoke the opposite behavior. For example: ‘You probably won’t be able to do that!’ Works great with 8 year old boys, I know from experience.

Even in an old Grimm fairy tale book I already encountered the reverse psychology in Captain Bluebeard’s sinister fairy tale: ‘you can enter all rooms except this one’. You guessed it, the girls went into the forbidden room and they ended up having a damn bad time. Just as Bluebeard wanted and provoked with that one phrase.

When something is forbidden or discouraged, we become curious. Or rebellious. Using reverse psychology casts a doubt on us. In addition, our freedom of choice is limited. We don’t like that. We do want to do what the masses do, but only because we choose to do so.

Please leave these in the shop…

Okay, back to Donald. In this ad, the marketers apply the reverse psychology very nicely.

By calling on children to leave the magazine in the store if they already find this advertisement exciting, they immediately trigger something. Three things can happen when using reverse psychology:

  1. It doesn’t bother you. You don’t let yourself be fooled because you are not interested.
  2. You get curious. So what’s so scary about that sheet? Going to the store tomorrow to see…
  3. You’re getting rebellious. Pfff, I’m not scared. I’ll prove it by buying the special.

In the second and third case, the child wants to go to the store to either browse or buy. And we all know that once you get your hands on that sheet, 9 times out of 10 you buy it. For example by loss aversion, from sunk cost fallacy or by the principle of commitment & consistency.

But it didn’t come to that at our house…

Maslow threw a spanner in the works

My son had read the ad extensively and pointed it out to me. He had become curious (check) about the magazine. “Do you think it’s really that scary?” I told him the trick of the marketers. He thought about it for a while, then concluded with a conclusion.

He wasn’t going to save for the special magazine, because the stories might give him nightmares. Maslow beat the reverse psychology: 1 – 0.

pyramid of maslow

Maslow’s pyramid shows that we all have the same needs. After physical needs such as sleep and food, the second step quickly follows what my son was referring to: safety. That safety (sleeping peacefully without fear of vampires or zombies) was more important to him than proving that he is not afraid. That need only occurs in the higher steps of Maslow’s pyramid, if your safety has already been guaranteed.

And so Maslow from 1943 still beat Donald Duck from 2021. At least, at our house. There will undoubtedly be a lot of children who enjoy the horror stories and therefore happily settle the special. And why do we like that creep so much? There it is Fear Then Relief Effect the answer to.

More influencing techniques

After I was on edge with this edition, I was curious if the makers of Donald Duck use even more influencing techniques. I was flipping through old Duckies and let’s be honest, the ads are super good when it comes to the application of marketing psychology. There are almost no advertisements in the magazine at all. Little conscious influence here. But after browsing through older editions for a while, I found two more examples of marketing psychology.

Social proof

When we talk about marketing psychology, the name Robert Cialdini quickly comes into play. For those who don’t know him yet: Cialdini is an American former professor of psychology. He combines psychology with his knowledge of marketing. He became known for his 7 principles of influence, of which social proof there is one.

Social proof, or social proof, is proof that others make the same choices as you. If everyone does it, it will be good.

social proof in donald duck

In this ad you see a text in italics on the left that resembles a review: one of the best-known applications of social proof. When we see that others also bought this product, we are more likely to be convinced to do the same. In this case, it’s not even an actual review, but most parents won’t even notice the lack of a name. The seed has already been planted.

Savings program

We are crazy about saving, the necessary studies have also been done in the past. By saving (and therefore always achieving a small goal), we get small dopamine shots. That feels good and we are extra motivated by it. Whether the makers of Donald Duck made a collection for that reason? I don’t think so, but the fact is that we are going well on these kinds of actions:

Savings campaign in the Donald Duck, a form of marketing psychology.

In this advertisement you can see that you can save pockets. If you put them all next to each other, the end goal is created: a long image that is made by the individual booklets. So once you start saving, you have to buy them all, otherwise the picture will not be complete. Just as bad as a puzzle with a missing piece.

We remember unfinished tasks better than completed tasks. In addition, we would like to round them off: the Zeigarnik effect. When you start saving, you want to finish it until the end goal. Only then will your subconscious regain rest in this area.

In 2016, Zhang & Gao investigated how best to use a savings program. They showed that a step-by-step savings campaign motivates us the most. That is why we are the most loyal. Colleague Patrick Wessels wrote one earlier interesting article over.

Just a few examples from a random children’s magazine. As I indicated earlier: I think that Donald Duck is still quite innocent in terms of influencing techniques and that the techniques are not always used consciously. Do you have examples from other magazines for children? Let us know below.


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