Advertising, Behavioural Science and Ethics: perspectives on the commercialisation of cognitive biases

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Advertising, Behavioural Science and Ethics: perspectives on the commercialisation of cognitive biases


Rebecca Mitchell




Increasingly, behavioural science in the form of behavioural economics is being utilised to increase the effectiveness of advertising communications. The practice of using known cognitive biases and lapses in rational thinking to help sell products and services prompts ethical considerations. Whilst sparking some passionate, albeit small debate, research has not included the voice of the intended target, the general public. The aim of this research was to provide an open and sensitive forum in which the public could share their ideas surrounding the use of behavioural economics with the intention of detecting the perceived ethical boundaries, fairness in their implementation, and ultimately possible resolutions. In exploration of this topic, five interviews and two focus groups were conducted to discuss these increasingly pressing issues. Despite judged as unfair in advertising, behavioural economics was seen as an unavoidable reality in the fabric of the advertising landscape, although the public seek increased transparency and information regarding the specific techniques being utilised, while requesting little from advertisers themselves. The public also take special consideration of vulnerable groups of individuals who might be particularly susceptible to such tactics, a conversation which whilst incredibly important, hitherto has not been discussed, consequently contributing valuable insight into the literature concerning consumer protection. Future avenues for research may seek to address professionals in the industry, as personal insight may lead to richer, nuanced ideas that could lead to realistic and actionable solutions. Additionally, research could involve discussion of other potentially invasive techniques, such as data tracking, and how these techniques may combine to construct a psychological and technological sphere of influence and what sort of provisions can be made to empower the consumer.


Advertising, Behavioural Science, Behavioural economics, Ethics


Participants Overall, 14 participants took part, encompassing a wide range of ages to collect a broad set of opinions (range 21-62, mean 34 years, five males, eight females, one non-binary). Five participants were individually interviewed, with two focus groups taking place afterward. A breakdown of the participants can be found in Table 1, in Appendix A. All were residing within Britain and were therefore familiar with British advertising. Due to the nature of the research, recruitment was achieved via opportunity and snowball sampling, to ensure those participating would be comfortable in sharing their private thoughts and their time. Materials A discussion guide was developed in order to assess the public’s views on the issues considered in this research’s objectives, comprising of open-ended questions that can be seen in Appendix C. Although following an inductive framework for analysis, this was not strictly adhered to in the formation of the discussion guide, a brief literature search was conducted prior to its development, as to provide some direction for rich and useful prompts. 15 The first section sought to break the ice, probe for ideas and assess the awareness that participants may have in relation to psychology in advertising. Then, they were informed through a short paragraph what behavioural economics in advertising would look like, in order that they understand the concept, parameters and focus of the research. The resulting feelings were explored. Sources for this explanatory paragraph encompassed academic journals (Kovic & Laissue, 2016) and quotes lifted from the website of ‘The Behavioural Architects’ (2022) (a leading behavioural science consultancy agency) in order to represent an accurate and unbiased picture of what behavioural economics is considered to encompass. Example ads were also included and shown to participants in order to foster understanding. There are 108 cognitive biases listed by Wikipedia, (Wikipedia, 2022) and this list is growing. In order to select the appropriate biases most relevant to advertising for the interviews and focus groups, examples were selected from ‘The Choice Factory’ (Shotten, 2018), a book authored by an industry professional to outline the most pertinent biases used in advertising, cross-referenced with the information pages of the ‘The Behavioural Architects’ who list the BE they actively employ in their consulting work (Behavioural architects, 2022). The biases chosen to be represented were Social Proof, Anchoring, Extremeness Aversion and Friction Removal. The questioning did not pertain to the ads specifically, but rather the techniques used. This can be seen in the discussion guide in Appendix C. For the specific ads chosen, in order to prevent bias and examples which may seem overly manipulative or benign, search terms were used. The bias name plus ‘advertising example’ was used and the first example that conformed to the bias and was a verifiable ad from the brand were selected. In order to probe the participants feelings about how their perceptions on the acceptableness of employing behavioural economics may 16 differ depending on the source of the ad, ads that used the same biases from charity organisations were specifically chosen to be presented alongside their for-profit counterparts. Procedure Ethical approval for the current study was obtained through the project supervisor and ethics partner at Lancaster University (Ethics Application can be seen in Appendix B). In line with this, all participants were provided with a copy of the participation information sheet, a consent form and finally a debrief upon session completion. Five individual interviews took place first to serve as a refining process to maximise the utility of the focus groups. These interviews took place online via Microsoft Teams to reduce friction to participation, allowing participants to select a time of their choosing within their own homes. Interviews were approximately an hour long, with some being extended with the permission of the participant if ideas still needed to be expressed toward the end of the allotted time. Video and audio were recorded, and participation was compensated with a £10 Amazon Gift Card. After the interviews, two separate focus groups were conducted, whereby the audio was recorded. The first focus group contained four participants, as a member dropped out, with the second containing the expected five participants. Refreshments were provided and both had a duration of approximately two hours. Although there was a discussion guide, the interviews and focus groups were semistructured to allow for flexibility and an adaptive approach. This was deemed necessary to reflect the exploratory nature of the questioning. The focus groups and the interviews were all solely conducted by the researcher. 17 Interviews and focus group recordings were subsequently transcribed and identifying information removed. Analysis To carry out the qualitative analysis, Braun and Clarke’s (2006) six-step framework for thematic analysis was followed: familiarising yourself with the data, generating initial codes, searching for themes, reviewing themes, defining and naming themes, and producing the report. In the generating of codes, open coding was used, meaning due to the inductive nature of the research, there were no pre-set codes, but rather they were developed and modified throughout the process. The adoption of this approach was decidedly the most appropriate, as it is considered the most influential method in the social sciences due to widely established clear and practical parameters (Maguire & Delahunt, 2017). This type of analysis is also highly accessible to the public; Unlike numbers and figures, the average person can relate to the thoughts and feelings of others (Braun & Clarke, 2017). Being about the public and for the public, an accessible analytical method was essentia


Lancaster University




Braun and Clarke (2006)


Wenying He


Open (unless stated otherwise)











Leslie Hallam

Project Level




Sample Size


Statistical Analysis Type

Qualitative (Thematic Analysis)




Rebecca Mitchell, “Advertising, Behavioural Science and Ethics: perspectives on the commercialisation of cognitive biases,” LUSTRE, accessed April 19, 2024,