How One Weird Trick Conquered the Internet

Commentary about business and finance.
July 30 2013 3:00 PM

Prepare to Be Shocked!

What happens when you actually click on one of those “One Weird Trick” ads?

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What really puzzled me about this formula—as I sat through video after video, alternately bored and enraged—is that there’s no way to shut the guy up and just buy the dick pills already. The videos were all 15 to 30 minutes long, and you had to sit through the whole thing before you can hand over your credit card. I’d thought the point of all this teasing was to inspire impatience—provoking customers to pay up to end the suspense. I was wrong.

“Research on persuasion shows the more arguments you list in favor of something, regardless of the quality of those arguments, the more that people tend to believe it,” Norton says. “Mainstream ads sometimes use long lists of bullet points—people don’t read them, but it’s persuasive to know there are so many reasons to buy.” OK, but if more is better, then why only one trick? “People want a simple solution that has a ton of support.”

What about all the weirdness? “A word like ‘weird’ is not so negative, and kind of intriguing,” says Oleg Urminsky of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. “There’s this foot-in-the-door model. If you lead with a strong, unbelievable claim it may turn people off. But if you start with ‘isn’t this kind of weird?’ it lowers the stakes.” The model also explains why some ads ask you to click on your age first. “Giving your age is low-stakes but it begins the dialogue. The hard sell comes later.”

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Poorly drawn graphics are a deliberate choice as well. “People notice when you put something in the space that’s different, even if it’s ugly,” Urminsky says. “This might hurt the brand of established companies, but the companies here have non-existent or negative brand associations, so it may be worth it for the extra attention.”

Plus, “if the ad were too professional, it might undermine the illusion that it’s one man against the system,” Norton says. Slick ads suggest profit-hungry companies, not stay-at-home moms or rogue truth-tellers trying to help the little guy.

There may be another reason for the length and shoddiness of the ads. “The point is not always to get the customer to buy the product,” Urminsky says. “It may be to vet the customer. Long videos can act as a sorting mechanism, a way to ‘qualify your prospects.’ Once you’ve established this is a person who’ll sit through anything, you can contact them by email later and sell them other products.”

“Those Nigerian prince scams are not very convincing,” he adds, “but they’re meant not to be. If you’re a skeptical person, the scammers want to spend as little time with you as possible. These videos may screen people in a similar way.”

Though “one weird trick” ads may not be aimed at the average consumer, they show how deftly marketers have learned to manipulate our beliefs. There may be little daylight between the temptation of learning a weird trick at the behest of a sketchy mail-order outfit and the provocative headlines of mainstream news outlets like BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, or—indeed!—Slate. The science of grabbing and directing your attention advances each time you click a link on your Facebook feed.

Arguably, this very article has behaved like a one-weird-trick ad in delaying gratification this long. So what does happen when you grit your teeth and watch to the end of the videos? Well, your dick gets bigger with MaleFormulaXL, an herbal blend that runs you $89.95 per auto-renewed bottle. You can survive the Obama-calypse with a booklet on bunker-building and water purification. Eliminate belly fat using the thoroughly disproven extracts of garcinia cambogia and acai. And diabetes—just add cinnamon. The weirdest trick of all, of course, was getting anyone to click in the first place.

Alex Kaufman is an economist living in Washington, D.C.