Twisted Thinking: 8 Ways to use Cognitive Dissonance in marketing and advertising

Prathamesh Krisang

Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort or tension that occurs when a person holds two or more conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or values. In the context of marketing and advertising, cognitive dissonance can be leveraged to influence the behavior and attitudes of consumers.

Here are some ways to leverage cognitive dissonance in marketing, sales, branding, design, and advertising:

1. The Incentive Tug-of-War

Offering incentives for certain behaviors can create cognitive dissonance in consumers, as they weigh the value of the incentive against their existing beliefs or actions. This can lead to re-evaluation and potentially change in behavior.

Example: A car manufacturer offering a trade-in bonus for customers who turn in their gas-guzzling vehicles for a more fuel-efficient model. This creates cognitive dissonance for customers who may value the financial incentive but also have an attachment to their current car. This advertising campaign aims to influence their decision making process to opt for a eco-friendly alternative.

2. The Social Comparison Trap

By highlighting the actions or behaviors of a group or individuals, marketers can create cognitive dissonance in consumers, causing them to question their own choices and potentially change them. This can be achieved by creating a sense of social pressure or by creating a sense of aspiration.

Example: A fitness brand creating an Instagram campaign that showcases the success stories of people who have achieved their fitness goals using their products. This creates a sense of aspiration and social pressure for viewers to also adopt the same healthy habits and use the brand’s products.

3. The Guilt Trip

Creating a sense of guilt or shame in consumers can create cognitive dissonance. By making consumers aware of the negative consequences of their actions and how it affects the environment or society, it can lead them to re-evaluate their choices and make more responsible decisions.

Example: An eco-friendly bag making company could create an advertising campaign that highlights the environmental damage caused by single-use plastic bags, and position their reusable bags as a more responsible alternative. This can create a sense of guilt in consumers who regularly use single-use plastic bags, and motivate them to switch to the eco-friendly option.

4. The Choice Paradox

Presenting a wide range of options can overwhelm consumers and create cognitive dissonance, causing them to question their decision-making process and potentially leading them to make a different choice.

Example: An interior design company offering a wide range of customizable options for their furniture, such as a variety of fabrics, colors, and styles. This could cause customers to second-guess their initial choices and potentially make different ones. This technique can be leveraged to increase the perceived value of a product or service, as customers may feel that they have made a more informed and personalized decision.

5. The Value Proposition

Using a value proposition in marketing and advertising can leverage cognitive dissonance by highlighting the unique benefits of a product or service in comparison to others on the market. This causes consumers to question the value of competing options and consider the value of the marketed product or service more favorably.

Example: A university emphasizing the career opportunities and networking potential available to graduates, in comparison to other institutions in the area. This creates cognitive dissonance for prospective students as they consider the value of their education investment.

6. The Emotional Appeal

Playing on emotions can create cognitive dissonance, making customers question their actions and potentially change them.

Example: A luxury car company creates an ad campaign that evokes feelings of success and power, making customers question their current car choices and consider upgrading to the luxury brand.

7. The Contradiction

Using a messaging or advertising approach that intentionally creates a sense of contradiction in the minds of consumers can effectively leverage cognitive dissonance. By presenting information or messaging that challenges their pre-existing beliefs or attitudes, it can create discomfort and cause them to question and re-evaluate their own beliefs and attitudes.

Example: An e-commerce company that specializes in sustainable and eco-friendly products could use this approach by promoting their products as the “green” choice, while also highlighting the negative impact of fast fashion on the environment. This creates a sense of contradiction for consumers, making them question their own consumption habits and attitudes towards sustainable products, potentially leading them to make more environmentally conscious purchasing decisions.

8. Act now

“Act now” is a marketing strategy that utilizes the cognitive dissonance principle by creating a sense of urgency for customers to take action. By highlighting limited-time deals, discounts or exclusive offers, customers may feel uncomfortable about the possibility of missing out on the opportunity and are more likely to make a purchase quickly. This creates cognitive dissonance for customers as they may have to make a quick decision to take advantage of the offer, which can drive them to act.

Example: A travel agency creates a sense of urgency by highlighting limited-time deals and discounts. This creates cognitive dissonance for customers, as they may feel discomfort about missing out on the opportunity and desire to book a trip quickly.

Cognitive biases similar to cognitive dissonance include:

Confirmation bias: the tendency to seek out and interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses.

Anchoring bias: the tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information encountered when making decisions.

Self-serving bias: the tendency to attribute one’s own successes to internal factors and one’s failures to external factors.


“Cognitive Dissonance” by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

“The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” by Michael Shermer, Scientific American.

“The Psychology of Confirmation Bias” by Scott Plous, The Social Psychology of Decision Making.

“Anchoring Bias: Why We Get Anchored to the Wrong Numbers” by Tom Ewer, Conversion XL.

“Self-Serving Bias: How to Recognize and Overcome It” by Bradberry, Travis.