Dark Patterns in Marketing – What they are and how you can avoid them.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, chances are that you have been a victim of dark patterns in marketing. More often than not, these crop up in the form of deceptive advertising messages promoting free limited trials, registration-free processes and limited time deals that indicate a sense of urgency.


How do marketers get away with it? Well, there are a lot of cases where these advertisers actually do not get away with it, and end up facing massive lawsuits and settlements. However, the everyman consumer might not even think to sue a brand or even an individual because they have been charged for a subscription they might have signed up for. After all, it can get rather disorienting to keep track of every link you’ve clicked, every large fancy font and ad, and it is easy to blame yourself for not reading the fine print.


That, of course, does not make the practice of dark manipulative marketing ethical. A concrete example of this type of advertising which is growing increasingly common on social media is the quiz setup, where an interested end user is drawn in through the promise of a free quiz with an unspoken requirement of signing up in order to receive results or to receive a generic introduction to a tailor-made service, product or plan which are only made plainly available after payment or subscription.


Another scenario is the free trial signup with an arduous, complex, and frankly inaccessible cancellation process, or a free trial with a recurring charge that the consumer might not even be reminded of ahead of the cancellation deadline. These negative option programs, where the service or the product continues to be perpetually renewed until active cancellation is enacted by the consumer, are among the most common tricks in the arsenal of false advertisers all around the world.


As previously mentioned, dark patterns also emerge in advertising tactics falsely claiming limited availability or a fast closing time window. Employing tools such as flashing digits, countdowns, or stickers with a small number in red, plays on basic human psychology in order to manipulate unsuspecting consumers to rush into a purchase they might otherwise rethink.


The most concerning of these scenarios remains negative option marketing, which is already widely regulated by policy makers and other online enforcement bodies. It is therefore of utmost importance to ensure that your business is operating in line with ethical marketing practices that focus on promoting the value of your product or service rather than tricking consumers into making unwanted commitments and purchases.


Ways you can ethically advertise a negative option programme:


  • Make sure that all material terms and conditions of your product or service are clearly and visibly displayed and that the information is easily accessible. These terms include costs, cancellation deadlines, invoicing or charge terms and other information about the product to avoid tricking the consumer about what to expect.
  • Request the consumer’s informed consent before charging anything.
  • Create a simple and accessible cancellation process and provide information about the method. Cancellation should never be more complicated than purchasing or opting in for a product or subscription.
  • Request the consumer’s consent for recurring charges separately from the rest of the transaction. This can be achieved by including a separate check box or a dialog box.


As marketing shifts and evolves in the present time’s ever-changing landscape, it is easy to become distracted or overwhelmed by the different options available to us. Using tricks and tactics that border on the unethical or which are outright illegal can make us lose sight of the journey we set out on when we first set up our business. At the end of the day, it is important not to forget your overarching goals as a business owner or service provider – that is, to sell your product or service to the right end user.