Marketing in a sea of dark patterns

Published: March 28, 2023

min read

Dark patterns are ubiquitous. And most marketers don’t even realize that they are responsible for them.

What are dark patterns?

The term, coined by UX specialist Harry Brignull, describe the many clever ways software can get users to do things that they didn’t mean to do in the first place, or somehow make it difficult for them to do things that could be bad for the business or brand. It could be a situation where a customer finds it really difficult to unsubscribe from something. But a “buy now” button is easy to spot and use.

To be fair, not all that is considered ‘dark patterns’ has malicious intent to deceive, trick, hoodwink or mislead the customer, but marketers do what it takes to be able to create meaningful connections with their audience. But there is the growing concern that in their quest to cut through all the clutter and reach their audiences, brands are almost tricking their customers into things they might not have consciously agreed to. There is a concern about the confusing privacy choices presented to customers.

But the fact is that Regulatory Bodies are zoning in on the ways marketers collect information about their customers or audiences. This means that marketers need to be really careful about what they do to collect customer information.

Some of the regulatory bodies include –

  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
  • European Data Protection Board (EDPB).

In recent times, Active Network (the provider of an online payment portal) was sued by the federal Consumer Finance Protection Bureau for ‘luring’ customers into annual subscriptions through what they call “dark pattern” techniques.

The reason why marketers and brands need to be worried is because the kind of activity that is labeled a dark pattern is something that is not far from the usual.

When designing ad campaigns that include aspects of information collection, advertisers should take heed.

How can marketers avoid having their engaging campaigns labeled a dark pattern?

Some guidelines have been issued by the FTC, the EDPB, individual states’ negative option laws, the forthcoming California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act (and similar UK law), California’s CCPA and EU’s GDPR and its forthcoming EU Digital Services Act. The essence of their recommendations can be summarized like so –

Don’t play around with the customer’s prerogative to make informed choices – this can be anything from not giving customers all the information or giving them too many options to choose from and thereby confusing them to setting things up in a way that makes users not even think of privacy issues.

Get user consent for use of their data – regulators are concerned when brands ask for consent to use the information and data in a way that is not related to the purpose for which it is being collected or might be unexpected to the consumer. Consent must always be obtained as an informed decision.

Marketers need to be careful not to surreptitiously make their audience do more than they intended to do, to advance their own ends. This could be anything from customers divulging more information than they need to, buying more, subscribing to more to never being able to unsubscribe or leave without giving away more information. Some brands make it really easy for users to subscribe – but absolutely impossible to sign out of!

The key is, we think, to look at it from a consumer’s perspective. Sharp UX designers can make all the difference in making the customer feel comfortable as well as safe, and that, at the end of the day, can protect brands as well.


Sarah Johnson

Sarah is an analytical marketing expert with a passion for data-driven insights. She has a keen eye for detail and a talent for turning complex information into actionable strategies. In her free time, she enjoys yoga, travel, and trying out new recipes in the kitchen.


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