How marketers use social media FOMO to sell you things, and how you can keep your money

Don't get fooled by ads that take advantage of your FOMO.

Shelby Brown Editor II
Shelby Brown (she/her/hers) is an editor for CNET's services team. She covers tips and tricks for apps, operating systems and devices, as well as mobile gaming and Apple Arcade news. Shelby also oversees Tech Tips coverage. Before joining CNET, she covered app news for Download.com and served as a freelancer for Louisville.com.
  • She received the Renau Writing Scholarship in 2016 from the University of Louisville's communication department.
Shelby Brown
5 min read
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A "real person" reviewing a product might seem more trustworthy than traditional commercials. 

Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images

FOMO, or the "fear of missing out" only came into the popular lexicon in recent years, but it's always been a part of our culture. You could feel like you've been ostracized if you can't go to an event with friends, and know you'll see them posting about the fun they're having without you on social media later. Or you might feel anxious if you missed a festival over the weekend that looked fun. This is FOMO

What you may not recognize is that FOMO doesn't only apply to your personal life: Advertisers have been exploiting your fears of missing out to sell you their products for decades. If you buy X right now, you'll be so much happier. If you don't buy X right now, you'll never find happiness. It's a basic principle used in marketing to make you think you need something, made even more potent when paired with aspirational photos and influencers on social media. But there are ways to combat this FOMO and keep advertisers out of your life and wallet. 

How social media has made FOMO worse

FOMO arises when feelings of social isolation or rejection contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression, according to Professor Deanna Barch, chair of the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University.

While advertisements carry the same messages as they always have, the frequency with which we see them has drastically increased over the last decade, thanks to our smartphones and social media. Five billion people own mobile devices worldwide, according to data from Bank My Cell. The devices are in front of our faces constantly, and advertisers know it. 


Most photos posted on social media aren't the first shot or even the second. 

Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

"Instagram is a FOMO engine. It shows you that other people are leading incredible lives and doing incredible things that you aren't doing," Adam Alter, associate professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business, said in an email. 

This can be difficult enough to deal with when you're looking at pictures of people you know. But social media FOMO gives advertisers the ability to convince you to buy things on a new level. When you scroll on Instagram, you see an advertisement after every four posts from people you follow. That means mixed in with pictures of your cousin's tropical vacation and your friend's cute new dog are ads made to look like picture-perfect Instagram posts and catch your eye. 

To make matters worse, it seems like almost any product you Google or app you download will show up as an ad on Instagram or its parent company, Facebook, later. This gives companies with sales goals in mind unfettered access to users across multiple social media platforms that are often connected. 

How advertisers use FOMO to get you to buy things

Most ads rely on cultivating a sense of urgency and an atmosphere of exclusivity to draw in customers. You might see an ad with a discount paired with a ticking clock -- you only have 24 hours to take advantage of this deal! Clicking that flashing discount might ask you to sign up for a membership and an email list to get even more ads delivered to your screen each day. 

Mix these factors in with the promise of only a "limited number of products" and it's a powerful combination. The more scarce a product is, the more valuable it becomes to people, Alter said. 


Social media makes it easier than ever to shop online. 

César Salza/CNET

"Scarcity in and of itself is a source of value because it means you have something that other people can't have," Alter said. "Missing out -- or the fear of missing out -- plays on scarcity. The idea of not experiencing or having the thing that other people want makes that thing more valuable, and marketers know this. They artificially play on the possibility that you may miss out, which makes the thing they're referring to more valuable."

In addition, companies often blend FOMO with influencer marketing, a growing space that is expected to reach $10 billion by 2022. I know I spend more time on an ad that shows a "real person" testing a product and giving a quick review instead of a more traditional commercial. And I'm not alone -- research shows audiences consider influencers to be more authentic than brands. In reality, today's influencer advertising isn't very different from traditional commercials. It just feels more accessible, since it's on our phones and gives brands a human face. 

Part of the power of social media advertising is that, like our friends, influencers and brands use these platforms to show us only the best parts of people, Alter noted -- best hair days, best makeup, the product worked right, the house is clean, the sun is shining -- and if you use this product too, you'll have those things too! 

How to avoid FOMO

Understanding that FOMO is used as a marketing tactic is part of the battle in getting past it, Alter said. If you know the tricks marketers use, you can take a moment to think before you make an impulsive, FOMO-based purchase. 

If urgency and scarcity are removed from the hypothetical marketing equation, FOMO loses a lot of power.

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Sometimes just taking a social media break can help ease FOMO. 

Zhang Peng/Getty Images

Doing your own research can also spare you anxiety and cash. See if the product you're looking at is available anywhere else, and compare prices and look up reviews from people who aren't selling the product. You might find that there's actually not a time limit on the sale, there's better price somewhere else or you like a different company's product better. 

When you're buying something on a website, don't let the company guilt you into signing up for anything you don't want or need. You've probably seen this before: You're on a website and a discount offer pops up, if you sign up for a membership. To encourage you to click "Yes," the "No" option might read something like "No, I don't want to save a ton of money." 

Other times, the site requires your email address, even if you know that you're only going to be using it this one time. You sign up, with every keystroke imagining the endless emails from the site flooding your inbox. Don't fret -- an unsubscribe option is usually in minuscule print at the bottom of the email. It's also OK to make an email address that's just for signing up for things on websites. That way, your main inbox isn't filled with advertising nonsense (and it's safe in case one of those sites gets hacked). 


Enjoying an event without your phone can actually feel better than worrying about capturing the perfect moment. 

Ollie Millington/Getty Images

To take a break from the screen an FOMO-based ads, you can also check out a number of digital wellness tools at your disposal today, in app form or built into your devices. Google, Facebook, Instagram, Apple and others have incorporated screen time detox tools over the last year. 

Technology consultant Tchiki Davis, who studies wellbeing technology, says digital well-being tools are helpful, but it also helps to have some introspection.

"Why do we even get that feeling? Are we feeling like we want to be socially connected? Are we feeling lonely? Or are we feeling anxious or sad, or is there some sort of emotional motivator that gets us to want to purchase things, or to want to do things that we don't normally do or that we aren't invited to?" she said.

Ultimately, Davis encourages people to question the true root of their FOMO and what emotions drive their behaviors.