What are Dark Patterns?

On Behalf of | Dec 12, 2023 | Marketing And Media

If you are in e-commerce, web development, or you’re just an average/avid internet shopper, you probably have seen the term “dark pattern” lately.

But what exactly are Dark Patterns? 

In 2022, the Federal Trade Commission released a report (“Bringing Dark Patterns to Light”).  In this report the FTC outlined how companies used special design practices and techniques called “dark patterns” that “trick or manipulate consumers into buying products or services”.

Such practices and techniques include the use of misleading language (only two rooms left at this price!), banners, subscription sales, hidden options, or visual elements.

As ecommerce evolves, the techniques and methods used to trick and trap consumers also evolve. Regulators see the use of Dark Patterns as a consumer protection issue and are taking notice… and action.

Other Dark Pattern examples:

  • Countdown Timers or “limited”, “low”, or “last few” banners or other similar terminology sprawling across an e-commerce site. This signals to a customer that if they dont buy the item du jour now, it will be gone. This kind of false urgency pressures consumers into making impulsive decisions.
  • Sneaky subscriptions such as offering a free trial that automatically transitions into a paid subscription without clear notification. The FTC is cracking down even harder on these renewable offers.
  • Complex or hidden opt-out mechanisms make it difficult for consumers to opt out of receiving additional services, marketing messages or other communications during the checkout process. Often, these options are pre-selected, requiring users to actively seek out the opt-out checkbox. While the signup process may be smooth and easy, canceling or deleting user accounts (or merely finding the instructions to do so) is complex and difficult. This is also a dark pattern.
  • “Bait and Switch” is when one product is advertised at a low price, but consumers are redirected to a more expensive option or are subject to hidden fees during the checkout process.  In a case against LendingClub, the FTC alleged that LendingClub used specific and prominently placed visuals to “falsely promise loan applicants that they would receive a specific loan amount and pay “no hidden fees”. However, the actual disclosure of those fees was hidden in between other text. 1

Related Cases

The FTC has filed several lawsuits against companies who employ these tactics.

  • In June of 2023, the FTC filed a complaint against Amazon alleging that Amazon used dark patterns to get consumers to enroll in Prime. The complaint alleged that Amazon’s use of Dark Patterns was an unfair trade practice. This was a supposed violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act and a violation of the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA).
  • Also in June, the FTC announced an enforcement action. They then proposed a consent order against Publisher’s Clearing House. In this case, they claimed that PCH used Dark Patterns to “mislead consumers about how to enter the company’s well-known sweepstakes drawings” such as convincing consumers that they had to make a purchase to win or increase their chances of winning, among other Dark Patterns.

Dark patterns have significant consequences for consumers, ranging from financial implications to a loss of trust in online platforms.  The FTC has made it loud and clear that they will not tolerate this kind of deceptive and harmful behavior.

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