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Is Manipulation Wrong?

Estee Lauder outdoor ad
Estee Lauder Ad

Coke’s Marketing Success

Is Manipulation Wrong?

Decades ago, Pepsi launched an advertising campaign that had people drink Pepsi and Coke from two different cups that were label-less and asked them to decide which drink they preferred. The results showed that Pepsi was preferred to Coke. This prompted Coke to launch a campaign that slightly altered its age-old recipe. But the campaign failed miserably.

A scientist uncovered something fascinating that Coke would have liked to have known. Years of dedicated marketing aimed at successfully associating positive feelings such as community, Christmas, and family with Coke. The result was that people found Coke tastier than Pepsi – only if they knew that they were drinking Coke. This story is covered in depth in the book “Buyology” by Martin Lindstrom. The conclusion was interesting but unsettling – our perception of a product can change our taste of it.

The Placebo Effect

There are several other examples of this. Another instance is found in Dan Ariely’s book, “Predictably Irrational”, where he gets college students to drink beer with vinegar in an experiment. His findings suggested that the students’ beer reviews was based not on their taste buds – but on the information they were presented with before tasting the beer. When they were told that the beer they were drinking contained vinegar; they rated it much lower than when they tasted the same drink without knowing that vinegar was added to it.

It’s easy to use placebos to manipulate people and it’s what marketers constantly do. But it can’t be self-induced. To try to convince yourself something is real undermines your ability to genuinely believe it. You cannot make yourself believe that eating a strawberry will cure you of a headache because you know of no good reason to believe that strawberries can cure headaches. Going back to the Coke vs Pepsi example, what this finding underscores is that marketing is extremely effective, and companies should and will invest as much money as they can to find innovative ways of trying to manipulate people.

The Ethics of Persuasion

However, is it unreasonable to condemn corporations? They are only responding to the incentives created by the marketplace, after-all. People’s predictable reactions to cues will be exploited by other competitors if not by them. Many people are often insulted at the thought of being controlled (take the Facebook controversy) but isn’t that a natural part of human behavior? Whenever we lie, exaggerate, compliment, flirt, joke with other people, are we not trying to provoke some kind of response? And we do so without ever asking for their permission.

When you lie to compliment someone for your own gain – you know that they never explicitly expressed their desire to like you. You are, in effect, manipulating them. The difference between the flirting with someone and companies using marketing on people is difficult to decipher. Someone who is being flirted with is given an explicit message. She knows what to expect and she can draw her conclusions accordingly, but sometimes she can’t. The man flirting with her can use subtle tactics that can fool his unsuspecting victim. Some advertisements aren’t asking for your permission, while others are.

As Seth Godin has pointed out numerous times in books such as “The Icarus Deception“, “Purple Cow” and “Permission Marketing”, the new way of marketing is not the same as before. You can no longer pay large sums of money to the TV industrial complex and force millions of viewers to pay attention to your ad. The internet age has made it imperative for advertisers to better disguise and package their ads. But beneath the surface, the same game is being played. They are still trying to manipulate your behavior – either to get you to buy a product or to believe in their message or brand.

The craze of content marketing wasn’t the result of marketers suddenly caring about people’s sensitivities. It’s the result of reacting to the increasing amount of choice that has been made available to the modern consumer. There is nothing implicitly good or bad about manipulation or marketing, the same way there is nothing implicitly good or bad about technology, flirting, or politics. They are all means to an end – and will be evaluated (only by some) on the results of their implementation and/or the motivations of their agents.

The problem is that marketeers don’t need consent to advertise your message. The subliminal messages they are pushing on you can be done so with minimally invasive methods such as exposing you to a particular shade of color (A cigarette company’s launched a very effective advertising campaign by merely coloring billboards with a certain color).

As long as economic incentives exist, there will be plenty of ways for marketeers to manipulate your thoughts.

5 replies on “Is Manipulation Wrong?”

Well, let’s get specific. Or at least ask a better general question. Do you think “most” advertising is “genuine?” I don’t.

“Large corporate advertising is nothing more but a reflection of our inherent individual characteristics.” I mean “nothing more ” seems to undersell it’s level of impact is all.

“Is it really always that voluntary?” Always? Probably not. But to the extent that an adult preys on the over-affable and trusting nature of a child or asshole plays on naivety, I’m going to give both parties the credit. I have a problem letting people off the hook for their decision making. This is obviously a little different if they’re drunk. Advertising assaults the subconscious, endlessly.

Okay, let me make my stance clear.

I do not in any way advocate(or condemn) advertising, my stance on advertising is neutral. Corporations who use it are neither doing something good or evil. I think subliminal advertising can certainly be seen as an extremely convoluted ploy used by corporations to exploit people’s naivety and irrationality. It would be incredibly easy to make several arguments that expose how morally bankrupt these organizations are, how they would stop at absolutely nothing to make profit, and how they do so with no remorse whatsoever. But I don’t like that approach, it’s very unsatisfying, and deeply unflattering. Worst of all, it doesn’t solve anything.

What I find fascinating is that we’ve somehow been able to create a dichotomy between the world of corporations and the world of people and that’s what I was alluding to in my post. We see the corporation as this intrinsically evil entity and we, the people, are the victims of it. A corporation is just run by people who do exactly what everyone else does but at a much more advanced, and dare I say, evolved level.

The problem for me is that once we consider advertising a morally reprehensible and despicable thing to do, then we’re doing nothing towards solving the actual problem. There seems to be a complete willingness to shift responsibility from oneself to some external entity. I think it would be a lot more useful if we appreciated advertisements for what they are, and how powerful they can be, and try to do what we can to be aware of it and to avoid falling for them.

Once you understand how advertisements can affect you and which types of ads are the most powerful and why, you would be less likely to fall prey to them. I would like to add something that I didn’t consider before but came to me after reading your comment. Advertising aimed at children is certainly morally reprehensible, I have no argument here.

“There is no difference between large multibillion dollar companies trying to manipulate our minds by using subliminal messages in their advertising campaigns and our attempts in trying to get a person to like us by flirting with them.”

I think that as this statement stands, I disagree, even if I think you’re trying to speak to something deeper or I get the gist of the argument you’re making.

Flirting differs from advertising, to me, because doesn’t almost “need” to be inherently dishonest. Coke is sugar water. It’s an unhealthy, resource heavy, impersonal machine who’s bottom line is profit. Everything it says about itself, even efforts to conserve, are stooped behind a fundamental lie. This is a product that, were it less popular, might beget better health and a better environment.

Even the most insidious flirt, lying about feelings, a psychopathic level of manipulation of facial features or reading the body language of the easiest and most insecure to take advantage of, is going to do it one person at a time and hopefully only once if/when the person learns from the experience. Advertising arrests an entire culture. You can know everything about how advertisers work and the psychology of the first impression or familiar symbols, and you won’t be able to stop your mouth from salivating at the properly timed commercial.

Advertising is a deliberate blunt force and massive wave of influence. Flirting, while potentially used insidiously, is a kind of interplay and feedback system that 2 people are voluntarily engaging in. I don’t think corporations get a pass for “humbly trying to promote their product” in the same way a guy might be trying to land a date by leaving out grittier details about his commitment issues during bar banter.

“Flirting differs from advertising, to me, because doesn’t almost “need” to be inherently dishonest. ”

But neither does advertising really. Some advertising is genuine. Some people are trying to sell you something that will be mutually beneficial. I don’t think there is anything inherently dishonest about flirting or advertising.

“Even the most insidious flirt, lying about feelings, a psychopathic level of manipulation of facial features or reading the body language of the easiest and most insecure to take advantage of, is going to do it one person at a time and hopefully only once if/when the person learns from the experience. Advertising arrests an entire culture.”

Exactly. This is actually the argument I’m making. The only reason we don’t condemn flirting is because of it’s microscopic nature as compared to advertising, but I’m saying that if one was manipulative and wrong, so should the other one be too. I’m saying that manipulation, which is essentially what we condemn companies like Coke for doing, is far more prevalent than we like to think. Large corporate advertising is nothing more but a reflection of our inherent individual characteristics.

“Advertising is a deliberate blunt force and massive wave of influence. Flirting, while potentially used insidiously, is a kind of interplay and feedback system that 2 people are voluntarily engaging in. I don’t think corporations get a pass for “humbly trying to promote their product” in the same way a guy might be trying to land a date by leaving out grittier details about his commitment issues during bar banter.”

Is it really always that voluntary? Can’t someone be flirted to, seduced, and end up doing something they wouldn’t have wanted to do in the first place, not because they chose to but because that person who was doing the flirting was just so damn good at it? Doesn’t Coke do just that on a much much larger scale?

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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