Beware the Insidious Power of Marketing

Advertising is powerful. Avoiding it — in print, on radio, on television — is one of the best ways to control your urge to spend. When you willingly expose yourself to commercial pitches, you risk spending more than you intend. I've posted two articles recently about how marketing manipulates us to buy things. Allow me to belabor this point one last time before I move on. It's important.

Corporations manipulate us in subtle ways. We know television commercials are designed to sell us things, but how many really understand that their power is felt primarily at a subconscious level, beneath awareness? It's not that a Taco Bell commercial makes you go buy a chalupa now; it's that weeks later you'll find yourself pulling into a drive-thru when you could have been home in a few minutes preparing a salad.

The other day I wrote that people who watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials may be sabotaging themselves. But it's not just television — marketers target us constantly. I could just as easily write about my own foolish choices. Every time Steve Jobs gives a keynote address, for example, I follow the live text updates. When the speech is over, I download the video. I willingly expose myself to these marketing machinations. And wouldn't you know it? My life is filled with Apple products. (My mind is working overtime trying to find a way to rationalize an iPhone.)

Paul Bausch recently gave us a guest review of Michael Dawson's The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life. Bausch wrote:

Beyond emotional and demographic research, it was fascinating to read about Product Management techniques like planned obsolescence where products are specifically built to last for a limited time so markets for those products will continually renew themselves.

The manipulation runs deep.

In Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, Paco Underhill describes methods retailers use to enhance sales. Some of these are obvious, such as placing sweetened cereal at kid-height, or surrounding the checkstand with cheap impulse items. But other techniques are more subtle.

One ploy I hate is the freestanding display in the grocery aisle. These racks are placed to impede traffic at locations where the store wants the consumer to stop and look around, the more likely to succumb to an impulse purchase of a high-profit item. This is remarkably effective. Since reading Underhill's book I've made a point to note these at work in our local Safeway. Just last Friday I watched as an old couple was blocked by a display and my wife's cart. The old man immediately turned his attention to the nearby shelves, spotted a package of cookies, and placed them in the cart next to his bran flakes. He bought something on impulse, something he would have simply passed by had the barrier not been there. (More about Why We Buy here.)


The fully-stocked shelves of a store not far from my home. Photo by lyzadanger.

One of my favorite anecdotes about molding consumer behavior can be found in Malcolm Gladwell‘s best-seller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (published in 2005 by Little, Brown and Company). I e-mailed Gladwell for permission to post an excerpt and he granted permission. Note that I have added paragraph breaks, inserted photographs and hyperlinks, and bolded short passages in order to make this excerpt more readable in weblog format. Here is Malcolm Gladwell on the role our subconscious plays in buying decisions

Then there’s the issue of what is called sensation transference. This is a concept coined by one of the great figures in twentieth-century marketing, a man called Louis Cheskin, who was born in Ukraine at the turn of the century and immigrated to the United States as a child. Cheskin was convinced that when people give an assessment of something they might buy in a supermarket or a department store, without realizing it, they transfer sensations or impressions that they have about the packaging of the product to the product itself. To put it another way, Cheskin believed that most of us don’t make a distinction — on an unconscious level — between the package and the product. The product is the package and the product combined.

One of the projects Cheskin worked on was margarine. In the late 1940s, margarine was not very popular. Consumers had no interest in either eating it or buying it. But Cheskin was curious. Why didn’t people like margarine? Was their problem with margarine intrinsic to the food itself? Or was it a problem with the associations had with margarine? He decided to find out. In that era, margarine was white. Cheskin colored it yellow so that it would look like butter. Then he staged a series of luncheons with homemakers. Because he wanted to catch people unawares, he didn’t call the luncheons margarine-testing luncheons. He merely invited a group of women to an event.

“My bet is that all the women wore little white gloves,” says Davis Masten, who today is one of the principles in the consulting firm Cheskin founded. “[Cheskin] brought in speakers and served food, and there were little pats of butter for some and there were little pats of margarine for others. The margarine was yellow. In the context of it, they didn’t let people know there was a difference. Afterwards, everyone was asked to rate the speakers and the food, and it ended up that people thought the ‘butter’ was just fine. Market research had said there was no future for margarine. Louis said, ‘Let’s go at this more indirectly.’”

Now the question of how to increase sales of margarine was much clearer. Cheskin told his client to call their product Imperial Margarine, so they could put an impressive-looking crown on the package. As he had learned at the luncheon, the color was critical: he told them the margarine had to be yellow. Then he told them to wrap it in foil, because in those days foil was associated with high quality. And sure enough, if they gave someone two identical pieces of bread — one buttered with white margarine and the other buttered with foil-wrapped yellow Imperial Margarine — the second piece of bread won hands-down in taste tests every time.

“You never ask anyone, ‘Do you want foil or not?’ because the answer is always going to be ‘I don’t know’ or ‘Why would I?’ says Masten. “You just ask them which tastes better, and by that indirect method you get a picture of what their true motivations are.”

The Cheskin company demonstrated a particularly elegant example of sensation transference a few years ago, when they studied two competing brands of inexpensive brandy, Christian Brothers and E&J (the latter of which, to give some idea of the market segment to which the two belong, is known to its clientele as Easy Jesus). Their client, Christian Brothers, wanted to know why, after years of being the dominant brand in the category, it was losing market share to E&J. Their brandy wasn’t more expensive. It wasn’t harder to find in the store. And they weren’t being out-advertised (since there is very little advertising at this end of the brandy segment). So, why were they losing ground?

Cheskin set up a blind taste test with two hundred brandy drinkers. The two brandies came out roughly the same. Cheskin then decided to go a few steps further. “We went out and did another test with two hundred different people,” explains Darrel Rhea, another principal in the firm. “This time we told people which class was Christian Brothers and which glass was E&J. Now you are having sensation transference from the name, and this time Christian Brothers’ numbers are up.” Clearly people had more positive associations with the name Christian Brothers than with E&J. That only deepened the mystery, because if Christian Brothers had a stronger brand, why were they losing market share?

“So, now we do another two hundred people. This time the actual bottles are in the background. We don’t ask about the packages, but they are there. And what happens? Now we get a statistical preference for E&J. So we’ve been able to isolate what Christian Brothers’ problem is. The problem is not the product and it’s not the branding. It’s the package.” Rhea pulled out a picture of the two brandy bottles as they appeared in those days. Christian Brothers looked like a bottle of wine: it had a long, slender spout and a simple off-white label. E&J, by contrast, had a far more ornate bottle: more squat, like a decanter, with smoked glass, foil wrapping around the spout, and a dark, richly textured label.

To prove their point, Rhea and his colleagues did one more test. They served two hundred people Christian Brothers Brandy out of an E&J bottle, and E&J Brandy out of a Christian Brothers bottle. Which brandy won? Christian Brothers, hands-down, by the biggest margin of all. Now they had the right taste, the right brand, and the right bottle. The company redesigned their bottle to be a lot more like E&J’s, and, sure enough, their problem was solved.

Cheskin’s offices are just outside San Francisco, and after we talked, Masten and Rhea took me to a Nob Hill Farms supermarket down the street, one of those shiny, cavernous food emporia that populate the American suburbs. “We’ve done work in just about every aisle,” Masten said as we walked in. In front of us was the beverage section. Rhea leaned over and picked up a can of 7-Up. “We tested Seven-Up. We had several versions, and what we found is that if you add fifteen percent more yellow to the green on the package — if you take this green and add more yellow — what people report is that the taste experience has a lot more lime or lemon flavor. And people were upset. ‘You’re changing my Seven-Up! Don’t do a ‘New Coke‘ on me.’ It’s exactly the same product, but a different set of sensations have been transferred from the bottle, which in this case isn’t necessarily a good thing.”

From the cold beverage section, we wandered to the canned-goods aisle. Masten picked up a can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli and pointed at the picture of the chef on the label of the can. “His name is Hector. We know a lot about people like this, like Orville Redenbacher or Betty Crocker or the woman on the Sun-Maid Raisins package. The general rule is, the closer consumers get to the food itself, the more consumers are going to be conservative.

“What that means for Hector is that in this case he needs to look pretty literal. You want to have the face as a recognizable human being that you can relate to. Typically, close-ups of the face work better than full-body shots. We tested Hector in a number of different ways. Can you make the ravioli taste better by changing him? Mostly you can blow it, like by making him a cartoon figure. We looked at him in the context of photography down to cartoon kinds of things. The more you go to cartoon characters, the more of an abstraction Hector becomes, the less and less effective you are in perceptions of taste and quality of the ravioli.”

Masten picked up a can of Hormel canned meat. “We did this, too. We tested the Hormel logo.” He pointed at the tiny sprig of parsley between the r and the m. “That little bit of parsley helps bring freshness to canned food.”

Rhea held out a bottle of Classico tomato sauce and talked about the meanings attached to various kinds of containers. “When Del Monte took the peaches out of the tin and put them in a glass container, people said, ‘Ahh, this is something like my grandmother used to make.’ People say peaches taste better when they come in a glass jar. It’s just like ice cream in a cylindrical container as opposed to a rectangular package. People expect it’s going to taste better and are willing to pay five, ten cents more — just on the strength of the package.”

What Masten and Rhea do is tell companies how to manipulate our first impressions, and it’s hard not to feel a certain uneasiness about their efforts. If you double the size of the chips in chocolate chip ice cream and say on the package, “Now! Bigger Chocolate Chips!” and charge five or ten cents more, that seems honest and fair. But if you put your ice cream in a round as opposed to a rectangular container and charge five or ten cents more, that seems like you’re pulling the wool over people’s eyes.

If you think about it, though, there really isn’t any practical difference between those two things. We are willing to pay more for ice cream when it tastes better, and putting ice cream in a round container convinces us that it tastes better just as surely as making the chips bigger in chocolate chip ice cream does. Sure, we’re conscious of one improvement and not conscious of the other, but why should that distinction matter? Why should an ice cream company be able to profit only from improvements that we are conscious of? You might say, “Well, they’re going behind our back.” But who is going behind our back? The ice cream company? Or our own unconscious?

Neither Masten nor Rhea believes that clever packaging allows a company to put out a bad-tasting product. The taste of the product itself matters a great deal. Their point is simply that when we put something in our mouth and in that blink of an eye decide whether it tastes good or not, we are reacting not only to the evidence from our taste buds and salivary glands but also to the evidence of our eyes and memories and imaginations, and it is foolish of a company to service one dimension and ignore the other.

Malcolm Gladwell, one of today’s top essayists, writes about all sorts of fascinating topics for magazines like The New Yorker. He is the author of the best-selling books The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. (This passage was taken from Blink chapter 5.3, pages 160 to 165.)

Employees of the marketing firm that bears Cheskin's name took Gladwell on a tour of a supermarket. There they pointed out subtle touches that can persuade a consumer to buy: the color of a 7-Up can, the size of Chef Boyardee's head on a package of ravioli, the use of a glass container for canned fruit instead of a tin. (Look for a larger excerpt soon — Gladwell replied to my e-mail and granted me permission to post a long passage! This makes me giddy.)

Ultimately we must each bear responsibility for our purchasing behavior. We can try not to be swayed by advertising and marketing. But no matter what we do, we are all affected by attempts to manipulate our subconscious. Even when we believe we are immune to manipulation, we are not.

However, if we're aware of these marketing tricks, if we can catch ourselves pulling into the Taco Bell drive-thru, or reaching for a can of 7-Up, we can make more informed decisions. We can shake off some of the manipulation and save money in the process. Education helps. Reading Why We Buy helped me view retail stores in a new way, to see the little things that are done to part me from my hard-earned cash.

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gagan
gagan
13 years ago

Thats true about adevertising and consumer behaviour. But then, when there is no demand create it , when there is no problem , create it and give a solution to it. Thats how things move . As consumers , we have to be more aware of our needs and priorities.

RJ
RJ
13 years ago

A great article, JD. Advertisement, including direct and residual manipulation/persuasion, is very hard to avoid in North America. Even buses, clothes, restaurant menus, and some songs urge us to keep various products in mind, whether we want to or not. It’s impossible to avoid living in an advertised world, but perhaps more selective use of media and more selective exposure to public space can help us fill our minds a bit more judiciously.

quail
quail
13 years ago

The subtle manipulation through product design and placement is at least palatable. Disney, when they first opened their Disney Stores, pushed their retail employees to cross market all of Disney’s merchandise.

Went in to get gifts for the niece and nephew and had the cashier bring up in ‘casual conversation’ the Disney movie opening in theatres that Friday. After the sale I stood back and watched the next few interactions between the cashier and the customers. New rides at Disney World, Disney hotels, movies, etc. were all ‘dropped’ into conversation.

Sickening.

DM
DM
13 years ago

Thanks for an excellent post. When we become more aware of the tools that are used to manipulate our behaviour, we’re more capable of resisting them.

Also… I’m glad to see you mention Malcolm Gladwell. I’m a long time admirer of his work. For those inclined to read more, his New Yorker articles are archived at his website:

http://www.gladwell.com/archive.html

(My favorite is a piece entitled: “Smaller –
The disposable diaper and the meaning of progress.” It’s particularly interesting now that I’m the father of a 9 month old daughter and going through PLENTY of diapers.)

http://www.gladwell.com/2001/2001_11_26_a_diaper.htm

English Major
English Major
13 years ago

Congratulations on talking to Malcolm Gladwell–that’s pretty cool.

Anyway, I just wanted to confirm anecdotally: I’ve definitely felt less consumption-compulsive since I started living without a television. And watching television after a long stretch of not watching it, I find the ads truly bizarre and obtrusive.

brad
brad
13 years ago

The weird thing I’ve noticed in my own purchasing behavior is that sometimes I’ll buy things that I don’t really need because I feel compelled to do my “duty” as a consumer to support a company that I like. Crazy, I know. Every time Apple has come out with a new version of their operating system, I’ve upgraded, regardless of whether I needed the new features. I subscribe to Apple’s .Mac service even though free alternatives are widely available for the same services (e-mail, online storage, calendars, etc.). I just bought Apple’s new Airport Extreme wireless base station to replace… Read more »

Iris
Iris
13 years ago

The yellow color for margarine should not be surprising. I believe it was illegal at one time to color margarine in some parts of the country (I’m thinking Wisconsin). The dairy farmers certainly knew that along side butter, ‘white’ margarine was less appealing. Margarine at one time came with a color packet to be mixed in if you wanted it colored.

RJ
RJ
13 years ago

For some inexplicable reason, I feel like losing weight right now…. OK, I said that because there is a Weight Watchers ad on this page. Perhaps it’s not the most insidious of ads, but I know that many people think that WW products are actually healthful. The truth is, in spite of the low fat and low calories, WW food is still processed with high fructose corn syrup, processed white flour, and other junk. What I’ve just said points to a cautious person’s conflicting identity in the face of advertising: it’s good to try to minimize exposure to ads and… Read more »

VM
VM
13 years ago

What an excellent article – I have been reading your blog for a few months now, and you never disappoint.

A small detail for your consideration – when you link to photographs on Flickr, please link to the photo itself, rather than to the general stream of the photographer. I believe that this is in the terms of use of the photos contained on that site.

Keep up the great work, and thank you again for the daily inspiration!

Andy
Andy
13 years ago

OH, the irony!!

Now I want to go buy the books!

K
K
13 years ago

Honestly, just going to the store can be bad enough. I hardly buy the newest gadget, and usually wait for the tech to settle until it becomes common enough to be affordable. We regularly Tivo past TV ads, and I use AdBlock in Firefox extensively. But it doesn’t really affect spending. Of course, as more people do like I do, marketing is becoming more insidious, with product placements and cultural name-drops. But even bigger than advertising is its cascade effect from those who do get hooked by it. The mass spread of iPods (and the fact they are the only… Read more »

gg
gg
13 years ago

It’s Fred Meyer! (I just saw that same picture on Wikipedia.) Adverts may manipulate our base impulses, but I agree that consumers should take responsibility for their own actions. If I end up in a Taco Bell drive-thru, the marketing may have shown me on the path, but it is I that actually walked it. I personally am always suspect of my own urges to consume, because I know I can’t trust my subconscious with such matters. I was in a Larry’s Market the other day standing in line and super hungry. I expected the impulse buy candy next to… Read more »

João Miguel Neves
João Miguel Neves
13 years ago

“Even when we believe we are immune to manipulation, we are not.”

Reality is a bit more ironic. The ones who believe they are immune are the first to fall. They forget to ask themselves the question “Why am I buying this?”, because they would never be manipulated.

Adam
Adam
13 years ago

Thanks for the story. I am in marketing. All those manipulations and more are applied in marketing and I’m proud to use them. People are manipulated because they choose to be. Everybody lives and will defend the things that make them feel important. Most people have as one of their top five a need to feel comfortable as often as possible. They will drive around in a parking lot for ten minutes to find a parking spot by the door of the GYM. They will then go in and walk on the treadmill for 20 minutes. Why, because they didn’t… Read more »

squished18
squished18
13 years ago

I think another extreme source of marketing manipulations are magazines. The obvious part of the magazines are the advertisements contained there. However, the more insidious power of magazines are the articles contained in them. One of the terrible powers of marketing is to show you a picture of how perfect your life “could” be. Subconsciously, this makes you think of how terrible your current life really is. Through repeated manipulation of images, we begin to think that the idea life is to be white, have flawless skin, have a flawless smile and perfect hair, live in a house with perfect… Read more »

joshuat
joshuat
13 years ago

Interesting anecdote from earlier today that is related to sales and advertising.

I had Wii Play on pre-order at Gamestop. I called the store to see if the shipment had come in yet. When the clerk answered the phone, he said something along the line of, “Thank you for calling Gamestop, the only place you can trade in a PS2 for $100 off a PS3. How can I help you?”

I wasn’t even calling about a PS3! I do have a PS2 though, and it got me thinking about that. Argh!

squished18
squished18
13 years ago

BTW, I love the picture. It is now my desktop background.

DC Portland
DC Portland
13 years ago

JD – I had to post to this one. Great stuff! Keep the psychology/money things coming. This kind of knowledge is absolutely critical to maximizing one’s well-being. Gladwell’s book is an excellent window into the mind’s eye. I also recommend Peter Whybrow’s “American Mania” as a resource to expand your knowledge. Not only does marketing turbo-charge our consumeristic tendencies, but it is making us sick. Whybrow argues (very effectively) that our genetic code is not able to withstand the rat race that we now find ourselves in. On a personal note, like many who have posted here, stepping back from… Read more »

Angie
Angie
13 years ago

Adam, I appreciate your post for giving us the other side of the coin, so to speak.

I think it’s taking it a bit far to invoke the Founding Fathers to defend capitalism in its current form. There is NO WAY that someone from the 1700s could have envisioned the technologically sophisticated, media-saturated lifestyle that modern Westerners live every day.

Personally, I think it’s shameful that people proud to exploit people for personal gain.

Angie
Angie
13 years ago

Caught too late to edit–rewrite that last sentence as, “Personally, I think it’s shameful that people are proud to exploit others for personal gain.” I still stand by that sentiment.

Even older than the Declaration of Independence is the sentiment that “Love of money is the root of all evil.” There you have it.

Brad
Brad
13 years ago

Great post. I have been reading your blog for a while now and I am always impressed with the scope of your articles.

Marketing is a scary science. I believe the sophistication of marketers is getting to a level where it needs to be somewhat controlled particularly where children are involved.

Wesley
Wesley
13 years ago

I think Adam had some good thoughts. I once worked in an Ad agency, and can respect the power of influence…even if subtle and over long periods of time.

I never knew how much advertising affected me until I went a few months without television. My spending went down and my free time went up. Granted, the internet has its share of ads, but those are oftentimes easily blocked.

Great article!

Lynn
Lynn
13 years ago

I assume I’ve been fine-tuned to be an exquisite receptor of marketing messages. They: billions of dollars on research and testing to craft messages that target my most vulnerable hopes and fears, delivered to me thousands of times a week for my entire life. Me: well, just me. Trying to live my life as something that is authentically mine instead of a tool for all those other interests. I’m blogging about a new approach I’ve been trying at http://www.takebackyourbrain.com. Basically my thinking is, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! Corporate interests have gone to massive effort and expense to… Read more »

Ed
Ed
13 years ago

I watched the Super Bowl for the commercials, I don’t drink beer, but I thought the Bud commercials were pretty funny. I still don’t have a desire to buy and drink beer.

VinTek
VinTek
13 years ago

Thanks, Adam, for one of the funniest posts I’ve ever read. “Your article also appears to violates one of the principles that this nation was founded on and that principle is ‘That human life value is the source and creation of all property value.'” Hmmmm…I don’t recall reading this in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Care to tell me where it is? “Your article also appears to violates one of the principles that this nation was founded on and that principle is ‘That human life value is the source and creation of all property value.'” Gee, I don’t… Read more »

dimes
dimes
13 years ago

Getting rid of the TV/internet/newspapers doesn’t do too much. Aside from the grocery store, you have women carrying around LV and other designer handbags, kids riding those wheeled shoes, and the ubiquitous iPod everywhere just to name a few. Peer pressure is also a huge part of successful marketing. Walk into any middle school in this country and you’ll see what I mean. Even if you withdraw yourself from consuming media, you aren’t going to be able to withdraw from others who are also consuming media. So yes, no one can escape the power of marketing, but if you’re aware… Read more »

squished18
squished18
13 years ago

dimes,

Very valid point. I would also like to add that one way to combat this effect is to choose the neighbourhood you live in, such that you live with people that make less than you do. “Keeping up with the Jones” is certainly a powerful effect. You can help reduce its effect by choosing to live near families that can’t spend as much as you. Instead of buying a much house as you can afford, buy as little house as you can “afford”.

squished

GG
GG
13 years ago

Lynn has the right idea. We read stories here and other frugal living blogs about how to research for good deals on things and that almost always involves opening yourself up to marketing. It does no good to blame companies for “manipulative” marketing, but we can use this information to own selfish consumer advantage. I’m sure from the “Evil Corps'” point of view, we are just manipulating their marketing to our own selfing wealth accumulating ends. @VinTek: “Nonsense. My money is invested in companies, where it is used to fund research and development, provide jobs, goods and services.” If you… Read more »

VinTek
VinTek
13 years ago

“If you are are invested in common stocks, you probably bought a piece of your companies from someone else. This money goes directly to the seller, and they might just smoke it up their crack pipe for all we know. If the seller is the company, then it could be used for those things, but I don’t know how often that happens. If you get dividends, then you are actually taking away money from the company that could be used for any of those things. If you invest in bonds, then yes, that money could be used for all of… Read more »

Andrea >> Become a Consultant Blog
Andrea >> Become a Consultant Blog
13 years ago

That diaper article is interesting. But it didn’t talk about the merits of cloth diapers. We used cloth diapers with our son till he was 15 months old. This allowed us to make big paymnts to his college savings plan. I didn’t really notice that doing the laundry more often took any more time. Having to take out the trash and go to the store for more diapers takes a lot of time too. It’s not like you have to soak or fold modern cloth diapers. But there just isn’t the same marketing machine. Keeping up with the Joneses is… Read more »

joe
joe
12 years ago

almost every time i see someone drinking beer in a movie i get the urge to go to the fridge and get a beer. it’s like my mind is thinking “they are happy with beer, i want to be happy with beer.”

Andrea > Vancouver Marketing Consultant
Andrea > Vancouver Marketing Consultant
9 years ago

Is it the marketing that has the power? Or the emotions you connect with it? Persuasion has a lot to do with emotion – whether it’s in marketing or some other situation.

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