A funny thing happens when you tell people you work in marketing.
You become the devil.
“So (dramatic pause), you manipulate people for a living?”
That’s always a fun conversation starter.
(I recommend this debate if you’re bored at your next dinner party. #protip)
When I started in marketing, the ethical boundary for me was very clear: Consumers have a responsibility to self-educate. The onus is on them to make better buying decisions.
And I practiced what I preached.
I knew the rules.
I knew “natural” wasn’t a regulated term, that “organic” meant “at least 95% organic,” and that “no calories” meant “negligible calories.”
And I purchased items in accordance with my value system.
I was in control.
That is, I was in control when it came to food. When it came to clothes, electronics, or anything else in the retail stratosphere…
“Child labor laws? Who cares, this top is adorable and it’s 9 bucks!” It was like manna from the sky.
It’s not like I could claim ignorance, I mean, I knew about child labor. I watched The True Cost. I knew about the issues with cotton. I know the ripple effect of Forever 21. But I couldn’t stop shopping there.
I was a corporate professional. There were tangible consequences to my career if I showed up in the same outfit twice. Nope. Children, keep working. Margo needs affordable floral blouses this season.
I assuaged my own guilt: “I’m making a deliberate choice. In this moment, I choose vanity over morality.”
As if awareness of an immoral decision made it less immoral. (It doesn’t)
Either way, those were my immoral decisions. My wants. My desires.
Or at least, I’d always thought they were my immoral decisions, my wants, and my desires?
There’s a great scene in The Devil Wears Prada, where Meryl Streep’s character turns to Anne Hathaway and says, “It’s sort of comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you, by the people in this room.”
Were my hater s right? Was I being manipulated by my own industry?
I decided to investigate. What follows is what I discovered.
How brands evolved to be helpful
The first article in this series explored how shopping was invented and how “stuff” provided emancipation from restrictive socioeconomic and gender norms.
As businesses rose up to meet demands for new items, competition increased. Consumers had more options for the first time in centuries.
With all these increasing options, consumers needed some way to distinguish between them. We refer to that-way-of-distinguishing-between-similar-options as “brands.”
Let me explain.
If you considered all the options in front of you on any given day, your brain wouldn’t make it past brushing your teeth.
Our brains are super powerful, but they also get super tired. We make thousands of decisions a day and it makes our brains go “ahh I’m so tired! I just can’t right now!” which causes us to make dumb or bad decisions. (Technical term: decision fatigue)
[If you’re interested in this topic I recommend The Paradox of Choice or the famous Jam Study ].
In order to spend our limited brainpower on the important things, we use what are called heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts. It’s a fancy way of saying “common sense” or “rules of thumb” or “not using a scientifically sound rational way of thinking because I am le tired.”
You can argue, and I do, that brands are heuristics.
When we associate a company with a feeling or inherent quality beyond its functional utility, it helps us decide, quicker and more efficiently.
We don’t have to expend energy deciding if J.Crew jeans are better quality than Gap jeans. We can decide that we are “more of J.Crew person” because the brand is more aligned with who we are and, presto!, the decision has been made.
That preserves our energies for life’s more important decisions, like how to be polite to your mother-in-law or whether to go on a second date with that guy.
Your brain lies to you all the time.
In addition to being mentally tired from our thousands of decisions, we also aren’t the best at consistently making (good) (or any) decisions.
Context matters a lot (Technical term: framing effect).
For example, your brain thinks almond milk in the fridge section of the grocery store is fresher than the room temperature almond milk in the center aisle, even though they’re exactly the same.
Same with hearing the “crackle and fizz” of a soda can being opened and poured into a glass. Your brain says, “I’m SO thirsty!!” even if it’s not thirsty.
Same thing with wine. Our brain judges wine as better if it’s expensive and from a place we expect good wine to come from.
Same thing with flavors. If you’re told chocolate yogurt is strawberry and you eat said yogurt in the dark, your brain tastes strawberry.
You get my point. Your brain is a big fat liar.
[If you’re interested in geeking out on this topic, check out Brandwashed or Mindless Eating on my Resources Page. These examples came from them.]
When you combine “too many choices” with “lying lazy brain” and “emotional buyer” you get conditions ripe for manipulation.
The surprising upside of manipulation
There are two main definitions of manipulation in the dictionary.
One is benign, “handle or control in a skillful manner.”
The other is the one you’re thinking of, “Control or influence cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.”
Are marketers cleverly and unfairly influencing your decisions? Unequivocally, yes.
Are they controlling them? Eh. If marketers were that good at their jobs, I’d be making a lot more money right now…
My point is this: Manipulation is not the same thing as deception.
Deception is bad. Deception is claiming, “This makes you skinny!” when it doesn’t.
Manipulation is putting almond milk in the freezer section even though it’s shelf-stable and doesn’t need to be refrigerated.
Not the same.
You manipulate your husband when you convince him he really wants to drive 3 hours to go to your best friend’s birthday in rush-hour traffic.
You deceive him if you’re lying about the real reason for wanting to go to the party. Perhaps…you’re having an affair with an attendee? Or you need to meet your drug dealer?
Deception is lying.
Manipulation is clever. And can even be helpful for outsmarting our lying lazy emotional brain.
If you put a fresh fruit bowl next to the cashier (instead of candy), people will buy more fresh fruit.
If you use a solid lid for the ice cream freezer box (instead of an air-open top), people buy less ice cream.
Is that manipulation? Yes.
Is it misleading? Kinda.
Is it deceptive? No.
Is the outcome overwhelmingly positive? Um yes.
The upside of manipulation is that it can be used to help us make better decisions.
Our wiring is faulty. We aren’t rational beings taking in all the facts and making logical decisions. We’re emotional, our brains over-rely on heuristics, and our senses send us all sorts of flawed information – we are a mess being misled by our own biology.
Manipulation (by way of marketing, branding, or decision architecture) can help us outsmart our faulty wiring.
(Nir Eyal elaborates on this point in his short video on ethical manipulation, citing an awesome startup called Pantry Labs I wish was everywhere.)
Let’s go back to the blouse
Let’s go back to my blouse from the very beginning. Forever21. Child labor. All that fun stuff.
The reason I couldn’t stop myself despite my rational brain knowing child labor is bad is because I was not making a rational decision.
I wasn’t weighing “bad-but-cute child-labor-built blouse” vs. “my moral compass” like I’d originally assumed.
I was weighing “my successful future” vs. “someone else’s successful future.”
Here’s what I mean: my faulty lying lazy emotional brain sees a blouse. For a split second, I feel myself as the power player in the boardroom, the breadwinner of the family, the pride of her parents, changing the world, getting invitations to sexy events, et. cetera…
I wasn’t buying a shirt at Forever21. I was buying a version of myself in the future that I could be proud of.
Forever21 had taken my existing desire and channeled it into a product.
A better question
There is a famous saying in copywriting: “You cannot create desire, you can only channel it.”
Desires are the things you really want deep down in your insides. The things you will never admit out loud because they’re super embarrassing. We all have them. Many of them. They’re things like approval of a parent, attention of a mate, acceptance from peers, and to feel like you matter.
In the case of the Forever21 blouse, I was the one with the desire. Forever21 took my existing desire (to be a power player, etc) and infused it into a shirt.
Brands are guilty of manipulation, but we are also guilty for being unaware of what’s truly motivating us.
Trouble is, most of us are not at all aware of these desires. Which is why they are so incredibly susceptible to exploitation.
Technically, you think you need and want the things you buy (again, last article). But anyone reading this with a pulse has experienced that “ugh really??” moment when you unload bags from the car and reality hits you square in the face and goes, “You’re an idiot. Return that ugly sweater.”
If you knew what influenced your purchase decisions, you wouldn’t have bought the ugly sweater.
Going back to my blouse, we could argue that if I had had more confidence, I wouldn’t feel like I needed that blouse as a proxy for what I want in this world. I could stand in a room full of middle aged white men (it’s always middle aged white men) with an ordinary nondescript blouse and still be extraordinary.
Unfortunately, I am not enlightened. I am human. And so are you. And despite our best efforts, we’re going to have subconscious desires.
The question isn’t “are we being manipulated?” (If it wasn’t clear: yes, we are.) The question is, “How can we regain control?”
One way to regain control is to work on becoming more self-aware.
The more we understand why we’re doing something, the better we can address the actual issue lying underneath (the hidden motivations driving our behavior) and avoid spending too much money on things that provide little real value to our lives.
Fixing the system
For as long as we have brands and choices, we will have manipulation.
The truth is not much is going to change unless our system changes.
As long as we have infinite choice – and freedom of choice within that infinite choice – we will have manipulation.
Our system is set up where “manipulation” feels evil because we are spending more than we want and constantly feeling like we don’t have enough.
The solution, as I see it, is not to busy ourselves with the manipulation debate, but rather to encourage better business practices.
Or as our behavioral economist friends say, “change our defaults.”
When we only have GOOD options, then manipulation becomes a moot point.
This local organic salad or that local organic salad? This TOMS shoe that saves lives or that JOE shoe that saves lives?
If we support the companies that are manipulating us into better decisions, then we won’t continue to feel like victims in an evil consumerism conspiracy.
In the meantime, I’m going to go call my cousin and concede defeat.
You Don’t Have To Be a Sleaze To Be Good At Sales. Join the rest of us who aren’t obsessed with passive income and Ferraris.