Marketers, do you have morals?

Dalibor Šumiga Behavioral marketing/Neuromarketing, Marketing

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Sheena Iyengar and her colleagues conducted research in France and the U.S. talking to parents who were forced to take their sick child off life support.

The difference in this traumatic experience is that in France this terrible decision has to be made by a doctor, while in the USA parents have the last say….

Sheena’s research, which she described, among other things, in her inspirational TedTalk, showed the following:

  • A sign of relief from parents in France because someone else (and moreover an expert) made that decision
  • A sign of regret from parents located in the US who had to make that decision on their own

An interesting detail is that parents in the United States, although more deeply affected by this experience (if we can truly consider one more traumatic than the other), were nevertheless grateful that they were able to decide for themselves whether to remove their child from life support or not.

This example shows all the complexity of human behavior that we encounter in both marketing and consumer psychology.

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While almost everyone you ask will say that freedom of choice is extremely important to them, examples like the above, like many others, show that on a subconscious level we’re not always happy with that freedom. We regardlessly have divided emotions once a decision has been made.

MARKETERS, DO YOU HAVE MORALS?

Very often, and based on the vulnerability of the human species that we see in examples like this at the beginning of this blog, the work of the entire marketing industry is called into question by claiming that marketers are just good manipulators of human emotions in the service of large capital.

In the blog “Customers (don’t) want the best for themselves“, I showed one of the best examples of how a “fair” business strategy can go wrong.

If you haven’t, be sure to read that blog.

If you have, but you’re still convinced that all marketers are evil, read this blog till the end.

Marketing and Manipulation

One of the most common examples of manipulation is considered to be designing a user experience so that the brand that creates the user experience reaps the most benefits.

The most common examples are:

  • Excessive Terms of Use that no one reads so they’re not even aware that they’re leaving their personal information
  • Subscriptions that are automatically renewed without being notified that your current subscription is expiring
  • So called “Default” options in which it is already marked that you agree to something and you have to turn off that option to have it expire

Some of these techniques (e.g. Automatic subscription renewal without prior notice) are really manipulative, but also short-lived. No normal brand uses them anymore.

The “Default” option is perhaps the most common example discussed and that is why I’ll show you the results of research on this topic.

For those unfamiliar with the issue, here is one of the most popular examples.

This graph shows the percentage of organ donors in a particular state.

At first glance, you may notice a certain illogicality – how is it possible that advanced countries like Denmark have such a low percentage of organ donors?

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SOURCE: Eric J. Johnson, Daniel Goldstein, Science 21. Nov 2003, Vol. 302, Issue 5649

The reason is very banal – it’s the “default” option. In countries with a high percentage, a tick has been made in advance that you want to be an organ donor.

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Freedom of choice

Research conducted by Patrik Michaelsen and colleagues tested just this case – what happens when respondents are given one of 3 possible choices:

01) an already marked option that they must “turn off” if they do not want this service

02) an unchecked option that they must “include it” if they want this service

03) a completely free choice, without the so-called “opt-in” and “opt-out” options.

As expected, the largest number of respondents was the first, the so-called “Opt-in” group (service selection option enabled by default).

When respondents were asked an additional question whether they felt less satisfied or lacked decision-making autonomy in the opt-in option because a service option had already been selected in advance, the vast majority said they felt neither a lack of satisfaction nor a lack of autonomy.

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Even when they were told in advance that the so-called “Default” or “opt-in” options are likely to influence their decision, they did not feel a lack of satisfaction with the purchased service or a lack of decision autonomy.

Although there are weeds in every grain, stigmatizing the entire marketing industry as manipulative is extremely wrong.

Sensationalist brainwashing articles or so-called documentaries like Netflix’s “Social Dilemma,” which shows in an overly dramatic way how marketers allegedly enter customers’ brains, are as manipulative as the examples these self-proclaimed “freedom keepers” are trying to unravel.

The fact is that all humans are highly irrational beings, reluctant to change, and especially reluctant to change their own beliefs and therefore even this article, despite empirical evidence, will not change everyone’s opinion.

Either way, customers will continue to ask for discounts. They’ll click on ads, leave their personal information and believe that “Buy 1, get one for free” is the best deal in the world. Not because they are stupid and easily manipulated, but because those decisions give them instant pleasure….