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The Difference Between Marketing and Manipulation

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

In 1997, a study by the University of Leicester found that when supermarkets played background music in the store aisles, customers were 70% more likely to buy German wine when German music was playing and French wine when French music was playing.

This is just one of many psychological tricks used to influence sales. Products are often placed between lower- and higher-priced alternatives to convince shoppers they are getting better quality at less cost. Stores typically play relaxing music that encourages customers to take their time. Most stores don’t have clocks in visible locations, and grocery stores notoriously rearrange how they shelve their products every two years so customers have to hunt for what they want and, along the way, find themselves tempted by products they had no intention of buying.

Color schemes, background images, and font selection all influence our subconscious minds. According to the Society for Consumer Psychology, merely composing advertising copy with words in alphabetical order appeals to our subconscious desire to find patterns in life and makes products seem more attractive.

Of course, the familiar phenomenon of celebrity endorsement thrives on the absurd equation between product quality and famous spokespeople.
Then there are rebates. Marketers know that customers mail in their rebate coupons less than fifty percent of the time.

Although there is no deception or overt manipulation, is it unethical to take advantage of psychological nature to influence customer buying habits?

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We’re all familiar with the principle of caveat emptor – let the buyer beware. This does not give free license to sellers to engage in fraud, but it does place the burden of due diligence upon buyers to investigate purchases before concluding their transactions.

Perhaps the most relevant application of caveat emptor relates to the field of advertising. Marketing is, by definition, the art of manipulation. A clever jingle that sticks in our minds, a sincere-sounding actor assuring us of the benefits of a product, a slew of superlatives and promises – all of these are designed to convince us to part with our money in pursuit of happiness.

As humorist Will Rogers quipped in the 1931 movie A Connecticut Yankee, “advertising makes you spend money you haven’t got for things that you don’t want.”

However, the ethics of advertising may have less to do with marketing techniques than with the quality of the product. Sometimes buyers are reluctant to spend money on products or services that will provide them with genuine benefit; sometimes they need to be lured away from inferior products made attractive by clever ad campaigns.

In modern business parlance, consultants urge marketers to pull prospective clients and consumers toward a sale rather than attempt to push them into it. By attractively offering a product or service of demonstrable quality and value at a fair price, an ethical vendor can make it easier for consumers to make decisions that will ultimately serve their own best interests.

The ethics of marketing, therefore, have much to do with intent: marketing with the intent to provide quality service is persuasion; marketing with the intent to exploit is manipulation. Using marketing techniques to help buyers make choices that are truly to their advantage can be interpreted as an act of charity and kindness. But only if it’s authentically done in the buyer’s best interest.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to limit liability while earning loyalty and trust. He’s host of the weekly podcast Grappling with the Gray and author of “Grappling with the Gray: An Ethical Handbook for Personal Happiness and Business Prosperity,” from which this article is taken. Visit him at ethicalimperatives.com.

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