Ethical? Unethical? Or Merely Effective Marketing? What’s Your Take On These Tactics?

Posted: May 15, 2017

For effective marketing that makes us buy, brands use insights into our psychology all the time; is the decision still in our hands or are we being unethically pushed?

This article in the NY Times makes out Uber to be a conscience-less corporate version of Harry Harlow. According to the writer, “Employing hundreds of social scientists and data scientists, Uber has experimented with video game techniques, graphics and noncash rewards of little value that can prod drivers into working longer and harder — and sometimes at hours and locations that are less lucrative for them.”

But psychological manipulation to achieve certain ends is nothing new. Every company trying to sell you something or make you take an action they want you to, uses insights from behavioural science in a hundred different ways. If you look closely enough, the examples are everywhere.

There is a car service centre of which we are regular customers. Last month, my husband picked up the phone after getting multiple calls from them in the span of a day. The caller said, “Sir, your car is due for service and today is the last day to avail this. Please bring it over today itself.” My husband was flummoxed.

“What do you mean by ‘last day’?” he asked him. ““Will you refuse to service my car if I bring it tomorrow or next week?”

The salesperson had no answer. He admitted that he was reading off a script that instructed him to use this phrase to make people feel a sense of urgency. As a content marketer, I have myself been responsible for composing copy that plays on such emotions. Creating FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) for instance when we ran sales or spreading FUD (Fear — Uncertainty-Doubt) to create need.

Another example is Lifehack.org, a website that touts itself as a source of simple life-enhancing knowledge that improves your health and productivity. In reality, you can spend hours glued to the screen, reading listicle after listicle, time that you could have actually spent making changes to your life. About 15 seconds after you come to the website, this pop-up springs to life.

The message is so worded as to push you towards the ‘right answer’ — notice how it’s also highlighted in blue while the undesirable option is in grey. Honestly, how many of us would actually want to say ‘No, thanks, I prefer to remain stuck in my rut’? Hitting Escape does not make the pop-up go away — clicking somewhere outside the box will. But given how long this exact same pop-up has been on the website (over a year if my memory is right), most of their audience seems to be choosing the affirmative life-changing answer.

There are also websites that move their Close [x] button to the top left corner of the pop-up because people instinctively look for it on the top right. Others don’t let you exit their website without asking you if you are completely, utterly, 100% sure that you don’t want to buy that Rs.5000 dress that will make you look gorgeous. And almost all of them follow you across the web like the Hutch puppy, tantalizing you with images of what you expended immense will power not buying. Because they know that out of sight is out of mind and they can’t afford that.

Another example is the Groupon website. Almost as soon as you land there, this pop-up takes over the entire screen. It has no visible close [x] button and clicking outside the circle does not make it go away.

The only mode of escape from the Giant Circle is to either fill in your email ID or sift through all the text on the pop-up to spot the ‘No Thanks’ option and click on it. It’s like a horrible version of Where’s Waldo.

Whose problem is at anyway?

So with whom does the onus of sorting the wheat from the chaff lie anyway? Uber’s spokesperson Michael Amodeo seems to think it’s not them. In the article linked to above, he says, “We try to make the early experience as good as possible, but also as realistic as possible. We want people to decide for themselves if driving is right for them.”

I have myself traveled in Uber cabs where before my ride ended, the driver’s phone was pinging with the alert for the next one. The driver made several irritated noises and complained to me about how he didn’t get a moment’s rest. So I asked him if he could not merely go offline or turn down a ride. He could, he said, but. There was no good reason why he didn’t do it. Perhaps he needed the money. Perhaps he didn’t want the hassle. I don’t know. But Uber is certainly right in saying that their drivers have a say in the matter.

Such psychological and behavioural tactics may or may not be ethical — but they are certainly effective. It is in the best interest of these brands to keep us with them or make us buy or get us to share our info. So they put the onus of decision making — the choice to go away or not buy or share — on us. And that is exactly where the problem lies.

Today, we are conditioned to laziness, be it in thinking or acting. Which marketer hasn’t been advised at some point to not make the customer work hard, to minimize the number of steps it takes for him/her to access your product? Because accustomed as we are to coasting, making a decision — be it unchecking a pre-selected box, changing an Autoplay setting on Youtube, or checking the expiry date of a product instead of picking up the first thing off the supermarket shelf — feels like a big deal.

Is flexing psychological muscle okay then?

Where behavioral manipulation crosses the line is when the proposition is blatantly untrue or there is a deliberate attempt to misinform or misdirect. Take, for instance, this ad for Hershey’s chocolate syrup.

The voiceover says “All the goodness of milk, all the deliciousness of Hershey’s syrup.” But how many of us notice the tiny subtext that appears 7 seconds in that says “Hershey’s Syrup does not contain milk”?

The dominating visuals and VO focus on telling your brain that this sugary, carb-filled flavouring substance is possibly nourishing and healthful for you, words that you want to hear so that you feel less guilty about your indulgence. The unreadable subtext is their way of covering their ass legally.

Still, as long as a brand puts this decision making power in the hand of the consumer or partner, I do not believe they are in the wrong in any sense. As users get wise to these tactics, they will become immune to them (we are no longer lured by rows of dancing smileys or work from home opportunities that pay us thousands of dollars) and brands will think of new ones. This cat-and-mouse game can even be fun, depending on how you look at it.

In the Sorcerer’s Stone, Voldemort tells Harry, “There is no good and no evil. There is only power and those too weak to use it.” An equivalent in this context would be, “There is no ethical and no unethical. There is only effective marketing and those too foolish to sidestep it.”

First published here

Image via Pixabay

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Writer. Editor. Content strategist. Lover of Bangalore, books, travel, the husband, and the dogs.

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