Manipulative Marketing

Manipulative Marketing

Coca-Cola, Google, Apple, Samsung, YouTube, Amazon, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Facebook, Nike, Cadbury, Mars. These names don’t come to you easily for no reason. When you think of a product, there’s normally one brand that will immediately come to mind first. These corporations, who are at the top of their game, haven’t done this by any accident.

Marketing and advertising are a massive part of our everyday experience. While not all marketing is intended to encourage you to spend (e.g. anti-drinking ads), it is designed to influence your decisions and thinking. The majority of advertising aims to get people to do one thing: consume. Marketers are given a product or service, and they have to make it desirable to their potential consumers. There’s a need and this particular product needs to fill that need.

It is no secret that supermarkets are carefully designed to maximise the amount of time, and therefore money, that a customer spends wandering the aisles. You would be lucky to see a clock near the front door of any supermarket. Beyond the sense of timelessness, the customer is often carefully guided through a barrage of cheap products, usually loss leaders or products approaching expiry (we’re looking at you, “Aisle of Value”), before having to trek to the furthest depths of the store to find meat, milk, bread and other high-turnover necessities. The obvious reasoning here is that this exposes a customer to as many products as possible as they journey through the store, resulting in more impulse purchases and thus more money for the supermarket.

Not that it ends there. Next time you’re in a supermarket, try to note the products that you’re selecting and why. Most of the time, customers make snap decisions without thinking about it, grabbing products that are at eye level or have the “on special” tickets. Those products at eye level are what the supermarket wants you to buy. They’re either the high-margin, money-making items (sometimes even brands that the supermarket owns) or they’re placed there because the supermarket has been given a nice pile of cash to put them there. And those “specials” are obviously helping customers buy smart and shop for the bargains, right? Essentially this is true, customers are getting something for less than they would otherwise. But here’s the kicker: research has shown that customers as a whole will buy more of that “special” item even if the price is increased. Now that might not be standard practice, but if a store wants something gone, they can mark it down by two cents, slap a big red sticker on it and they’re away laughing.

Digging deeper into what’s actually on those shelves reveals that consumers have a depressingly small choice in who that dollar goes to. Take good old Kiwi Wattie’s for example (owned by Pennsylvanian Heinz). A customer might see a Wattie’s can of peaches and think $1.99 for a can of peaches is expensive and instead, pick up the 89¢ can of Oak peaches. Wattie’s owns that cheaper Oak brand, and so that ticks up another sale for Oak, therefore Wattie’s, therefore Heinz. The same is true for Eta, Weight Watchers, Golden Circle and countless other brands under Heinz’ far-reaching umbrella. And it isn’t only true for Heinz either. I’ve been judged for taking my liquor shopping to Liquorland rather than Henry’s because of the perceived quality of each store, when in reality they’re both owned by Foodstuffs (as are PAKn’SAVE, New World and Four Square).

Using the previous example, if a small business decides to join the high-octane business of peach-selling, then that business will have to go up against the peach juggernauts. Now Heinz sees this new competitor and is faced with a decision. They could mind their own business, they could lower the price of Wattie’s peaches to a point where the new business cannot compete, or they could do the same with Oak peaches. Of course they would choose to lower Oak’s price, because this way Oak retains its image as the affordable option, while Wattie’s still looks like the pricier but higher-quality option. Heavily lowering the price of Wattie’s peaches would cause them to appear cheap and nasty. They could even lower Oak peaches to a point where they’re losing money, just to push the poor new business out of existence, while bathing in income from other brands.

So a very small handful of companies owns a huge amount of what the consumer dollar can be spent on. This is often referred to as “illusion of choice” and, not surprisingly, extends far beyond the humble food industry of New Zealand. Thirty years ago, there were still huge corporations, of course, but a larger number of these were independent from one another, without this insane web of parents and subsidiaries.

Take Disney’s recent actions for example. Their recent acquisitions have been hugely publicised, and most people are aware that Disney has bought out Pixar Animation Studios, Lucasfilm, Marvel Entertainment, et cetera ad nauseam. Sure, building an airport-to-resort railroad is pretty impressive, but Disney built a city. It designed and built a city in Florida called Celebration because it’s Disney and they’ll do whatever they damn well please. Over the last few decades, this extreme merger and acquisition growth process has been occurring across nearly every industry, with all the big players vying for power.

Disney is not alone. A mere six — six — media goliaths control a whopping 90% of the media market in the US. CNN, HBO, Time and Warner Bros for example are all owned by Time Warner. And this doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The vast majority of our media is also dictated by the media giants. Illusion of choice: we think we have this vast smorgasbord of food stores, of movies, of god damn peaches to choose from, but really we’re only choosing from six or seven power players, plus this struggling pile of tiny, niche competitors. Sure, that’s a somewhat simplified version, but it’s close to the scary reality.

Despite all of this, these huge corporations are filling a need. They are giving consumers something that, for the most part, they’ve made it very clear they want. It’s easy to see how these businesses grew so rapidly and potently: they make people happy, so people pay them the dollars.

But then how is it possible to justify the billion-dollar industries built on making people suffer? How are tobacco companies still so profitable, given increasing education around the detrimental effects of smoking, not to mention political hurdles thrown at them from every angle? The answer is somewhere between marketing and lawyers. Before the health issues surrounding smoking were well known, tobacco companies advertised more or less like any other industry, by flooding the available media with their message of why their product was the best. For the most part, this consisted of showing the audience some rugged bastard, maybe a cowboy in the desert or a petrolhead doing manly things with a manly car. “Do you want to be masculine? Better ignite some tobacco then, you wuss!” But once people caught on that smoking was killing them as much as calming them, most first-world countries put laws in place to stop mainstream advertising. Naturally the industry fought back as strongly as it legally could. However, it eventually gave in and poured money into other ventures, such as heavy sports sponsorship to stay true to the masculine image, or facilitating brand communities by hosting events for fans. Anything they can do, they have done.

Where it gets scary is when the line between law and marketing is blurred. Arguably, the only reason that the tobacco industry is still a powerhouse today is because of the sheer amount of funding these corporations put into fighting anti-smoking legislation. These companies are going to legal war with countries, and sometimes winning. A person may think that the government shouldn’t be in control of what people consume, and that’s fine. But surely it’s objectively wrong for a company to legally overpower small, third-world nations in order to flood that nation’s market with its cigarettes.

Highly regarded entrepreneur and Dragon’s Den investor, Duncan Bannatyne, took it upon himself to investigate the activities of British American Tobacco and how it is actively targeting young people in Africa. He was, as we should all be, disgusted at what can only be described as money-hungry evil oozing from these organisations. These corporations are out to make a buck for their shareholders, consequences be damned. But they’re not just faceless companies — these are businesses that exist because they are full of individual people. Somewhere there is a board full of old wrinkly gits getting their rocks off to the idea of becoming richer by influencing impoverished schoolkids to get addicted to tobacco, and that’s just terrifying.

Subliminal messaging is where producers flash images of food or drink up on the screen for less than a second during an ad or a movie, making you subconsciously desire that object. It rests on the assumption that the message will pass below normal perception and be taken in unconsciously. The majority of research will tell you that it is not particularly powerful, even if it might slightly influence your decisions. Because there’s so much research into subliminal messaging, the technology has vastly developed since the phrase was originally coined in the ’50s. It’s even used in the army as training to help soldiers recognise foreign ships and aircraft. Mostly, subliminal messaging in this form is illegal, and most corporations won’t even bother trying to use it — it’d be a public-relations disaster. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have other methods of subliminal messaging up their sleeves.

The logo design of a company and the colours they choose can have a large impact on how that company is perceived by customers. The logo of a company can say a lot about it if they have a clever designer. Take Amazon, for example. The underline beneath the word “Amazon” acts as an arrow pointing from a to z, meaning they’ve got everything. The arrow also looks like a satisfied smile. This kind of subtle design is not something most people will be actively aware of, but the message is there, reinforcing the ideas the company wants to promote. If someone wants to present their business as urgent, then they might make a large portion of their logo red. On the flipside, purple is a soothing and spiritual colour that promotes luxury and royalty. Amazon’s smile/arrow is yellow, a colour associated with optimism, friendliness and creativity. Companies use subtle marketing techniques to influence you; even though it doesn’t seem like much, it can still make you choose one company or product over another.

We’ve all seen the bullshit “miracle cures” and damage caused by products that have been sold to us with supposedly no flaws. But it’s also clear that marketing is a fundamental aspect of business, and human life in general. It’s even a sizeable chunk of many students’ education at Otago, so there’s something more to it than just big business exploiting the little guy for profit, right? David Bishop, one of Otago’s own Marketing Professional Practice Fellows, is a past employee of some of New Zealand’s largest food manufacturers and, as such, he knows his way around corporate marketing. Bishop points out that on one hand, consumers are lucky that legislation such as the Commerce Act prevents large businesses like Foodstuffs and Progressive from colluding and essentially forming a simulated monopoly by deciding, “Hey? If we both charge them an arm and a leg for a can of beans, those bean lovers have no other options!”

On the other, much more positive hand, Bishop offers his own definition of marketing: “Finding out what people want and getting it to them at a profit to yourself.” And that, in and of itself, is a positive thing. Marketing professionals will research a market and find out where a product gap is: you want that thing, so we’ll make that thing for you! Consumers are happy because their life is full of little comforts, whatever they may be, businesspeople are happy because they have a nice revenue stream with which to buy comforts of their own, and on a grander scale these interactions keep the wheels of our economies churning. It’s another matter entirely what trouble creating those extra wants may be causing..
This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2015.
Posted 2:32pm Sunday 15th March 2015 by Brandon Johnstone.