Can Marketing ever get beyond Manipulation?

It’s koan week this time 🙂 Is “manipulation-free marketing” an oxymoron? Is it the sound of one hand clapping?


Oddly there are plenty of folks who don’t think they are being manipulated.  Well I guess they should either watch more Derren Brown shows more or check out the lust for “A/B” testing in the interweb age (where you test two titles, two layouts etc for hits, click-thru et al).

Did you know that if you have a red button to click on your site rather than a green one you will get twice as many clicks?

Did you know that “Improves your relationship” gets ten times (as I recall) the hits of “Improve your relationship” – as the latter sounds like you have to do some work whereas the former there is some simple pill/solution to do it for you?

The 20thC was the start of industrial advertising and mega-psychological research on how to manipulate people. And so we had the American century.  And the fruits of all this?  Well you can (and most likely will) buy rubbish coffee and junk food all around the world. All for the love of money.  Lots of it. And then more.

So it’s natural that folks have developed cynicism, scepticism and filters around this whole advertising thing (which is often a synonym for marketing).  We fast forward through adverts, we develop blindness to banner Ads, we are sceptical when our favourite blogger promotes some product.  But not everyone is – advertisers aren’t stupid (even if most Ads don’t generate an RoI). So masses of folks are still influenced by film stars or athletes. In the UK the poster girl of the 2012 Olympics has featured in a highly successful campaign for Abbey National/Santander.

And you and I might think we know better – but we know well enough that the conscious mind is perhaps 1-10% of the overall mind – which is why, unknowingly, we tend to hit the red button.  Note to self – get a red button for the site 🙂

Can we get beyond this?  Can Marketing – which at a minimum needs to attract attention – ever get beyond manipulation?

Seth Godin’s answer to this is no.  But he says he feels ok with that, as long as you don’t get buyers regret having bought.  Which is a moral hurdle to stop the worst excesses you might think.  However buyers of American junk food around the globe don’t get buyers regret – they tend to get addicted.  And obese – a study this week showing that a high density of junk food shops doubles obesity in an area.  Of course buyers regret surfaces many years later in the form of a heart attack.

Manipulation-free marketing is something of a koan as there is no easy answer.  And if you want to be manipulative in this life and sell junk – go for it.

But most people don’t.  Many young people are seeing through the military-industrial-financial complex of stultifying jobs and a life not so worth living and want to break out of this. How do you do that?

Well the first point to reflect is that the biggest Ads on TV and in media in general are a tiny tiny percentage of all companies.  And by now who is taken in by an expensive airport Ad by a bank (unless perhaps it has Jess Ennis in it)?

The second is that it’s harder to be a rubbish company.  The forces of openness will get you. An old chum of mine I haven’t seen for decades, contacted me about a certain micro-economic sector shall we say, where he single-handedly has stopped its activity in a whole swathe of the country pending a court case. It’s never been easier to complain and get loads of hits.

So the coast is more clear than for some time.  If you focus on adding value to the world – in whatever way.  And then focus on a clear and simple message.  And then just get the message out there enough – hopefully to your tribe, no matter how small.  Well then you have a chance of manipulation-free marketing.

Just use a red button not a green one and you will get there faster 🙂




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