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Consumer Behavior

Marketing Is Evil

Marketers use many psychological ploys to make you buy what you shouldn't.

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Yes, sometimes, marketing is a worthy activity. For example, marketing people can help a company develop a more useful product. Also, marketing can help potential customers learn about a new product that's worth considering.

But more often, marketing attempts to manipulate you into spending on something that, if you considered all the relevant factors, you wouldn't spend on.

And that’s dangerous. For example, buying products you wouldn’t have bought is money you would have saved, spent on wiser purchases, or donated to charity.

What's just as dangerous is buying something sub-optimal based on marketing’s having identified and played on your hot buttons diverts you from considering all the key factors. Think, for example, about those ads with a sexy woman draped over a car, when that brand breaks down more and costs more.

Marketing is heavily used to make people buy more expensive products that in fact perform worse or no better: for example, Cartier watches, Liberty Mutual Insurance, T. Rowe Price Investments, and yes, luxury cars. That imposes a significant decrement to a person’s financial security.

It can also cause people to choose a less pleasant job to afford stuff that actually is worse. For example, the heavily advertised Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, etc., require more frequent and more expensive trips to the shop for maintenance and break down more than, for example, the much less expensive Toyota, Honda, and Subaru. A University of Tennessee study found that mutual funds that advertised had worse subsequent performance than those that didn’t.

Unless a company has a clearly superior product, the firm's advertising tends to avoid the product's substance and, instead, creates an image—sizzle not steak. So, for example, marketing converts commodity products into branded ones, thereby increasing the price dramatically with little or no improvement in quality.

Generic aspirin costs less than a penny per pill while the pharmacologically identical, equally FDA approved Bayer aspirin costs 700 percent more. At the risk of being too personal, I bought athlete’s foot cream today. The name-brand Lotrimin is $10. The generic version with the exact same active ingredient, at a dollar store was, not surprising, $1 for 40 percent more product. The brand-name is 15 times as expensive! (P.S. I've used the generic version before and it works just fine.)

Marketing uses a wealth of other tactics to manipulate you: for example, celebrity endorsements. The Hillary Clinton campaign paid performers who were popular among swing voters: Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Tony Bennett all got checks. Does such marketing help us choose a better president?

And companies use celebrity endorsements to cover up poor value or a product that’s inferior to the competition. For example, T-Mobile paid Catherine Zeta-Jones $20 million to push that 2nd-tier carrier. Angelina Jolie, supposed advocate for The People, didn’t turn down $30 million to flak the absurdly priced Louis Vuitton products. Another activist, Beyonce, took $50 million to flog sugar-loaded Pepsi, which hurts the health of the very people she insists she cares so much about. 50-Cent took $80 million from Reebok and LeBron James and David Beckham took $90 million and $160 million respectively from Nike to convince people to spend $100 to $200 on brand-name sneakers when you can be as good an athlete with no-name athletic shoes from Wal-Mart or Target for under $20. Thus, the vulnerable, disproportionately the poor, indirectly are paying the stars millions and add to corporate coffers to get products that are little better and maybe worse than products that don't incorporate a fortune in marketing dollars into their price.

Indeed, advertisers focus efforts on those least likely to make thoughtful buying decisions. That’s why they use, for example, Budweiser's Spuds McKenzie, the Geico gecko, and Taco Bell chihuahua. Similarly, companies prey on innocent children with ads to get kids to, for example, eat sugary, artificially flavored, artificially colored cereals. Apart from children’s products, walk the supermarket aisles: The expensive processed foods are more likely to be in bright-colored packaging. No coincidence.

Sometimes, items are priced high merely to create the illusion of superiority. For example, I recall a not-very-selective college—I believe it was Bennington—deliberately pricing itself to be the nation’s most expensive because it felt that would give the college cachet.

Another marketing ploy designed to get people to part with more money without getting commensurate value is to offer three products of a specific type, two of which they don’t expect people to buy: a cheap but clearly inferior one, a very expensive one, and a wildly expensive one That makes consumers feel they’re being wise in choosing the middle one even though it offers worse value per dollar than its juxtaposition implies.

The funeral industry has used this ploy to prey on people at one of life’s most vulnerable times. They show the bereaved a $500 casket painted an ugly color, a casket priced at $5,000, and one at $10,000 so people feel they’re being prudent in spending $5,000 for a casket that probably cost the funeral home a few hundred bucks. (How much can it cost to make a casket? And who needs a $5,000 box to rot?)

Branding gives marketers yet more ways to distract the consumer from buying rationally: product name, logo, slogan, packaging design, and sponsorships. Branding is designed to create an irrational memory structure for broadbrush liking a company’s products apart from merit; for example, Harley Davidson versus more reliable motorcycles such as Honda. Worse, Harley’s carefully cultivated image induces people, who already have a car, to spend an extra $7,000 to $40,000 to increase their danger of dying. Despite far fewer miles driven, there are 27 times as many deaths on motorcycles than in cars.

Showing similar disregard for people’s health, marketing focuses heavily on liquor and tobacco. Cigarettes are the most heavily advertised product in the U.S. The tobacco companies spend $4 billion a year or $11 million a day to try to get people to smoke cigarettes. And soon, Big Tobacco will likely unleash their marketing manipulations to get more people to smoke pot.

Living in Napa, I’ve paid particular attention to the wine industry. It lives on marketing because in blind tastings, even expert ratings diverge wildly from each other. In one study, world-class wine experts blind-tasted two wines. As usual, the ratings were all over the map. But what was amazing was that the two bottles were the same wine!

Wikipedia lists a variety of such studies. I also am amused but not surprised that in Consumer Reports, Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw ("Two-Buck Chuck") both white and red, were top-rated, above much more expensive wines. Marketing is about getting you to spend five, 10, even 50 times(!) more on a bottle of wine than Two-Buck Chuck.

Marketers will even unleash their manipulations on sick people. Drug companies in 2015 spent a record $5.2 billion on marketing, passed along to us, to get us to ask our doctor to prescribe patented drugs that are less proven and much more expensive than out-of-patent generic drugs.

Of course, part of marketing is sales. Armies of salespeople are paid good salaries and given extensive training on tactics to get people to buy more. And most are paid on commission, which incents them to do whatever to get people to buy.

Nonprofits aren't immune from using marketing tactics. Fundraisers receive extensive training on the art and science of extracting maximum dollars from people. And nonprofits use children and animals to suck out the dollars.

For example, we’ve all seen commercials using bald children with cancer, Africans with pleading eyes, and forlorn animals in the pound facing extermination. That does an excellent job of distracting us from questions that would lead us to wisely allocate our charity dollars. For example, what percentage of donations go to program versus administration? Would donating to your charity yield more benefit than if I gave to charities that third-party evaluations deem to yield more benefit per dollar?

None of the above asserts that marketers are using out-and-out deception. Alas, they too often do. In a TIME article, I listed all the deceptions in the commercials during a mere one hour on CNN, a station that attracts consumers that are above -average in sophistication. Commercials and ads that attract a less sophisticated audience are likely even worse, although that’s difficult to imagine.

In short, yes, a company trying to develop a more useful product or has a new such product needs to market it, and those are worthy activities. But most marketing impedes rational decision-making and, in turn, makes the world worse. Or, in other words, most marketing is evil.

Here is the link to a YouTube video in which I read the above essay.

The 2nd edition of The Best of Marty Nemko is now available. You can reach career and personal coach Marty Nemko at

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