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Alex Genov

User Research and Innovation, SOFTWARE INDUSTRY

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The power of a brand to turn us into puppets.

I am a staunch individualist! I have never been one to follow trends, the crowd, or allow myself to be brainwashed by advertising. At least that’s how I see myself. This makes the following story all that more interesting.

One morning in the recent past, I was to meet a friend for coffee early at Pete’s Coffee. I got there a bit before my friend and was eager to get some strong coffee in me. We have a toddler and an infant at home and the lack of sleep has turned my wife and I into zombies who function on strong coffee. I approached the counter and ordered a tall latte with an extra shot of espresso. The barista looked funny at me and repeated my order back to me – “a medium latte with extra shot.” I repeated back to him – “yes … a tall latte” He corrected me again, “you mean MEDIUM.”

At this point my mind cleared up a bit and I realized, much to my amazement, that I was not at Starbucks but at Pete’s. It must have felt insulting to the Pete’s barista that I was confusing their establishment with the competition. I was slightly embarrassed and motivated to figure out what had just gone on.

The Psychologist in me figured things out. You see, extensive research in Behavioral Science has shown that many times we move around the world on auto pilot, driven by habit. For example, have you ever headed for place A, fell deep in thought about something, and ended up at place B, just because place B is the one you usually go to? A recent study reported by David Rock, shows that “humans are on autopilot nearly half of the time.”

What had happened to me was that during one of my (sleep deprived) autopilot mode episodes, I was under the influence of a powerful brand – Starbucks. I had used the Starbucks lingo at Pete’s Coffee! Moreover, this was the lingo that I had stubbornly refused to use during my first visits to Starbucks!

To me, that is an excellent example of how effective brands get under our skin – they pull he strings while we are asleep at the wheel … Scary?


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    Oct 27 2012: What scares me is the branding that goes on with political ads that appear to think I am an idiot. Who are behind these ads? Not the money, but the minds. Do they know something about the human psyche of which I am totally unaware? Watching the ads, I rationally think "You've got to be kidding?" but am I subconsciously being influenced? Someone save us if I am.
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      Oct 27 2012: Hi Lynn...nice to see you through your lens again:>)

      I suggest that the people and money behind these ads are very smart, they do indeed know something about the human psyche, which many people are unaware of, and they are seeking more money! They KNOW that people can be easily influenced with the ads...NO MATTER WHAT THE ADS SAY.....yes?

      If something is working for them, there is no incentive to change. If, at some point in our evolution, enough people ARE NOT so easily influenced by ads, then those who create them will have no incentive to continue.....yes?

      A LOT of the information in political ads, for example, can be easily checked out....especially now with our communication systems! How many people actually check the facts? How many people simply accept what they see at first glance? When enough people are empowered in themselves, and willing to seek accurate information, the ads have no power or influence. The question is....when are the masses of people ready and willing to be truly empowered, and not be the puppets on the string of external influence?
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        Oct 27 2012: An interesting aspect of what you raise here is why people do not check. Some things are, of course, hard to check in such a way as to get reliable information, so people may decide just to trust someone who seems credible. Some people will consciously or unconconsciously weigh the (time-) cost of checking against the costs of being slightly misinformed and from that calculation decide not to check.

        Kiriszian somewhere in this thread mentions unimportant choices. Some people do spend an excessive amount of time trying to make choices between things that are so slightly different in value that the time spent would not make sense in the scheme of things. And many people do not check if what they hear confirms their pre-existing biases.
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          Oct 27 2012: Good points Fritzie!
          People may decide simply to trust what they are hearing, some people consciously or unconsciously weigh information, some people may not have time or energy to check things out. I know when I was younger, I had little children, a career, etc. etc., and very little extra time to be too involved in politics for example. I took in very basic information when choosing who I was voting for. Now that I have more time, I investigate and explore more. So, a lot of choices people make may depend on their priority at any stage of their life adventure.
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          Oct 27 2012: How thoughtful is your response Colleen.

          On the topic of advertising medications, I think there's a very interesting related issue here. In many cases, the efficacy of a medication is significantly correlated with the patient's belief that the medication will be helpful. This is related to the placebo effect. No doubt about it, a medication *will* be more effective on a sample population if that population believes it will help them. Even if that belief is based on lies.

          So that ad which is full of lies is actually healing people *because of the ad*, not because of the medication. This in no way justifies lying about these medications. It's just a fascinating issue I like to talk about.
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          Oct 28 2012: Well Danger, my response is meant to be thoughtful, and I sincerely hope it is perceived in that way.

          I am not suggesting that advertisements contain lies. Prescription drugs are approved by the FDA, so I think we can assume that some testing has been done, and the medications have at least some of the effects that are claimed.

          I agree that there may often be a "placebo effect" based on a persons beliefs in medication, and while it may be a fascinating issue to talk about, it is not really the topic of this discussion.

          The point I was making, is that the consumer CAN be more aware and informed. As I wrote in the previous comment...."The question is....when are the masses of people ready and willing to be truly empowered, and not be the puppets on the string of external influence?"

          When we make good, informed choices regarding purchasing products, the product and/or the advertiser cannot "turn us into puppets".
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        Oct 27 2012: Speaking as someone who works on and off in the advertising industry, I hope you're right about the people behind these ads generally being very smart! :)

        Although ads can be fact checked for accuracy, I don't think it's usually the point of an ad to deliver facts. A picture of someone's favorite beer bottle next to a sexy young person is not a fact. Or the picture of Joe Camel on a carton of RJ Reynolds cigarettes was not a fact. Or the picture of a president on an aircraft carrier. The main point of an ad is to cause an association between a brand and a positive feeling, which can be achieved simply by putting your product next to something pleasant that has nothing to do with your product. When enough people are exposed enough times to brand advertising, they will statistically buy your product more. This is brand value.
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          Oct 27 2012: I agree Danger, that it often is not usually the point of an ad to deliver facts. Lynn wrote specifically about political ads, and I was addressing that comment. Many times in political ads, a person's voting record is mentioned. That is easy enough to varify.

          I mention medications in my first comment, and that is another thing people CAN varify to a certain extent. My friends who are medical doctors, physicians assistants, nurse practitioners, etc., tell me that very often, people will see an ad for a medication on TV, and demand that the medical professional give them a perscription for that medication. The patient has not adequately investigated the medication to find out if it is appropriate for them and their condition or not.

          I agree with you that the main point of an ad is to cause an association between a brand and a positive feeling, and sometimes (political ads and ads for medications for example), try to create the "positive feeling" with misleading information, which sometimes has nothing whatever to do with politics or good health.
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          Oct 29 2012: Great point! Association is the base of all our thinking and reasoning. We are not much different from Pavlov's dogs in decision making (it's not a fact, it's an association that came up to my mind as I read your comment).

          I always was surprised at the amount of happy smiling people staring at computer screens on bank and insurance ads, as if checking their bank account is a source of endless pleasure.
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        Oct 29 2012: Re: "They KNOW that people can be easily influenced with the ads...NO MATTER WHAT THE ADS SAY.....yes?"

        We have this thing called "implicit memory" which makes us more likely to believe things we are familiar with, EVEN IF WE WERE TOLD THEY ARE WRONG.

        Here is an interesting article about this "How Warnings about False Claims Become Recommendations" http://research.chicagobooth.edu/cdr/docs/FalseClaims_dpark.pdf
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          Oct 29 2012: Hi Arkady!
          I agree...association may be the base of our thinking and reasoning. I personally am a little different than Pavlov's dogs in decision making, because I KNOW I can evaluate information, possibly on a different level than a dog, for the purpose of making informed choices.

          Yes indeed, we have this thing called "implicit memory". Do you think that our implicit memory has the ability to take in information and evaluate the information? My implicit memory can do that, so I assume that most humans have that ability?

          I am familier with studies and research to a certain extent. I believe that as evolving humans, we have the ability to think and feel for ourselves, rather than simply accepting information given to us by external sources. It is like "free will" in some respects. If we believe we do not have the ability to think through decision making, than we do not utilize that ability, and we continue to accept information that may not be accurate. When we believe that we have the ability to think and feel as multi-sensory, muti-demensional human beings, that is how we live our lives:>)

          Your argument seems to be saying....this is how we are (this is what the research shows us) and we cannot do anything about it. I do not agree with that perspective. That is EXACTLY the information advertisers like to hear....it makes their job a LOT easier...don't you think?
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        Oct 29 2012: Coleen, I agree with you. Being conscious that we have implicit memory makes a huge difference. We are less likely to be manipulated and make unwanted sub-conscious decisions if we are aware of the source of our implicit memories. In the article that I quoted, if we remember exactly where we heard the incorrect information and aware of the emotions and associations it created, we will not be manipulated. Awareness of why we make choices creates this feeling of 'free will' that we discussed earlier. Anticipating the future is necessary for changing it.
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          Oct 29 2012: Oh so wise Arkady! I agree with you too:>)

          So, we can be more conscious, aware, and informed to avoid becoming a "puppet" of advertisers and other external influence!
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        Oct 29 2012: Re: "Your argument seems to be saying....this is how we are (this is what the research shows us) and we cannot do anything about it."

        Being aware "how we are", in itself, is "changing it". When we become aware of the subconscious, it stops being subconscious. When we become aware that we are being manipulated, we stop being manipulated. It's funny how it works with our minds. Some things disappear as soon as we become aware that they exist (e.g. our own ignorance or hypocrisy), and some things come into existence as soon as we become aware that we don't have them (e.g. our rights or free will) :-).
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          Oct 29 2012: Well said Arkady!
          As I recall, I miss-interpreted this same concept in our other conversation (free will). You presented information reflecting certain human behaviors, and I interpreted it as your argument to support the idea that we cannot change!!! What you are actually doing, is encouraging awareness/change.....yes?
    • Oct 27 2012: IMO, if an ad appears to be addressed to stupid people, it is targeted at stupid people.
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        Oct 27 2012: It is well known that ads are created to attract the attention of a certain audience:>)
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        Oct 29 2012: IMO . . . had to look that up. IMO, Barry, I don't think so but you might be right. The question is, are you one of them. Am I?
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      Oct 29 2012: Hi lynn,

      In a former career, I was a forcasting systems consultant. One of the things i did was to codify the old materials requirements forecasting systems to fit fashion trends.
      This was done by identifying demographic definitions by the things they bought, getting a history of it and then forcasting specific niche requirements of the demographic. From there, instead of forcasting items by form/fit/function they were translated to form-fits-fashion. The functional part was left for the customer to define through market penetration stats.
      I did this in order to adapt to obsolescence cycles that were not divulged by the manufaturers. With unknown obsolescence, one does not get a chance to plan because the market lifecycle is less than 3 years (which you need for seasonal patterns to emerge). So we were forecasting fashion tokens by demographic niche - and then matching whatever we could find to fit the niche. This gave us some feedback influence on manufacturing cycles to win back control of our market. The sales histories were able to agregate disparate products into a single stable statistical sample - very accurate indeed.
      For instance, it was found that a certain demographic niche required 2 mobile phone handsets - one for work(practical) and one for show(status). This folded 2 item sales into one sales event which could be agregated and targeted successfully in the marketing. i observe that the method has spread since I got it going - it is quite likely that the method was co-developed in a few places.
      Have a look at this - it explains a few things that you have brought-up:
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        Oct 29 2012: I could only bear 20 minutes of the video. I'm a centrist and have trouble listing to arrogant people belittle others who have a different world view, as well as the chuckling audience, not for humor, but because they agreed. I may have agreed with some of what he was saying, but I wasn't chuckling.
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        Oct 29 2012: Do I have the patience for understanding? Twenty hours, huh. I listened to the first. I may get through the other 19. We shall see.
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          Oct 29 2012: It's worth it.
          Sapolski is a giant in the field of behavioural dynamnics. His framework is very powerful, and his delivery is nice and clear.
          I know Lakoff peddles a specific politics, but he demonstrates a basis. His assumptions about childhood experience might be a little skewed - and definitley selctive. But, the politics is not so important to me - the observations of teh dynamics of "framing" is essential. Also the inclusion of type 1 and type 2 thinking is important.
          The big problem with modern neuroscience is that it cuts across a lot of our assumptions. This collapses our world views and is not comfortable or done in a day. We emerge with a much more practical world-view, but damn - it takes a lot of time pulling it all together. Worth it.

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