Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I'm going to help you

It is never necessary to cue Sherlock that it is time for one of his favorite products. He knows what happens when the mail comes in - he gets his daily Petromalt. ( Cat people know what it is.) On Sunday (note the funnies under his dominating paw), no mail, so the Petromalt can come out anytime someone opens that drawer in the kitchen.

I thought about this the other day as I read an old New York Times article ("Warning - Habits May be Good for You") about how advertising agencies work to change viewers' habits. An example given was trying to get people to use the product Febreze, a spray deodorizer whose sales were languishing. People bought it once, but then forgot to use it. The psychologists advised the agency to tie the use of the product to the regular weekly housecleaning that, apparently, someone actually does. The idea was to make spraying the clean room with this perfumed water a habitual final step in cleaning.

It is somewhat consoling to think that this is another product that will be increasingly seen as an unnecessary luxury in these days of new attention to our spending. (Have you seen what happened to Starbucks' stock?) At the same time, it is a little scary to remind ourselves how marketers think:
“OUR products succeed when they become part of daily or weekly patterns,” said Carol Berning, a consumer psychologist who recently retired from Procter & Gamble, the company that sold $76 billion of Tide, Crest and other products last year. “Creating positive habits is a huge part of improving our consumers’ lives, and it’s essential to making new products commercially viable.” [my italics]
The thought that there exists an academic specialty called "consumer psychology" strikes fear in those of us who used to teach books like Brave New World. The fact that there are people who believe that manipulating others to buy something improves their lives, that should not surprise us. It should sadden us, and help us remember to be skeptical.

I remember my dismay when my mother talked about a course in advertising she took in college, which she attended in middle age. She did not see advertising as manipulation, but explained to me what she was taught: "Advertising is all about giving information." She was of a generation unable to question the powerful white man who stood in front of the class, and who wrote the textbook.

The crash of the global economy is related to its basis in the constant purchase and discarding of luxury products. Well before the crash, it had become obvious that this was an unsatisfying lifestyle, so obvious that psychologists began to study happiness. Their findings about what makes people contented with their lives are so much like those of the Buddha, you sometimes have to smile. It is a conclusion many people had already come to: once you have the necessities of life (which do not include a Swarovski rhinoceros), more doesn't make you any happier.

This could lead me to a whole discourse on how I escaped buying a robot vacuum cleaner. I'll save that for another time. Suffice it to say now, Sherlock would not have approved.

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