Lying, Marketing, and Perception

I've seen a surprising number of negative things written about Seth Godin's new book All Marketers Are Liars. (the most recent, that spawned this post, is here.) I think the people that are saying these things either a)didn't read the book or b)don't understand it.

Let's back up for a minute. Remember all those cognitive biases we have? Modern neuroscience has taught us that we aren't as smart as we think we are. That is why I think everyone should read books on the brain. What you find will surprise you.** The biggest surprise is that our reality is determined as much by what happens in our heads as what happens external to them. In other words, perception is reality. Let me repeat that. Perception is reality.

There are things we believe, all kinds of things, that aren't true. Our brains evolved to find patterns where none exist because false positives really don't hurt our chances of survival. (running from something that isn't dangerous just because you think it is problemably won't put you in any harm) I was just reading this article yesterday and was shocked to see:

exposure to air pollution is estimated to be 10 to 50 times as high indoors as it is outdoors7; most of us spend the majority of our time inside, where poor ventilation allows pollutants to accumulate. A partial list of the toxins that might be in my lungs this morning: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and gases from household products; mold, mites, mildew and dander; traces of lead, asbestos, pesticides, arsenic, flame retardant and product packaging.

Why are we so focused on cutting smog when it's indoor pollutants that are killing us? Because we believe all the pollutants are outdoors. So when we are inside, we feel better because we believe we should feel better. And that is what Seth Godin means when calls marketers liars. By believing the lie, it becomes true.

Let's take an example from the book. Seth writes about a company that makes wine glasses. The company claims that the shape and structure of these wine glasses maximizes the taste of the wine. So if you buy these glasses, your wine will taste better. If you blindfold someone and hook them up to a brain scan machine and have them taste wine from a regular glass and one of these special glasses, they won't be able to tell the difference. And their brain scan will problemably confirm that. But if you tell them the special glass will make the wine taste better, they problemably think it does taste better, and the brain scan will reveal that yes, they really do think it tastes better. Make sense?

Think of the brain like a giant maze, with many inputs and many outputs. The middle of the maze has all these interconnected pathways that mix some inputs together and direct them towards the appropriate output. But also, the act of inputs moving through the giant maze changes the maze. So if you tell someone product x is better, that changes their inner pathways just a little bit. If they already liked product x, or maybe they only leaned slightly towards product y instead, the simple change made by your words will problemably make them like product x more. The perception became the reality. Of course, if they love product y and hate product x, it takes a lot more tweaking of those inner pathways to get them to change to product x.

So the point Seth was trying to make is this. If you create a product that is targeted towards people with a certain worldview, and you tell them a story about that product that may be, in one sense, a lie, you will change their perceptions so that the lie is now a truth. And that will make their lives better. Yes it's complex and paradoxical, but it doesn't disrespect customers and it isn't unethical.

People have been doing this forever, Seth just pointed it out to the world. If you believe crystals have healing power and you buy them and wear them, they will problemably help you heal. If you believe a magnetic bracelet will ease your pain, it problemably will. Perception will become reality. If you are a marketer, your job is to help people perceive your product in a certain way, so that it will become a reality to them.

**For an interesting look at how dumb we humans can be, check out this excerpt from Tom Asacker's new book. It's pretty surprising.