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Marketing's New Nicotine?

We are in the age of the customer experience. Where people are looking for adventure, to do unique things, and are willing to give up stuff so there is more money to travel, undertake new activities and discover special experiences. This trend has not gone unnoticed by marketers who are working diligently to give their customers the ultimate in something awesome to experience about their brand.

Yet, there is another side of marketing today which is working to game the customer into the experience. Much like in the late 50’s when marketers could sneak subliminal frames into a movie to get a patron to buy more popcorn or soda, marketers today are using behavioral science to condition people to engage and react. Their goal is to get consumers to buy things or stay longer on a site to increase the value of their advertising rates.

A recent 60 Minutes news story shed the light on this reporting how tech companies are engineering our phones, apps and social media experiences to get us hooked. Tristan Harris, a former Google product manager, told 60 minutes, “Well every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, “What did I get?” This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit. What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward. And it turns out that this design technique can be embedded inside of all these products… There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible.”

This strikes me as similar to what big tobacco companies did in the 60’s by adding extra nicotine to cigarettes to get users hooked to buy more cigarettes. And nicotine, like heroin or cocaine, changes the way your brain works. It causes a person to want more cigarettes because of the hold of nicotine. While marketers often had portrayed the coolness or sexiness of smoking in their advertising, the reality is addiction to nicotine is what causes people to buy more while also making it so difficult to quit smoking and the resulting deleterious health effects.

Likewise, tech engineers are working to trigger a person’s brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine —a chemical in our neurons which increases reward motivated behavior. It is a natural high, but addicting no less.

Not sure this is what most people would willingly sign-up for as a customer experience. Perhaps human behavior tech engineering is less ominous than a nicotine delivery device known as a cigarette, but the result is no different.

Given inevitable technology progress, maybe the ultimate marketing approach is subliminal marketing messages delivered to our phones, while we are watching a movie and smoking. Who knows, some day we may even see a remake of the 1999 movie “The Insider”, starring Russel Crowe, where the hero exposes the truth about companies intentionally hacking our brains.

Logically speaking, I admire the cleverness of marketers over the decades with all these techniques. On the other hand, if marketers delivered a superior product/service and customer experiences in the first place, they wouldn’t need to manipulate customers into buying or hanging out in social media or a website.

It is each marketer’s own choice what you do.

© Eric Balinski-Synection, 2017

To see the entire 60 Minutes story: What is "brain hacking"? Tech insiders on why you should care, click on this link:

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