Some interesting stories in the last week for those interested in manipulation

First off, Best Buy. I really need to do a special blog entry about Best Buy at some point. It is a company that consistently pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable. A year or so ago, Best Buy admitted that they kept up a fake web site to trick customers. Essentially, if someone checked the Best Buy web site and saw something at an attractive price and then went to the store to ask for it, a salesman would access the web site from inside the store and show the customer that the price had gone up. It turns out that accessing the web site from within the store would transparently redirect browsers to a ‘fake’ intranet web site, made up to look just like the normal web site but with higher prices. Very hard for customers (and even salespeople) to spot the difference, at least prior to iphones and androids.

Think about it for a second – someone went through the trouble of setting up an entire web site copy with higher prices to catch the (presumably wary) customers who did their homework on the web before shopping. And, like all good manipulations, fairly hard to spot for the manipulated.

The reason that Best Buy is in the news today? Well, it turns out they advertise for laptops on sale – in reverse. Essentially, every week they plaster a laptop for a little bit more than what they usually sell it for, in the hope (presumably) of luring the less-than-informed.

And I could do a dozen posts with some more interesting stories about Best Buy – the push for extended warranties (moderately manipulative, if at all), the push to ‘optimize’ new computers (much more manipulative, since it is basically selling a useless service to an uninformed consumer) and some interesting things that Best Buy used to do to showcase Monster cables (another future blog entry, that one).

One of the reasons that Best Buy is one of my favorite companies to track for manipulation purposes is that it sells complicated hardware to a (largely) uninformed public. The purchases are large, the underlying hardware complex, and the consumer (especially if it’s a man) is generally reluctant to admit that he knows very little about what he’s buying. So the opportunities for manipulation are many. But I actually think that it goes beyond that – I suspect that Best Buy Corporate has a few people who think carefully about these things and actively play with some of these strategies. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain why Best Buy keeps coming up with new and exciting content for this blog.

Ok, more roundup info – how about doing a pharma recall without anyone knowing?

Basically, the manufacturers of Motrin, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, realized that a significant batch of Motrin was defective. Rather than issuing a recall, they decided to hire a number of contractors to buy the product off the shelves, specifically forbidding the use of the word ‘recall’. One of the contractors dropped a sheet on the floor of one store, the FDA discovered the effort, and… well, nothing much. A senator was “outraged”, the company claimed that it was doing statistical sampling and the contractors refused to answer questions, so the whole issue will probably blow over fairly quickly.

So is a ‘phantom recall’ manipulation? I’d argue that yes, it is manipulation: one of the core tests for manipulation is that whoever is doing it would be ashamed if it became public knowledge, even if it doesn’t break the law. In both these cases, it’s fairly obvious that both companies would have preferred to keep their activities low-key. In the case of the Motrin, the company was manipulating pharmacies rather more than consumers, but it was still underhanded and manipulative.