I want to talk a little about the reasons for the existence of this blog.

There is a good reason for this – the readership is picking up (if I read these charts properly, anyways!) and it’s good to a) welcome new readers! b) thank the commenters (Donto and gcagle last week), and c) disclose some of my own viewpoints so that readers can analyze my posts with the appropriate ‘filters’.

New reader of manipulation blog

Welcome new reader Steve M. from Chattanooga

First, and most importantly, this blog is not meant to demean manipulation or to portray manipulators as evil. We all try to manipulate those around us – it’s part of human nature. Admittedly it’s not usually our proudest feature, but we all have it; some of us are just better at it than others. In fact, my team and I have spent decades advancing the art of manipulation and charging a lot of money for that expertise. Manipulation is a tool, like an axe or a hammer. The tool is not evil, although those using it can be.

Having said this, some things have changed in the last few years. Manipulation has become more mainstream, and the use of mass manipulation in corporations, government and media has grown tremendously. There is no counter force to this trend, though – no one is teaching consumers how to spot and resist manipulation, or citizens how to better avoid government manipulations, or media readers how to be more critical readers. This is the fundamental reason for this blog, then – to act, in its small way, as a way for people to discuss manipulation, disseminate examples, and get better at spotting it and reacting to it.

As such, this blog usually doesn’t have a specific ‘content’ agenda. We care about the manipulation itself, much more so than the underlying issue or player.By studying the manipulation, we strip it out and then can decide on a viewpoint on the underlying issue free (or more free) of the manipulation technique itself. For example, in the last blog post about watoc, you may well believe that Internet censorship is a good thing. Or you may believe that it is an evil abomination. Either way, there is real benefit to discussing the issue without the veil of WATOC manipulation. That is the purpose of this blog, rather than advocating one side or the other.

Beyond being a fun place to discuss the art of manipulation, the other major purpose of this blog is to talk about some of the trends and the ‘rules’ of manipulation. As such, we tend to showcase stories that have some insight on manipulation as a whole rather than one-off incidents. For example, let’s take a simple example – Vitamin water.

Manipulation of vitamin water

Delicious, purple-pink vitamin water

Vitamin water is an interesting business. It was started by a health enthusiast, Darius Bikkof, back in 1996. The basic idea was simple – adding a couple of vitamins to water to make it generally healthier. Vitamins are an interesting health additions: you need several vitamins to function properly, and it’s hard to overdose on vitamins. Your body needs a certain amount of each vitamin, but if you take more of it, you tend to simply urinate out the excess. So putting some Vitamin B and C into vitamin water meant that, at best, you got some needed vitamins, and at worst, you tended to pee out the excess.

The company started slowly, selling to health-food distributors and stores. The packaging was cute and cheery, the water did contain some vitamins, and consumers bought it in increasing quantities, eventually generating $350M of revenues for the company.The company was eventually bought by Coca Cola, who used its awesome distribution network to bring Vitamin Water to all the remote corners of the world who had not yet experienced the wonder of vitamins pre-dissolved in water.

Now, one of the general rule of manipulations is that companies tend to use manipulation more when a product has exhausted its initial strong growth phase. Coca Cola paid $4B for Vitamin Water in 2007, a very high price, and soon thereafter had to start to think about how to justify that price by increasing Vitamin Water’s market share.

Over the next couple of years, Coca Cola started to increasingly emphasize the health benefits of Vitamin Water. The issue, of course, is that while Vitamin Water does contain vitamins, it is not, broadly speaking, particularly healthy – most adults tend to get most of their vitamins from their normal diet, and don’t really need supplements, in water or without. Vitamin Water also has a fair bit of sugar, which is not great for you (about the same calorie content as a can of Coca Cola, in fact). So Coca Cola had a problem – how to promote Vitamin Water as increasingly healthy, when the underlying product really couldn’t live up to those claims.

How did Coca Cola do it?

Basically, it began to resort to manipulation. In 2002, the Vitamin water names were “Talking rain” and “VitaZest”, cute marketing names that didn’t mean much. Today’s names are “Defense” and “Rescue”, names that seem to imply much more of an action than the early original names.

Slogans changed as well. The early slogans for Vitamin Water were essentially focused around it being a better water. In 2003, for example, the company’s main tag line was “Drink better water”. The later ones increasingly focused on the idea that Vitamin water could do outrageously good things to your health:

Manipulation by packaging

In fact, Coca Cola started to go well beyond cute slogans. Over time, the Vitamin Water line was promoted as being able to “reduce the risk of eye decease”, or “promote healthy joints”. The cute, funny, tongue-in-cheek marketing of the early years gradually gave way to more and more outrageous health claims.

In fact, eventually a group of scientists at the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued Coca Cola over these deceptive claims, and got an early victory this week when a federal judge ruled, essentially, that Vitamin Water is not healthy.

Coca Cola did more manipulation than these claims, of course. It redefined serving sizes, for example. Coca Cola advertised “50 calories” on the bottle, which is actually not bad for a sugary drink. You had to read the (really) tiny writing on the back to realize that there are 2.5 servings in one bottle. This is plain manipulation – there is no good reason to assume that a bottle has 2.5 servings of anything. But the company realized that putting the true calorie count on the bottle was going to be a problem, and so redefined a serving size to suit its needs.

So what’s the moral here? Vitamin Water is not a bad thing, objectively speaking. Its makers argue in court documents that it is, in fact, a healthier alternative to sodas. And it is, in some ways. It doesn’t use preservatives, and doesn’t cram the bottle with artificial flavors. But the story illustrates three points fairly well:

  1. The difference between marketing and manipulation. The early Vitamin Water marketing was, well, marketing. It advertised the product as it was, with a funny irreverent style that worked well. Like all marketing, it focused on the product’s qualities and not its defects, but the overall message was generally truthful. Over time, however, this shifted into manipulation: subtly altering the messages to essentially trick consumers into thinking the product was far more healthy than it was. The line between marketing and manipulation is not laser-clear, but neither is it as fuzzy as some people claim: if it is deceptive, it is likely manipulation, not marketing.
  2. Another point is why I chose this story for today in the first place. There is a general rule that corporations tend to resort to manipulation more when times are tough. When a company has a success on its hands, it usually doesn’t resort to manipulation, simply because it doesn’t need to. But when there is a product that is struggling, or when it overpaid for a company, or when competition is too fierce, companies often turn to manipulation. Pharmaceutical companies are often guilty of this, but many, many companies succumb to the temptation at one time or another. I don’t think anyone at Coca Cola sat down and decided: “let’s try and push this thing as super-healthy; let’s change the packaging, make outrageous claims on the benefits, find sports endorsers, and generally manipulate consumers into thinking this thing will make them healthy.” Rather, it was a slow process of committees trying to fight the competition (who had exactly the same water+vitamin formula, after all), trying to expand the brand, and trying to ride the health megatrend that eventually led the company to where it is today.

And finally, to illustrate the ‘content’ part of this post… generally, Vitamin Water is not a terribly bad product. You may love it and drink it daily (only if you’re 12 and up, though, according to their guidelines!), or you can hate it, but the point of this post is not to suggest that you should love them or hate them – just to study their use of manipulation and to learn from it.

The ancient Romans had a saying – Caveat Emptor: “Buyer beware“. This is still true today, in many cases, and it is as good a tag line for this blog as any.