The survey says:  Manipulation or Good Marketing?

Marhalt is on the road, so, without further ado, let’s welcome one of our guest bloggers – he’s one of the country’s leading experts on marketing, which is a close cousin to many of the things we talk about on this blog! Marhalt is back next week with some thoughts on (real) conspiracy theories…

Hey folks! Thanks for letting me guest write on Long time reader, first time writer!

Several of the examples in this blog relate to marketing.  That shouldn’t be surprising.  The point of our work, marketing, is to inform, influence, and persuade buyers.  Marketers generally know more about the product or service being promoted -and sometimes even knows more about the buyer’s behaviours than the buyer themselves.  Given this asymmetry of information, many would argue that marketers have the upper edge on consumers. This could be the case and it leads us the question when does marketing cross the line into buyer manipulation? Marhalt and his crew offered an early response – when there is an element of deceit involved – but I wanted to dig in a little more.

To get some perspective on this topic, I put out a quick survey “Manipulation or good marketing.” The questions were answered by average consumers – not marketers.  I dug up 6 examples of potentially misleading tactics currently employed by some consumer goods marketers (some of the examples were taken directly from this blog) and then posed the question “manipulation or good marketing?”  This purpose of this survey is not for scientific generalizations, but more to get a flavour – or first crack feel- for how people view these practices.  So take the quiz and follow along!

Let’s look at the questions and the survey results:

Q1. Vitamin Water is a beverage brand. Its ingredients are distilled water, fructose sweetener, caffeine, a series of electrolytes, natural fruit flavours, and a series of vitamins that include Vitamin C, Vitamin B3, Vitamin B5, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin E. One bottle contains about 33g of sugar, which comes in the form of cane sugar and crystalline fructose. There is a class-action lawsuit that alleges that the marketing of the drink as a “healthful alternative” to soda is deceptive. The suing consumer group states that “according to CSPI nutritionists, the 33 grams of sugar in each bottle of Vitamin water do more to promote obesity, diabetes and other health problems than the vitamins in the drinks do to perform the advertised benefits listed on the bottles”. Vitamin Water dismissed the suit as “ridiculous,” on the grounds that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitamin Water was a healthy beverage”.

Vitamin Water. Good Marketing or Manipulation?

Is it good marketing? Or manipulation?

Good Marketing: 28%
Manipulation: 72%

Q2. Consumers prefer salmon to have a pinky color. Fish farmers add dye pellets to the fish farms to help the salmon’s meat look more appealing to buyers. The dye does not appear to have any adverse health effects on consumers.

Can of Salmon which fish farmers feed colored food to they look more pink.

Is it good marketing? Or manipulation?

Good Marketing: 29%
Manipulation: 71%

Q3.  One car comp any formerly advertised its luxury line of cars saying that it had “Rich Corinthian leather.” “Corinthian leather” was a term coined up by the ad agency. (See the original ad here:

70s-Car-Marketed-as-having-Rich Corinthian leather

So, smart marketing or manipulation?

Good Marketing: 74%
Manipulation: 26%

Q4:  Some grocery retailers will offer the same cheese in different departments of the store for different prices.  For example, 454 g (1lb) of cheddar cheese may cost 30% more when displayed in the deli section versus the dairy section.


Survey Says
Good Marketing: 45%
Manipulation: 55%

Q5: Casinos have no clocks in the gaming areas or the bar.

Casinos have no clocks in the gaming areas or the bar.

Survey Said:
Good Marketing: 55%
Manipulation: 45%

And finally,

Q6: Disney pumps the smell of popcorn around the park entrances. Is this –

Is it good marketing? Or manipulation?

Good Marketing: 60%
Manipulation: 40%

So what can we learn from the responses? I am a marketing expert, and I took 3 lessons from this survey…

1. People are more likely to view a marketing practice as manipulation if the marketing influence is directed at the core of the product or service.

In the case of Vitamin Water, the name suggests that you should drink the stuff if you want a healthy infusion of vitamins in a bottle of water.  Who would be drinking the drink?  People who want a healthy beverage alternative.  When consumers are made aware that the “anti-health” ingredients (sugar) violate the core of the product (a healthy drink), three out of four view it as manipulation.  The same applies for the salmon example- buyers are making decisions on the quality of one fillet (the core product) over another fillet because of color.   They feel mislead over the core of the product.

When the potentially misleading tactic is directed at a non-core aspect of the product, however, it seems people are very willing to give marketers a lot of liberty.  We see this in the results from the Corinthian Leather – here, buyers don’t mind some exaggeration or even made up facts that emphasize the luxury of the product.  Of course, the high quality leather seats are just one of the features of car – no one is buying a car for its leather.

2. Property rights matter. It seems that when the buyer is on the company’s turf, there is a lot more leniencies to what the buyers find acceptable. From the responses to the popcorn smell and the casino clocks question, people view those tactics as “good marketing” – presumably because you’re on the company’s turf, and the perception is that companies can do more on their own premises than elsewhere.

The example of the dual-priced cheese is particularly interesting because it relates to both the core product (so it should be manipulative) but it is on the seller’s turf (which would indicate marketing).  Well, interestingly enough, our sample gave a close split decision.

3. One man’s good marketing is another man’s manipulation. Finally, I was surprised at the split. In  the most “manipulative” cases (Vitamin Water and pink salmon) or the best “good marketing” case (Rich Corinthian leather), there were opinions on both sides. This is somewhat surprising: I was expecting more polarized opinions, with everyone agreeing on either marketing or manipulation. But in all the cases, there were around a quarter of the people who didn’t agree with the majority. That’s not a small number, and it indicates that, at least in these cases, there is some subjectivity involved.

A few closing remarks:

There is something else related to this mini-study that needs to be addressed.  Of the millions of marketing practices used to inform and influence consumers today, only a small percentage will likely fall into the “manipulation” category.   Indeed, I had to work to find examples that would potentially fall into this category. But I believe that these techniques give the entire discipline a bad name. It’s the bad egg analogy:   If a carton of eggs has one bad egg, we’ll plunk the whole carton of eggs in the bin. And, as a marketer, I love this blog, because it exposes the bad eggs, and, in a way, force my colleagues to remain honest: there are enough tools in a marketing toolkit that we don’t need to use manipulation and risk spoiling the entire carton of eggs.