It’s fun to talk about corporate manipulations or how some entities are slowly taking over the legislative process in the US, but sometimes it’s also fun to kick back and just look around to see some pretty basic – but cool nonetheless – manipulations around us. Hence, introducing the first installment of our Everyday Manipulation Roundup!
Let’s start with a game that you all have probably played at one time or another.
Most people know Monopoly. It’s a game that’s been around since 1935, and while Hasbro has always suggested that it was a game made by an unemployed salesman, it was actually lifted pretty much wholesale from another game called the Landlord’s Game, a 1904 game made by a Quaker, actually. A Quaker woman. But that’s not the point. The point was that, in the Landlord’s Game, there was a crucial second round after all the properties were bought. The whole point of the Landlord’s Game was to show how evil monopolies were, and how landlord profited unfairly from tenants, which is what the second round was all about. Hasbro basically removed the last round and created the game as we know it today (they did pay the original inventor $500, on the plus side), where the goal of the game is to build a monopoly. Basically, every game of Monopoly in the world today is essentially the exact opposite of what the game was originally meant to highlight.
What’s that? You don’t play Monopoly? Well, do you drink Coke?
Coke pretty much started out as a manipulation, as it was sold as a ‘cure all’ drink that could heal depression, physical ailments, and many, many more things. Today, it spends $2.5B on marketing to make sure that its image is polished and wholesome, but it is a company that still hearkens back to its manipulative origins once in a while. In the 1990s, for example, Coke began to worry about market saturation, and decided to focus on the clients of tomorrow – children. Marketers believed that brand attachments form early on, and so decided to not wait for children to go to them, but rather go to the children themselves. And since children were in school, Coke decided to focus on “pouring contracts“. Pouring contracts were essentially payoffs – in exchange for money paid to the school, the school agreed to serve Coke elusively on the premise (often excluding juices, for example, or bottled water of various types). The company spent millions of dollars on these pouring contracts, and they largely worked, at least in the US – an entire generation of consumers grew up on Coke products and became new consumers.
Not a big coke drinker, eh? Well, do you like tanning?
Sunscreen creams have always been a little dubious. The SPF factor, for example, is supposed to reflect how much longer you can stay out with the cream than without. An SPF of 10, for example, means that you can stay out 10X longer with the cream than without. Execpt, of course, when it doesn’t – most high SPF factors are meaningless. An SPF of 100, for example, means exactly nothing. It turns out that lotion companies can pretty much put anything they want on their labels.
Another example is “broad spectrum protection”. You’ve seen the label, and probably assumed that it meant that the lotion protected you from UVa and UVb rays, right? Turns out it doesn’t. UVb is what creates burn (and the protection that the SPF rating was originally meant to measure). UVa is responsible for skin cancer. The bad news is that lotions don’t tend to block UVa, and, even worse, most lotions use chemicals which are increasingly linked to various skin cancers. But since “does not protect from skin cancer and may actually cause a fair number of them” does not sound as cool as “broad spectrum protection”, manufacturers decided to go with the latter.
Hm… You don’t tan much, you say? Well, you do eat breakfast, right?
Ever wonder why they came up with “Froot” instead of fruit? Well, it was their legal department, not their marketing department, that came up with the great name. It turns out that you can’t actually call your cereal “Fruit” something unless there are actual fruits in it. Most of Froot Loops is actually sugar (41%, actually, but you get the idea), not fruits, so calling it Fruit Loops would have generated more lawsuits than you could count. So Kellogg’s had to come up with a name that would evoke fruits without actually being fruit… and thus was “Froot” born. Sounds like fruit, without all that nasty legal exposure. Even Froot Loops has generated its fair share of lawsuits, but so far they have not lost many of them, and the name has stuck around.
So, not a big fan of breakfast either… Okay, maybe you have a baby?
Johnson’ Baby Shampoo has been a sign of wholesome, safe product for what seems like forever. And the shampoo is great – it doesn’t sting the eyes, which is the main reason that parents use it for their babies. Annoyingly, though, the shampoo contains a number of chemicals that cause cancer. Several groups have asked the company to remove the chemicals, to which the company has said that a) the chemicals are probably not cancer-causing, and b) eventually, they will get rid of them. Both those answers are ironic, because the same company already makes the same shampoo, minus the whole cancer-causing chemicals:
The downside? The cancer-free one is twice as expensive as the normal one.
Not all the manipulation is ill-intentioned, by the way. Take your average cell phone, for example. A simple screen has two subtle manipulations. Let’s focus on one of them:
A fully charged phone, fresh off the charger, will read 100% on the battery meter, of course. It’s what we expect, after all. Unfortunately, batteries actually don’t like to store their full charge – it damages the battery. So most batteries are programmed to charge fully and then discharge around a tenth of their charge. That is their stable rest state. So a freshly charged phone is always at 90% of charge, never at 100%. But if manufacturers showed ‘90%’ when the phone had been charging for hours, many, many of their customers would return their phones, claiming that the battery was malfunctioning. On the other hand, if manufacturers simply shifted the whole scale by 10% (i.e. 90% shows up as 100%, 20% shows up as 30%, etc…) then the phones would shut down when they got to 10%, another way to get angry customers to return their phones.
So manufactures hit upon a fairly subtle manipulation. They basically program the phone to show “100%” when it is at its stable, 90% full state. Once the customer takes the phone off the charger, the phone is programmed to show a quick decline to 90% charge, so within a short time the real charge and the shown charge is the same. Essentially, the phone is programmed to manipulate the user into believing that the battery behaves as the customer believes it should, not as it actually works. That way, there are far fewer angry customers to deal with, and everyone is happy. Some of us notice that the phone’s first 10% seems to go quickly, but we usually don’t care enough to form angry mobs about it.
So let’s say that you decide that all of this is depressing, and you decide to go to a bar for a drink. You’re not exactly safe from manipulation here either. Notice the loud music? It’s there mostly because it’s been found that people drink more when they have trouble talking. See, a bar with very low music essentially becomes a lounge, and lounging people don’t drink. But a very loud bar discourages people from talking, and instead, they drink. A lot. Which is good for the bar, hence the universal loud music. It’s the same reason that bars keep the lights low (we tend to drink more when we can’t see the person clearly), and, as a bonus, it hides any dirt that the bartender might have missed.
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Many people believe that they are too smart, too aware to be manipulated. They are educated, read newspapers, are informed, don’t watch Fox News, and as a result see themselves immune from some of the large scale manipulations that we’ve discussed in the past. But manipulation is ubiquitous – there are examples that are hard to spot all around us, all day long. They are not major manipulations, and in some cases they are actually beneficial, but they are there, and most of us won’t spot them unless we’re looking for them – which makes them ideal manipulations!