Archive for the 'marketing' Category


The History of Western Civilization Through Social Media

The history of western civilization, as far as I can tell, is the substitution of institutional, coercive, control over people’s lives with diffused, softer, and “social” controls. First, the church, your lord, your husband, and the difficulty of human life ruled over you. Very few people had power to direct their lives each day as they saw fit, and the power that they had to direct others was stern and violent. Remember, legal courts are a comparatively new thing. If someone didn’t like what you did, it was likely that they would just kill you themselves or find someone with power that looked out for them and have them kill you.

Then the church lost its power and slowly but surely, over the course of roughly two hundred years, individuals won the right to practice the religion that they saw fit. But the freedom from excommunication and being burned at the stake by the church was replaced by legal requirements instituted by various governments, and then even those slowly died away as society finally realized the ability to. In a way, religion might be our collective sneak peek at what happens to ALL institutions and systems of value. First, they rule everything, then they are up to the state, then up to the economy, then up to the individual, and then they cease to matter altogether (as I believe will largely happen to religion, or will it have staying power? That would be interesting to see). One might say that a system of values starts its death the moment that those who believe in it cannot summarily kill those who do not.

The same thing happened with the economy. First, people owed their labor to their lord. In fact, there was slavery at the beginning of most societies, but the intermediate step was serfdom or vassalage. A huge class of people created food so that others might live. Then property became somewhat more democratized in that more people could own it, but land was still largely restricted to certain people and labor was still largely immobilized by the difficulty of travel and the power of nobles of all stripes. Also, taxes were set up to almost make sure that certain people could never participate in the economy. In France, the nobles were the ones who DIDN’T have to pay taxes for a long time, because they just didn’t want to and the king did not want to tangle with them. Today, everyone can have property to roughly the same degree. If you have the money and the skills, you can get land, cash, machines, information. Anything you want. If you have the cash. (Addendum: this trend is further backed up by a short look at the history of lending. The dispersion of capital into the economy has massively democratized access to $$)

Same thing happened with the state. At first, the state was nothing more than a group of people who had weapons or commanded the power of other people with weapons. Offending the laws of a place was a good way to die. Since that brutal starting point, the legal controls on the average person have loosened in a host of ways (though they still exist). For one thing, people can now elect their rulers. They play a role in who will rule them, to some degree. That is the legacy of the advance of democracy. Also, the state cannot do certain things. That’s never really true in practice, but there are much more barriers to outright discrimination, pogroms, and the like then in the past. That is the legacy of liberalism. Finally, breaking the law is almost never a ticket to death. There are courts, appeals courts, and finally prisons. There are many, many MORE laws because society has become so much more complex, but they do not carry the absolute and unbending character that they used to.


In this post though, I want to focus on the economy at large. Here again, we are witnessing a substitution of one type of obvious power with a more subtle more dispersed power. The example I’m thinking of is social media and the internet. As the economy had evolved up until the 20th century, people were entitled to property of various kind by paying for it. The problem was that if one didn’t have money, one became poor. If you were poor before public transportation, you had to find a ride another way. If you were poor before food stamps and the like, you were hungry (soup kitchens being the exception).

But these days, a lot of things are eliminating that barrier by providing things for free. For example, news is now free, because sites provide them along with advertisements. Facebook is free, because they want you to give them all your personal information. Thousands of other services are provided not for a monetary cost (the old way of restricting people to goods), but by transacting over someone’s personal data.

This fits with western civilization thus far. Goods and services are made available to more and more people. Yay! Anyone can go to and read pretty high quality writing about a range of interesting topics. Anyone can connect with friends and family via google voice, facebook, email, and on and on. The tradeoff though is made in terms of less understood and “softer” forms of restriction. Cynicism is the name for this and I predict it will grow as an extremely unhealthy force in our society.

In the old economy, if I wanted to buy steel, and you wanted to sell it to me, I knew why you wanted to sell it to me. You wanted my money. This was a type of honesty. As many have pointed out, it was also callous, since I didn’t care about you, but only your money. I maintain though that because everyone knew that money was the trade off, it created an activity and a respect similar to sports. If I played you in basketball, I know you wanted to win, but we both knew the purpose of our interaction. Same with negotiations and creating business. People know what they are getting into when they enter the marketplace. They expect to engage in economic competition (as I’ve argued elsewhere, the value of this competition is exactly the reason we need public education and wealth redistribution, so that this competition is meaningful). But now, when you go to get something, there is an element of fakery that breeds cynicism. Rather than posting a price that Facebook expects you to pay, it plays an ongoing game that most people do not KNOW ABOUT or PAY ATTENTION TO regarding what they will and will not do with your information. They want badly to do whatever they want, but they are bound to care about the community because they need the “community” to continue to extract the information that it needs. Thus there is a very amorphous dance that goes on about the service and what it entails rather than a price transaction which focuses the consumer on what they are buying. This type of transaction makes it very clear to the consumer what they are giving up.

The same things goes for news sites that make money through eyeballs. Rather than asking you to pay for what you read if you like it, there are now gadgets an procedures at every turn to keep your eyeballs on the site. Such things can be distractions, redirects, and prettier and prettier advertisements. But the point is simply to deluge you with advertisements. This is much less callous than simply asking a price, but it’s much more insulting. The purchase of things is becoming indirect. Rather than trying to get your money, facebook wants you to be willing to make it easier for someone ELSE to get your money.


Private Eyes

They’re watching you. Hall and Oates, “Private Eyes

Saw this article today, and I found it interesting. As a bonus, it mentions chat roulette, which I wrote about here.

Anyway, this article is about some app called “color” (no idea why its called that) which apparently lets you take pictures that are automatically sent to people within 100 feet of you.

Apparently some people are concerned that there is a privacy issue, but I really don’t see the issue. I mean, if you download the app, then you will receive pictures, but I’m not sure what that reveals ABOUT YOU. Also, if you take pictures, they are automatically shared with the people are you. I guess there is the risk that you might snap a picture of your individual surroundings which is then broadcast (kind of a strange word, given the area it goes to. Do you know how small a circle with a 100 sq. ft radius is? ) to others.

I mean, there is also the idea that the device records your location, but it’s only relayed to people who are right on top of you anyway. Also, this thing isn’t something “running in the background.” If you’re taking photos with this thing, it seems like you probably have a pretty whimsical disposition, and hence are on alert that you shouldn’t be documenting your intimate moments.

Also, isn’t everyone just going to take lewd pictures of themselves. Is this the ultimate sketchy flirtation tool? I don’t know. I hope it gets integrated to four square so that you can only “check in” to a place by taking naked pictures of yourself.  That would really change the dynamic of that site.

(side note: I’m using four square as if everyone knows what it is, and I think that’s a pretty safe assumption, since I think I was one of the last people to find out about this ridiculous HYPERMARKETING tool.)

I’ve heard people say that my generation has been very complacent about internet privacy concerns and that in the future, there is going to be a backlash against so much un-regulated information sharing.

I don’t know what to think about this, but I think people my age couldn’t care less about internet privacy issues, and if anything it seems like they will care less and less as we see how totally awesome the internet is when people can design things to take advantage of information without waivers and whatever.


Value the Meal

I recently got involved with a group called corporate accountability international and their current campaign to try and limit fast food advertising to kids (the title of the campaign is “value the meal”). The idea is that Ronald Mcdonald influences kids and gets them to buy more hamburgers, making them fat and causing other health problems to boot. (for you SM readers, this is a campaign John Stewart is working closely with, so check it out).

When I was approached about helping, I couldn’t help philosophize a little bit about this campaign and its tactics, and one thing that struck me is what I’ll call the inverse relation between change and justice.

This campaign makes a lot of sense I think. It doesn’t strive for a fat tax, new laws, or a new federal agency to monitor food companies. In fact, it’s not even trying to shut fast food companies down or even hurt their profits (though it might do that as a side effect, and it may intentionally strive to hurt the fast food industry in the future, I don’t know). Rather, its goal (right now) is very simple; it simply wants companies to advertise less to kids because kids, as we all know, can’t make informed choices to the degree others can, and so are at risk of being induced to eat more unhealthy food than they otherwise would, making them sick.

Notice how this limited goal nicely sidesteps complaints about “parental responsibility.” Some people say that fast food companies should be given free rein to sell whatever they want to whoever they want and that parents have an obligation to make sure their kids are healthy. I doubt this position is supportable, but EVEN IF IT IS, this campaign does not call it into question since it does not ask for any fines or legislation to be aimed at fast food restaurants. In other words, pretend that 100 parents who live near a mcdonalds decide to be very active in making sure their kids eat health. They serve only healthy food around the house, but face a question about what to do when their kids are out in the neighborhood. They can EITHER install shock collars on their kids at all times that prevent them from walking into the mcdonalds more than a certain number of times in the week OR try and organize so that less commercials reach their children, thus lowering their appetite for mcdonalds. Pretend that they do decide its easier just to protest until mcdonalds stops marketing to kids, then they have SUCCEEDED in their parental obligation. People who are working for this campaign are thus not trivializing or bypassing parental obligation, but working to meet this obligation.

However, let me return to my theme: that there is an inverse relationship between change and justice. There is almost no question that this is a worthwhile campaign, but at the same, the likely impact might be modest. If mcdonalds stops advertising to kids, will it advertise more to adults, who then may take their kids to mcdonalds more? Also, what are the reasons for kids getting too fat? Is it the MARKETING of fast food companies, or is it complicated sociological and economic factors like the fact that fast food is fast and cheap and that the U.S. has no established eating or cooking culture unlike nearly every other part of the world? This question about the amount of change the campaign will do is especially pressing to me since I don’t think there is much evidence that advertising can change the demand curve for people. In other words, I think commercials usually reveal information rather than making someone desire something more.

So, to conclude, the point is this. When you do something that is almost certainly acceptable and probably morally good, then its likely that you aren’t changing things that much. Big changes, almost always, are much more controversial. For example, pretend you were advocating a calorie tax instead of just ending fast food marketing. The amount of change you could get with a step would probably be enormous, but its much more objectionable. For example, it might make people less able to afford food or more likely toskimp on important vitamins. This is not to say big changes are necessarily wrong (think of civil rights, which was an earth shattering change to the status quo, but a slam dunk from the perspective of moral reasoning), but just that often, the bigger the change, the more carefully one has to think about the ramifications and more likely the change will need a careful and thoughtful defense.

Anyway, after all this philosophizing, I jumped on board with the project, because sometimes excessive thinking can be a perverse kind of paralysis in itself. For me, the gains of democratic activism, community participation, and consciousness raising about obesity far outweighed my ivory tower doubts about whether this campaign would change American life as we know it. Rather, it will make some kind of positive difference, and that is enough for me.


Toy Wars

I finally came to the conclusion of Toy Wars by G. Wayne Miller.

The book is a journalistic but also historical account of large toy companies in America, with the primary focus being Hasbro, a Rhode Island company that has been owned by the Hassenfeld family for more than 60 years now.

This book is mainly about the latest leader of the company, Alan Hassenfeld, who tries to take the reins of the company after his business genius brother, Stephen, died of AIDS.

What I give this book credit for is that it moves nicely between ideas. There’s history, there’s financial wall street stuff, there’s water cooler talk and then back to history. This movement makes sure things don’t get boring.

Also, some of the stories here are just plain interesting. Barbie was originally a kind of sex toy for dirty German men…yea, weird. That’s why she’s so utterly nordic, or teutonic. G.I. also had an interesting history and the brand quite literally died during the 90s due to the collapse of communism. The marketers could not make a coherent “story” for G.I. Joe that would capture the interest of young kids, and one can only hear echoes of politicians at this same time seeking a narrative to justify defense spending and other defense research.

In the background of this book too is always electronics. Toys were big business, before kids started playing videogames, and the market was never the same, but this book doesn’t quite go there.

The downsides of this book is that it leaves things unresolved (the ending is just Alan Hassenfeld deciding what to do next as the head of his toy empire) and doesn’t really do a whole to unify things. It also doesn’t really attempt to ferret out interesting social connections. Some are there just because I knew so little about the area and so couldn’t be missed, but other times, you think just a little research one way or another would have opened a new avenue for thinking about things.

All in all, this is very fluffy non-fiction that dances through some new territory for the average reader.


Where did all the bullies go?

One thing I’m fascinated by is the presence of evil in society. I don’t mean to be melodramatic about this. Evil is just my catch all term for badness that is generated intentionally (or even unintentionally) by humans.

What interests me is the way that bad behavior gets changed in the course of a lifetime, how it spills into every nook and cranny of daily routine, and often how it takes a hidden, but nonetheless costly toll on human development.

This is not Foucault’s point about power becoming exercised on such minute levels, because his is a thesis about freedom, which tries to give the idea of values and rationality. I on the other hand subscribe to both, and so am trying to develop a thesis about right conduct.

Anyway I’ll cut to the chase. When we’re young, there are bullies — completely unreasonable people that confront our developing minds with an interesting phenomenon: that there is evil for evil’s sake (even if the evil they intend is not meant to be enormous, it may just  be a hurt feeling, a scratched arm, etc.) There are people who really do desire to hurt other people, and are often quite good at doing so. But then this leads to my title question, where do all the bullies go?

Something happens as we grow older. In one way, the bullies are still there, abusive unreasonable people are everywhere. But in another way, they disappear, because such people are no longer thought to be judgeable in terms that we used to describe jungle-gym tyrants and dodgeball duces. They are just “hard to work with” or “unpleasant” and even these people seem to get fewer and fewer. Most people are neutral, they’ll help you out if things look grim, but otherwise, they’ll walk by.

I think though, that just as mass society takes power and spread it out amongst people, it spread mean-spiritedness and cruelty out as well and makes everyone into a little bit of a bully. Often this role is played by “the man” in popular imagination: landlords, company executives, police, politicians, parents. But again, I’m not talking about power, but  about civility, politeness, respect, and tolerance which effect all relationships.  In these, two often, the becomes an element of cruelty of difficulty, and it’s so subtle that I confess, it’s not easy for me to draw out what I have in mind. Things like bragging at a party to someone you know just got laid off, or ignoring someone you find boring at a party, only to see him/her floundering in the corner for lack of a conversation partner. Not saying thank you to someone who holds the door for you,  staring at strangers, and sarcasm. Now, you say, these are little things and don’t deserve much attention. It’s much better, you continue, for us to worry about doing the big things that matter such as paying taxes, not hurting others, and rescuing people in extreme need of help. But this is my point, or rather, my question, what is the toll that such small acts of disrespect? What sorts of inferiority to they promulgate and how do these feelings get replayed in grander and more obvious forms of evil? Now, this is a purely psychological question, but one which may take on a moral dimension as the more flashy types of wrongdoing are slowly ground into finer and finer powder, so that pain and suffering grinds down individuals by small insults and snubs.

Here’s an example: advertising. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with it. Advertising lets us know about products we want and also acts to fund things we want to do by imposing a cost that many seem willing to bear. But advertisements are insulting at some level too. They try to weedle and cajole, infantilize and deceive, and by now, in such predictable ways.

In short, there’s a whole micro-world out there of abuse, and it may become the largest barrier to making large improvements in our world.


Interactive commercials

I was watching hulu the other day and before the show started, there was  a car commercial which had three options (three different Fords if I remember correctly), and I had to pick one. If I didn’t pick, the commercial would continue for another 15 seconds and then select one automatically.

I don’t know who came up with this, but it’s brilliant in two respects.

First, the commercial allows the company doing the advertising to trade time for attention. Usually, no one pays much attention to a commercial, but the prospect of waiting an additional 15 seconds for my show just made me click one of the cars. I could of course picked arbitrarily, but, being forced to pick made me at least briefly consider which car I should select.

Second, and this may not be a reality yet, but market research can get done by recording how many people click on different options. Essentially, this is another way of getting input on products.

Will these innovations raise or lower the cost of advertising? Hard to say because there are competing effects. Interactive advertising is more valuable than regular advertising so it might be more expensive, but if users click through the advertisements, then the supply of ad time might increase. So from the demand side we should expect a price increase, but looking at the supply side, we should expect a price decrease.


impulse buys

Sometimes it’s scary to think about how psychology can help various companies sell more of their product.

Just the other day I was walking in a computer hardware store and there was candy  near the register. Almost every place in the world that one can shop at has candy and tabloids and magazines near the register. The idea is that these things cost so little, and are so near the place where payment is due, that its easy to spring for them and then pay for them before finding out, under calmer circumstances, that the twix bar you just bought wasn’t worth the 1.25 you just paid for it (and for tabloids, well, I just have no idea how they could ever be worth their price).