Wholesome Marketing Ideas, Bite Size

Wholesome marketing ideas, bite size

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Upside of Useless Stuff

In the May 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Dan Ariely makes the case for Marketing. 
Dan sent me the piece, indicating that we can republish it for the readers of Just Marketing with the mention that it was first published in HBR.

Dan Ariely is a well-known behavioral economist at Duke University. Dan studies how people actually act in the marketplace, as opposed to how they should or would perform if they were completely rational. His work has been published in leading psychology, economics, and business journals, and he serves on a number editorial review boards. Dan is the author of  “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions” and "The Upside of Irrationality." He is also a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, and President elect of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making. He is currently working on a new book titled Dining Without Crumbs: The Art of Eating Over the Sink. Read Dan Ariely’s blog, PredictablyIrrational.com.
Watch videos of Dan Ariely’s ideas including “What is Morality?” and “Are faith and religion irrational?”

There's been plenty of talk lately --in these pages and elsewhere-- about a new kind of capitalism. About creating things because they're good for society. About understanding, as Michael Porter and Mark Kramer suggest ("Creating Shared Value," HBR January-February 2011), that not all profits are created equal: Profits derived from making the world better are superior to those derived from the consumption of useless, or even harmful, junk.

At the risk of touching the third rail, I propose that getting people to want things they don't really need may be far more valuable to society than we think.

Imagine that I started a business selling beautiful bottles of air for $10. I'd call them Respirer (res-pir-AY-- it's French!). My advertisements would laud Respirer's purity, evoking bracing mountain air. (Fewer than 10 parts per trillion of particulate in every bottle!) Celebrities would endorse Respirer's rejuvenating effects. (Kate Winslet starts every day with Respirer!) In a matter of months, department stores would be selling out, and spas would brag that their saunas piped in pure Respirer air.

Respirer would be a runaway hit. Of course, it would be just air, and in most places you could get all the reasonably high-quality air you wanted free. So how could this clearly useless product have a beneficial effect on the economy? It would motivate people. By hyping Respirer, I'd give consumers something to want, and in order to be able to afford it, they'd have to work. They'd have to be productive.

We often talk about how marketing's job is to get us to want things and spend our money, sometimes foolishly. But that reflects only marketing's output. Marketing also creates input: It spurs us to work to earn the money to buy the things we want.

Consider for a moment a world without marketing hype. One in which there's nothing you really desire beyond what you need to live. There's nothing your kids want; they don't bug you every time you're in the supermarket. How hard would you work in such a world? What would motivate you to work harder?

Now consider our current consumer environment: Multiply the desire for Respirer by thousands of products of varying levels of utility: iPads, leather couches, crystal martini glasses, cars, garden gnomes. It's like having thousands of little motivational speakers hovering around us.

Suppose I'm a surgeon. Could it be that my desire for Respirer, and all this other stuff, would spur me to work harder? To innovate new procedures that would save lives and also enrich me personally? I suspect it's very likely.

Let's be clear. I don't mean to say that marketing will save our economy. Or that marketing things we don't need is the key to a prosperous planet. The line is narrow, indeed, between being motivated to work and mortgaging the future (both your own and society's) to get stuff like bottled air.

Still, as we continue to redefine capitalism, let's not discount the role of aspiration and the desire for incremental luxuries--things we want but don't necessarily need. They can fuel productivity and thus have a valuable function in our economy.

Originally published in Harvard Business Review, May 2011.
Ariely Photo Source Page


Steven Ritchie said...

I think this article is really interesting, examining marketing's purpose to sell something that we may not need, but desire. However, I don't think that the surgeon creating some additional SOCIAL benefit to be a fair example "to innovate new procedures that would save lives". I think that most motivation would be purely monetary and further fuelling the capitalism, not necessarily inspiring social innovation or "greater change."

People will be more interested in making more money for themselves so they can get what they want. If they happen to benefit others during this process, that is a byproduct of their desires but I don't know if we can be fooled into thinking they have some altruistic intentions and that they wish to help first, prosper later.

Just my opinion.

AJ said...

In my opinion separating products in such as dichotomous way as either adding value to society or not is illogical. The reality is a continuum of products which vastly add value to our society to total useless products which harm our society and the majority fall in-between.

Like all great argument makers, you’ve interwoven (for the most part) sound logic which is easy to accept with a newer idea which is less easy to accept on its own.
I will agree marketing drives desire which causes people to want money thus they work harder within the economy thus benefiting society. But you argue that marketing useless things is great, but when marketing is applied to social value added items its even greater. Marketing could have the same driving effect for non-value adding, semi useful or socially amazing products. This is the part I see as hard to swallow, why would convincing people to buy a useless product like air as opposed to even a semi useful product like a cell phone be better?
Let me plug for a minute the University of Western Ontario’s Biz 2257 feasibility project. For the project students need to come up with a business idea and show how they could feasibility make it a reality. A few years ago my group sat down to choose an idea, it came down to 2 ideas bounce castles or environmentally friendly pens. My group member said” No matter what we choose I’ll be able to sell it!”. To which I replied “ So then we should sell the better product”.