Is marketing all about placebos?

“Placebos pose dilemmas for marketers, too. Their profession requires them to create perceived value. Hyping a product beyond what can be objectively proved is – depending on the degree of hype – stretching the truth or outright lying. But we’ve seen that the perception of value, in medecine, soft drinks, drugstore cosmetics, or cars, can become real value. If people actually get more satisfaction out of a product that has been hyped, has the marketer done anything worse than sell the sizzle along with the steak? As we start thinking more about placebos and the blurry boundary between beliefs and reality, these questions become more difficult to answer.” (Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, London, p. 190-191)

Ariely’s quote puzzles me, because he makes me think about what the hell I’m doing. Am I really creating something out of nothing? Am I making the world seem brighter? And if I do so, and it has a positive effect on people, should I still care?

To me, marketing and communication have always been about touching the senses in as many ways as you can, rocking back and forth between sense (information), sensitivity (caring for the world and your environment), sensualism (heightening your sense of life) and sensation (pushing your experiences to the limit). What we make happening, is real. The sensation, the thrill, the feeling of relief, that’s what we try to convey. If a customer experiences this, we’ve realised our goal.

But what’s next? Can the product or service we promote live up to that experience? It seems like experience-marketing made this question redundant. While brandmarketing was much more about creating an imaginative world around something unsubstantial as a brand, experience marketing is about hands-on experiences with whatever you are selling, whether it is a service or a product or even an idea. It’s about delivering an instantaneous satisfaction to your future customers even before they have bought the product. So if you’re already letting them use your product, then what am I worrying about? What you experience, is what you get, right?

Not really. There’s a difference between making people see the value of a product and creating perceived value. The first is all about translating USPs into benefits. Product A can do this, which means it will save you a lot of time so you can do more of xyz. That kind of thing.

Creating perceived value is a trickier thing, especially when it comes to marketing people like presidential candidates. Where do you draw the line between showing what’s good about a person (or a service or product) and making it look good? With a candidate you’re at no point statistically sure he or she can live up to what you’re promising. To be a little cynical: you almost know it’s impossible to live up to what you’re promising. But the premise to start campaigning – which is the same premise any good marketeer uses – is that you yourself believe in what you’re selling. If you don’t, you’re already lying from the start. Suppose you do believe in something and you get it wrong afterwards,then apparantly you have nothing to blame yourself for. Apparently. After all, the placebo got the best of you, right?

I’m not talking about making something out of nothing here. That is something you can’t without lying. I’m talking about making something better which is actually just good. Sometimes you want to take people to another level, and actually inspire them to become better (which is easier for a service than for a product). This might be the ultimate marketing dream. You add perceived value because you believe (or even demand) you’re client will and can live up to it eventually.

I have the feeling I’m walking in circles here. The problem here is that there’s knowing and knowing. For most of our knowledge, we simply have to trust our senses. And because marketing is essentially a people’s business, trusting your senses and using your senses is crucial.

Human knowledge consists as much of rational input as of experiential input. Placebos meddle with both because one depends on the other and vice versa. Sometimes that’s a good thing. A placebo can get us where ratio would never let us. Sometimes it’s not and placebos keep us from seeing what’s working and what’s not.

I get the feeling as well that looking for a way out is simply asking the wrong question. Then again, what is the right question to ask here? I currently have no answer. But maybe in this kind of situation, it’s the best answer you can get.

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