In the Christian economy, observes C.S. Lewis, everyone works “to produce something good.” No one purchases or produces “silly luxuries” or uses “sillier advertisements to persuade us to buy them.” Lewis, of course, wrote in the mid-twentieth century, soon after the birth of Mr. Potato Head, the Hula-Hoop, and, not insignificantly, Donald J. Trump.
Since those days, some elements of advertising have undoubtedly improved. Today, for example, we no longer see zingers like, “More doctors smoke Camels!” or “For a better start in life start Cola earlier!” Yet, since 1971, alcohol advertising expenditures have increased some 400 percent. And, in the past four years alone, Coca-Cola dumped the equivalent of MIT’s entire endowment on convincing people to consume beverages that list “carbonated water” and “high fructose corn syrup” as top ingredients.
However, it’s not merely the magnitude of marketing that’s most troubling but its increasing subtlety and slyness.
Earlier this year, after Payton Manning and the Broncos won the Super Bowl, the star quarterback twice mentioned Budweiser beer in postgame interviews. “What’s weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth,” he oddly announced from the winner’s podium. It turns out Manning is the partial owner of two Anheuser-Busch distributors.
And then there’s Donald J. Trump. “It’s very possible” Trump observed more than a decade back, “that I could be the first presidential candidate to run and make money on it.” Perhaps trying to make good on the prediction, last week Trump finished his 10th campaign event at one of his many personally branded luxury properties. Pretty good advertising if you can get it.
Trump and Payton, of course, are not unique. In their critically acclaimed book, "Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception," Nobel laureates George Akerlof and Robert Shiller detail the way so-called “phishers” (those aggressively angling for our money) increasingly use sophisticated data to capitalize on our psychological fallibility: “modern statistical techniques now tell marketers and advertisers … when and how to phish, just as modern techniques in geology tell the oil and gas companies where and how to drill.” According to Akerlof and Shiller, when our guard is down our pocketbooks are too often open.
One form of “phishing” plays out in the grocery store checkout line. A mother or father helplessly wrestles two children while placing food on the conveyer belt. Suddenly, the children see a wall of sweets strategically placed next to the cashier. We all know what happens next. In the pressure of the line the parent is more susceptible to capitulating to the child’s candy craving.
To be fair, many consumers are pleased that stores place mints or chewing gum conveniently at the checkout line, and not all product placements or commercials are nefarious setups to game consumers. Indeed, there are a variety of societal benefits to product placement and commercials — including supporting my salary.
Uncomfortable jokes aside, companies that advertise can help make consumers aware of potentially beneficial products about which they would otherwise be ignorant. The problem, however, arises when businesses cease to persuasively present choices to consumers and instead begin to exploit human fallibility and seek to gain at the customer’s expense.
While candy at the grocery store seems rather innocuous, more serious culprits include purveyors of affinity fraud, aggressive alcohol vendors, cigarette companies, high-interest credit card peddlers, deceptive financiers, casinos, pornographers, fraudulent cult leaders, power-hungry politicians and some multi-level marketing companies, to name a few.
The solution, according to Akerlof and Shiller, is not always government regulation. Savvy consumerism and self-regulation often work best. While companies such as Angie’s List or Trip Advisor have popped up as self-styled antidotes to various kinds of “phishing,” individually we can combat "phishing" by simply acknowledging that we are all prone to irrational purchases. Proper planning goes a long way toward a solution. If candy in the checkout line is a temptation, we can make a habit of using self-checkout lines where stores typically do not to stock it.
Alerlof and Shiller suggest that we all act as if we have “monkeys on our shoulders” constantly tempting us to buy things we don’t need. Acknowledging the monkeys allows us to then combat them by buying based on deliberation and not impulse.
While there is undoubtedly a place for public policy in instances of serious fraud and deception, when it comes to being duped by slick marketing we can all become more disciplined consumers and prudent purchasers. Only then will we begin to glimpse something of Lewis’ Christian economy. In the interim, caveat emptor — buyer beware.
Hal Boyd is the opinion editor of the Deseret News. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: Halrboyd