Defend Truth


What economists are learning now, marketers have (sadly) already forgotten


Jon Cherry is a business strategist and publisher whose focus is innovation and building better brands.

As behavioural economics enjoys something of a golden age, let us not forget about the legendary originator of spin.

In 2002 a psychologist by the name of Daniel Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics for proving something we all know but often overlook.

What he demonstrated to the world was that human beings who consciously think things through in a calm, rational way to arrive at a point where they make a sound judgement, do so rarely. This came as somewhat of a surprise to economists whose entire discipline is premised on the principle that people are, first and foremost, rational beings; constantly doing things entirely with the intention of maximising their preferred position in life with perfect clarity of thought. 

Kahneman, who died at the age of 90 last week, argued quite simply in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, that people use two distinct thinking styles in the process of their decision-making:

  • Fast thinking is our dominant mode of mental processing and is characterised by our immediate response to incoming stimuli; it is driven by our emotions and the subconscious mind; and
  • Slow thinking is the arduous process of actually using the conscious mind to logically work through a problem. We tend to welcome the opportunity to do slow thinking as much as we voluntarily choose to have a root canal performed; meaning that many of the decisions we end up making in our lives are made with judgement that is loaded with emotion and bias.

What was news to economists in the 21st century was, however, old hat to people working in public relations, who had been actively shaping public opinion by the engineering of consent through emotional triggers since the early 1930s.

Covert manipulation of emotions

Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, is widely regarded as the “father of public relations” thanks to his pioneering work in manipulating public opinion at scale; he invented propaganda if you will.

He sought to commercialise much of the psychoanalysis research that his famous uncle was doing, ending up a highly sought-after strategy consultant for business and political clients that included Procter and Gamble, big tobacco companies and the US government.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Africa the target of a surging disinformation tsunami, mainly generated by Russia

Bernays is credited for popularising the tradition of eating bacon and eggs for breakfast, he invented product placement in movies, he came up with the idea that cars could be sold as symbols of male sexuality and convinced women (who did not smoke very much at the time  because it was considered taboo) that exercising their agency to smoke cigarettes represented a step towards gender equality by publicly challenging that male power. 

Among his many corporate clients was Lucky Strike cigarettes and their problem was that the growing number of female smokers were not choosing to smoke Lucky Strike because their pack was green, which clashed with the predominantly dark colours of fashion in the early 1930s, a demure palette strongly influenced by the hangover from the Great Depression. 

Obviously Lucky Strike were not going to change the colour of their packaging to please the whims of women, so Bernays tried instead to change society’s attitude towards the colour green by covertly hosting a lavish Green Ball at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, which was put on by high-society women and had a strong charity theme. There was no mention of Lucky Strike’s involvement in the event. Rather it was staged purely as a “charity event” for New York’s finest debutantes. The Green Ball influenced magazine editors and designers like Elsa Schiaparelli, who were responsible for creating garments for Hollywood stars, into believing that green was the new black, and as a result, packets of green cigarettes like Lucky Strike got the cultural thumbs up and love that they deserved from influential socialites.

The strategy was designed on the understanding that people can have their opinions moulded by purposefully shifting the context in which “rational decisions” are made.

Mainstream manipulation of the irrational

Later in 1947, a young copywriter by the name of Mary Frances Gerety masterminded one of the most influential and enduring marketing strategies of the 20th century. Working through an advertising agency for De Beers that modelled their approach on the ideas pioneered by Bernays, she came up with the infamous slogan, “A diamond is forever”. By cleverly associating the symbolism of a diamond with everlasting love, De Beers invented the diamond engagement ring and transformed the entire industry. Since the campaign’s introduction the share of brides being given a diamond engagement ring in the US rose from just 10% in the 1930s to about 80% in the 1980s.

A simple, emotionally charged idea, amplified at scale by powerful Hollywood storytelling, has created and fuelled the diamond industry for the past 80 years. Today still we don’t actively analyse and question the logic behind the engagement ring, or the origins of the ritual of matrimony. Once programmed into society’s mental and cultural DNA we tend to just accept things as they are.

Read more in Daily Maverick: When journalists become stenographers of power and dominant forces

Ironically, since the early 2000s the economic sciences have traded places with marketing sciences when it comes to the cognitive position that practitioners are taking in their work. Behavioural economics is enjoying something of a golden age since the publishing of Kahneman’s work. While CMOs worldwide have become far too reliant on analytically grounded promotional tactics that sell the logic of a product choice, rather than focusing on altering the malleable landscape that touches the hearts of consumers.

Bernays’s “engineering of consent” has had an unquestionable impact on the world and yet hardly anyone has heard of him. As we reflect on Kahneman’s passing and the ideas that he gave to the world, let us not forget about the legendary originator of spin and the astonishing applications of the theory coming from both of them. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Gbone . says:

    So are you going to tell your fiancé that she is not getting a diamond engagement ring
    because it is not logical to have one?

  • The Stoic, Cynic and Epicurean says:

    Nice short summary of Daniel Kahneman’s book Jon – a great book for all to read as early as possible for people to better negotiate life and their thoughts. Fast thinking in most cases results in bad decisions, lost money, friendships, etc. But sadly it is most evident and pervasive in the consumerism of today, social media where anonymity and distance encourages fast thinking. ‘Impulsive’ or ’emotional’ buying is a manifestation of fast thinking – and it hurts most people, sometimes for life. Deciphering through the daily news tell us so. The social media pseudo experts causing carnage, just because they can, nor forethought of malice or harm whether to others or themselves. It’s their ‘freedom of expression’ they will say. Some do however practice both fast and slow thinking when it suits them, intentional or not. The Steinhoff share rollercoaster frenzy of 2016/17 is a classic case of fast thinking, brought upon by greed – pure greed and nothing more. No fundamental analysis of stock value nor the company – slow thinking would surely have highlighted many shortcomings, just as it did for the auditors. Let’s see how Trump’s newly-listed company performs – same fast thinking inflating stock prices, waiting for the fall. Sadly, fast thinking overshadows slow thinking and pervades all aspects of our lives. It is most damaging. Frankly, Kahneman’s book should be developed into a mandatory educational course for all pupils and students, even for employees. It most certainly should improve better decision-making throughout life, not only for markers.

  • John Cartwright says:

    In the 1960s the Department of English at the University of Stellenbosch devoted a great deal of thought and energy to the ‘Engels Spes’ course, taken by students who did not intend to major in English. Much of the material in this course was taken from everyday advertising (with fresh examples always available), and served the purpose of developing critical (‘slow’) thinking, while alerting students to the expressive potential of language. The Broederbond-led administration of the university were clearly suspicious of the English Department, but hadn’t figured out that developing a habit of critical thinking was not just about ‘politics’ but can be cultivated through the careful reading of advertising, not to mention the works of, for example, Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

  • Iam Fedup says:

    Great contribution Jon, and I agree with your conclusions. But I have to make one point here. It’s not that marketers have forgotten what is important. It’s that economists and scientists, (finance directors, engineers, IT executives, logistics executives, pharmacists, and so on,) have bullied marketers into compliance with their goals, and in that process they have destroyed the magic of business. Customers are miserable, as are the staff manning call-centres and similar, while, needless to say, shareholders are delighted by the short-term profits. I know. I’m not only a lifelong marketer, but also a marketing lecturer, and I can tell you that most of the really successful brands like Apple, Nando’s, Capitec, Checkers Sixty60, and most luxury brands have ignored the economists/scientists, and focused on marketing instead. It’s only recently that a handful of wise economists have actually seen the light, but by the time I retire in a few years time after 45 years in business, I pessimistically know that marketers will continue to be intimidated by the “rational” professions, whose only job is to win arguments logically – not to do what is patently correct.

    • Jon Cherry says:

      Thank you – yes, a great observation. The industry has been sold on the allure of ROI and are now too afraid to venture beyond its grip.

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