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Reverse Logic
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Consumers Should Be Smarter Shoppers Today, But Are They?

It happens every time. The moment those E.D. drug commercials list the possible side-effects: dry mouth, muscle weakness, nausea and, oh yes, erections lasting for more than four hours. I laugh out loud (or did the first hundred times I saw it).

Isn't it like cigarette ads warning that smoking could attract fast girls, or that eating fattening foods lets obese people outsource more of their healthcare costs? A four-hour erection isn't a warning, it's a happy dream. Like that potato chip commercial says, you can't stop eating 'em.

This illustrates the challenge of communicating risks and rewards to consumers. I think we'd all agree that people deserve to know what they're getting into, whether they’re buying a technology gizmo, home mortgage, or medicinal miracle. Laws and regulations require as much; so do the expectations of Internet search, which should allow us to discover whether sawdust finds its way into hotdogs or BBQ lighter fluid melts brain cells. Or whatever.

I just wonder if consumers are making reasoned decisions today easier or more often than they did, say, a generation ago.

If not, it's partially marketers' fault. Successfully informing consumers can sometimes mean educating them, which is such a thankless activity that most brands choose instead to play to consumers' fears, misperceptions and, sometimes, their stupidity. Insurance marketers have all but given up trying to tell people that coverage is a far more important deciding factor than price (Allstate's recent "Mayhem" commercials being a notable exception). Oil companies duck the challenge to educate consumers that the gunk pretty much runs or makes everything they enjoy in life (imagine if BP had chosen to brand itself "Better Petroleum" and spent 10 years helping us understand why oil is a necessary evil, if nothing else). Cosmetics marketers play to the worst fears of aging women and profit therefrom. Nothing new here, however, and no cardinal sins committed.

The dance between savvy marketers and governments that try to keep pace with them is a bit darker.

The latest findings regarding public health (and the occasional election favor) prompt detailed rules for disclosure on lots of products and services, especially when the authorities think the information should give reason to pause. Calories. Saturated fats. Rabbits blinded in product testing. The likelihood that mood-altering substances can cause one to crash a car or forklift. Using this thing will kill you, like the warnings on cigarette packaging in the UK. The problem is that there's always a way to obfuscate this information...serving sizes, a different context (sugary cereal as part of a balanced breakfast, anybody?) and, like the warnings on liquor and E.D. drugs, er, elevation of warnings that all but turns them into hopeful promises. And like I said earlier, sometimes telling people why something is dangerous comes across as a good thing.

Maybe the ultimate rule is also the oldest: caveat emptor? The Internet should make this easier for consumers to realize, shouldn't it? I mean, c'mon, the availability of effectively infinite information should make people smart, discerning, and unforgiving.

Not really. Now we know that everything will harm or kill us, somehow or eventually. This realization makes us lazy and confused.

How many of those "terms and conditions" proclamations on your computer have you read before clicking that you agree? What about the multi-page printout from your pharmacist that accompanies your favorite prescription drug refill, or the mailers you get periodically from your bank or insurer outlining the endless edits they've made to your service agreement? If you're like me, you click, crumple, and move on. Warnings via mouseprint are just lists of how brands are going to screw us over, and unless we're ready to stop using a credit card or browsing online. We're kinda stuck.

There's a reason why consumers don’t trust brands, irrespective of how much time said businesses spend talking to them via fun social media conversations. The conversation that matters -- i.e. how the object you just bought could maim your pet or delete your life savings -- is shared in a way that negates any conversation. I find it funny that we celebrate the uses of social media for the very dialogues that matter least in consumers' lives, and utterly ignore it for the stuff that should matter.

The confusion principle is also a factor, in that there's a voice available on the Internet ready to tell consumers just about anything about everything. Bubble gum is made with spider eggs. The P&G logo is satanic. The feet of chickens served at McDonald's never touch the ground. Whatever. It doesn't matter if they're true or not; they just are, and they're available so freely that making reasoned conclusions isn't always so reasonable.

Caveat emptor indeed. Good luck with that. And don't expect much help from marketers or governments.

Added: 30th August 2010

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