The Marketeer

More on Marketing Ethics: Persuasion vs. Manipulation

I saw a link to an article about Persuasion vs. Manipulation and had to click through. This has been a topic we’ve discussed often on Marketing Over Coffee and Dr. Pete has some interesting observations. I was trying to get them to fit with some discussions and ground rules we’ve already laid down. My intent was not to criticize him, but rather to see if I could align what he’s said with some of what we’ve covered to see if we can’t get further out on the frontier.

What I’ve written below won’t make much sense unless you’ve checked out his article first:

My first point is that Persuasion vs. Manipulation is only a shade of gray and usually not at the core of the ethical questions around a transaction. Persuasion is making an argument. Manipulation does not have to be sinister, it can simply mean that one is an expert persuader, especially when they are using that advantage against someone that is not as skilled in making arguments. It does also include being able to coerce someone into a situation that they may not desire to be in (which could be for good or bad, but often to the manipulator’s advantage).

Questioning the ethics of the Sales/Marketer’s behavior is not a matter of what information the buyer is lacking (basically situations 1,2,3 and 5 are just varying degrees of lacking information, situation 4 is lacking all the information), but whether the intent of the persuader or manipulator is for “Good” or “Evil”. These are Philosophy 101 arguments. Taking a 50,000 foot view you can divide this into three buckets:

  1. Ethics depend on if you followed the rules (Deontology) but this tends to be inflexible and has logic problems (killing is bad until someone wants to kill you, HAL won’t open the pod bay doors…)
  2. Every situation is different, it just matters if the outcome is “Good” or “Bad” (I had been taught that this was Utilitarianism, but have since learned that this is a branch of Consequentialism), can work but can get weird when you realize that killing half the population might make the world a lot better for the survivors. Lots of humanity’s darkest hours come from these corners.
  3. For discussion (and my personal life, I) find it useful to use a mashup of both –  rules that most people agree are “Right” – like don’t steal or kill people, but every rule has exceptions and outcomes need to be considered. We don’t kill, except for the people that we send Jack Bauer after, they need to die NOW (Jack always requires a lot of yelling too).

Scenario 1: This is order taking – marketing needs to make sure that they can find your website and place an order. This is can be abused as much as any of the other scenarios. My website “Send me a buck and I’ll send you 20” can take orders and then I can run with the money.

Scenario 2: The key here is “the customer hasn’t made up their mind” and seller usually doesn’t know either the ethical implications of why they haven’t made up their mind, or if their decision process is even rational. Are they buying a gun and ammo to settle an argument at work? Are they buying a car that they can’t afford that will take food off the family’s table? If the car dealer manipulates them into a car they can afford is that wrong?

Scenario 3: Actually this is a very simple situation to evaluate but there are two separate issues: 1. The ethics of the parties – is either lying or manipulating? 2. The ethics of the choice – is the transaction right or wrong? Does either party care? This is just a check list, vendor A or B will be closer to what the buyer wants and there may be lying on all sides.

Scenario 4: Again I argue that the previous 3 and number 5 are just varying degrees of lack of information in the decision making process. This Scenario is unique and requires education more than order taking. There’s tons of stuff written on this, many people talk about “Missionary Sales” and Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” explains why it takes so long for these types of sales to cross over to the mass market. You are almost there saying that Scenario 4 may not be cost effective – in fact, it’s never cost effective, but if your product is revolutionary you will make the money back. The key is it’s not about whether or not you choose to take that path, it’s if your product is great enough to pull you through to the other side where the mass market sits

Scenario 5: Very common, the buyer decides to change the priority of their decision making criteria. I thought the Chevy was better, but now that I can get the Ford for $1,000 less…

These Scenarios are all great for analysis but the question of ethics usually just boils down to: Who stands to gain? (Follow the money). Or, “Who’s lying?”. Soooo, basically this is the world’s longest blog comment. Thanks Dr. Pete for giving me something to think about!

2 replies on “More on Marketing Ethics: Persuasion vs. Manipulation”

Good to bump into you again, John – it’s been a while. I admit my structure opens up a lot of arguments over semantics. I tend to see “manipulation” as more like coercion – moving someone in a direction contrary to what they want (assuming they know what they want).

In my thinking, as you move more and more from what the buyer originally wanted, you open more possibility for deception and coercion. That doesn’t mean that scenarios (4) and (5) are inherently deceptive and coercive, just that the potential for it increases.

Interesting point about Scenario (4) and Moore’s work (I finally read “Crossing The Chasm” a couple of months ago after having it on my shelf for a couple of years). I think you’re absolutely right that there’s tremendous potential in this scenario, as a handful of companies have proven. On the other hand, it’s become a sort of Holy Grail, and many other companies have died trying to reach it. I’m not sure that it’s where everyone should be aiming, honestly. Many companies could do well just by aligning better with the people who already get what they do and want to buy it.

Of course, a lot of this came out of a Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO) mentality. I see so often where buyers come to a site looking for something that the seller sells, but too many obstacles are in their way. There’s a waterfall on the other side of the seller’s front door, but meanwhile the seller is off with a divining rod in the desert looking for water.

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