The marketing long con — knowing isn’t half the battle
by Taazima Kala-Essack (@taazimakala) Don’t you just love a good con? I don’t mean a money heist, or a situation in which larceny or personal harm occur. I mean small little white acts of deceit in everyday life that are a little more laughable than they are morally devoid — the younger cousin to a white lie, if you will.
As I sit here staring at one of those green health juices from a health shop that won’t be named, I’ve likely been conned by the appeal of kale which, it would seem, has a Harvard degree and a country house with ponies. This is, of course, what I imagine was the case, given said green juice’s price tag. I should have known better, but, alas, I’ve let myself be duped, and handed over my bank card filled with hope.
The point of this story, beyond that many will have a similar tale to tell, is that it got me thinking about the many instances where consumerism, ably assisted by us marketers, pull little cons such as this — even worse, where we knowingly enable or allow it — maybe even embrace it.
GI Joe Fallacy
Enter GI Joe, the hypermasculine childhood action figure that was the love of many kids growing up. “Knowing is half the battle” was one of GI Joe’s most-often quoted phrases. But it’s a lie. The reality is that Joe didn’t give us the full picture, or even the whole truth. Knowing doesn’t always make much of a difference to anything, at least not in my humble view.
After one heck of a year and as the whiplash of 2019 settles, I’m not quite sure knowledge is enough without real and relevant action. Moreover, I’m willing to bet many would agree: knowing is not even close to half the battle. There is much, much more to it than that.
So real a fact is this: scientists and behavioural analysts have named the mistaken idea that knowing is half the battle as “the GI Joe Fallacy”, and it’s just as impactful a truth in the world of commerce, marketing and communications as it is in any study of human behaviour. Knowing can often be the burden or the curse. In fact, ignorance may well be bliss, as the saying goes. Why? I don’t mean to be a Negative Nelly, but let’s explore this idea for a second, and we can then decide from there.
Take, for example, how brands choose to communicate and manage preference and consumption of consumers. We’re manipulated into buying things we don’t want (like my exorbitantly priced green juice), need or even trust in many cases, even though we know better. I like using artificial sweetener, for instance, and my decision isn’t based on anything but that those around me always used it over natural sugar. Knowing it likely has less of a positive impact on my health than real sugar changes nothing for me.
Regardless of the info
An unfair example? Possibly. How about others? You walk into a store and see something priced for 199.99; you know it’s the same price as 200.00, but the first still feels like a much-better deal. You know a bag of sweets isn’t the best meal choice but you choose it anyway, knowing full well it’s no good for you. You know that exercising every day is beneficial but that doesn’t mean you’llactually do it. You know better but allow your cognitive biases to take over regardless. Knowing hasn’t changed anything — you’ve chosen to act, regardless of the information possessed at the time.
In many ways, this is the basis of consumerism and commerce: we’re conned into thinking we need something (a pair of shoes that also has wheels of death attached that comes in neon glitter pink? Yes!) or that it is good for us (cake for breakfast must be good for us because they used extracts from a plant in the Amazon!).
Commercial outlets know this; they know our biases; they know our inability (or refusal) to make choices we often know to be better or smarter in favour of allowing the miswantings (wanting of the wrong things even when we know better) to rule.
So, despite that it rightly should be, knowledge is rarely the central factor controlling our behaviour. As behavioural science would have it, knowing simply isn’t enough in most instances; it’s not enough to put certain things into practice because we’re wired not to make certain choices, despite our awareness.
Does it have to be this way, though?
The real power of behavioural control, as science dictates, doesn’t come from knowledge but from things such as situation selection, habit formation and emotion regulation. Similarly, in the most meta of things, now knowing that we’re being manipulated by good ol’ consumerism isn’t enough to wholly change our choices and purchasing decisions.
In a culture of complacency, fast decisions and even faster regrets, we’re beyond the point of knowing being enough. We need a nudge, we need action, and we need to transform awareness and rhetoric into demonstrable action. For example, Dove is no longer selling the narrative of traditional beauty; it’s acting to show our inherent flaws in defining beauty. Gillette is no longer betting on the knowledge of a tried-and-tested product over generations; it’s acting to fight against stereotypes and pre-cast norms of inclusion.
As consumers, we want products filled with purpose and we want things to mean more; there’s much less room for cons and fallacies when we really put our minds and hearts to it. As the ever-inspiring Greta Thunberg shows us, we must know in order to act and only in the latter does the truly hard work reside.
So, knowing isn’t half the battle but it’s the start of the proverbial war. When we know, we need to act. One can’t exist without the other, and yet the latter remains infinitely more necessary. Goethe said, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”
Has anything even changed?
So, what are we doing to take charge in a consumeristic world that lives off our cognitive biases? We rebel because, just as easily as we can fall into miswantings, so too can we rewire our brains and our behaviour to consume and purchase with purpose, digging into the very thing commercial culture sought to build its castle upon.
Knowing isn’t half the battle. Now that you know this, has anything even changed?
Taazima Kala-Essack (@taazimakala) is a PR and public affairs specialist consultant based in Gaborone, Botswana, with an academic background in language and literature. She has led and collaborated on a number of strategic and communications projects in Botswana and Namibia, and is currently the only CIPR-accredited PR consultant in Botswana. She is the lead consultant at Hotwire PRC, Botswana’s oldest and largest PR consulting business which is aligned to FCB Wired.
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.