The trouble with marketing

Influencing choice can be bad.

I came across an old link I’d squirrelled  away about research on consumers’ mindsets.  I found the way the research was written up for public consumption to demonstrate quite crisply the ethical difference between design and marketing.

In a blurb in MITSloan Management Review from October 2010, we have a research summary by Kelly Goldsmith, Jing Xu and Ravi Dhar, called The Power of Customers’ Mindset.  It reports on research suggesting that there are two different consumer mindsets that result on different approaches to deciding what to buy.  Some people have an abstract mindset; these are people who will tend to notice similarities between various products based on abstract characteristics and attributes. And then there are people with a concrete mindset; these are people who will tend to notice differences in particular characteristics and attributes of different products.

So far, so good. This doesn’t surprise me at all.  It’s rather like so many other dichotomies that researchers seem to find in people.

But then we have this: “In other words, if you get a consumer thinking a certain way, that way of thinking — that mindset — can influence his or her subsequent shopping behavior.”  And the research then goes on to suggest that “…an abstract mindset increases the number of products consumers select.”

It seems quite clear, then, that the point of the research is to help marketers influence people’s minds.  To make them want things.  Of course, the marketers are in a pretty serious conflict of interest: they benefit directly from ensuring their campaigns are successful, whether or not people actually want or need the products they market.

This research is also useful for designers, but in an antithetical sense to that implied by the report from the Sloan Review.  In design, we do not (necessarily) seek to change the minds of people.  We seek to understand them and help them achieve their goals.  If we can unequivocally demonstrate that their goals are harmful, then a designer should make every attempt to exert influence, but only by using evidence-based, sound reasoning.

Whereas the designer seeks to help people fulfil their goals through design, the marketer seeks to manipulate people’s goals to the benefit of their client, whose ethics are rarely if ever verified by the marketer before a contract is signed.


I should note that the Sloan Review blurb mentions a working paper covering the actual research done in greater detail.  I cannot find any evidence of that working paper.  I did find mention, however, in the vita of the lead author (available at her home institution’s website), of a working paper on the same general topic and by the same three authors.  The paper itself, though, eludes me entirely.


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