Is This Good Buy?

In his best-selling 1950s book The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard warned Americans that Madison Avenue was teaming with psychologists to unconsciously influence buyer behavior. While research has generally discredited the effectiveness of subliminal messages, businesses nevertheless spend billions each year to develop methods of seducing us into buying their wares. As it turns out, the most sophisticated sales technique may be the simplest.

Corporations have recently hit upon a near-perfect marketing tool – we the people. A recent cover story in The New York Times Magazine describes a “word of mouth” marketing campaign engineered by a host of companies, such as Boston’s BzzAgent.

The plan is almost too simple. Anyone can sign on as a BzzAgent. BzzAgent then ships you a product to try, along with some casual suggestions on how to market it to friends or stores. They even encourage you to tell friends if you don’t like the product. That’s it.

So how does BzzAgent get us to fob off unwanted items onto colleagues and friends? Psychologists Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith knew the answer as far back as Packard’s day: When we do or say something that is contrary to our opinions, we often adjust our attitudes to bring them into alignment with our new action.

Festinger and Carlsmith had subjects perform a really boring task (turning blocks clockwise for an hour) and then asked them to give orientations to the next group. The original subjects were told that they should tell the new subjects that the experiment was interesting – in other words, to lie.

Unbeknownst to one another, some of the first group were paid $1 for the deceit, while others were paid $20. Festinger’s theory, cognitive dissonance, was that the subjects paid $1 would enjoy the orientations more than the subjects paid $20. The $1 group had less financial justification to lie, so they convinced themselves that the activity had been enjoyable; as predicted, the handsomely rewarded $20 group did not experience cognitive dissonance.

So because BzzAgents are not paid to sell, their discomfort in “buzzing” friends or strangers with sales information quickly evaporates. These volunteers genuinely come to believe in the products.

Perhaps this new “word of mouth” sales device will be no more than a short-lived fad. In the meantime, it remains reminiscent of the “Twilight Zone” episode in which a friendly group of aliens presents earthlings with an innocuous-sounding book, How to Serve Man. It turns out to be a cookbook.

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