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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Advertising, choice, and happiness

There is little doubt that advertising can make us want frivolous things that we didn't want before. There is evidence that the way we portray a certain good will make us want it more than the good taken by itself.

"Lifestyle advertising," for example, tries to associate a product with a lifestyle and, appealing to our desire for the lifestyle, makes us confused about the role some product plays in getting that lifestyle. It's a confusion because the product is incidental to the lifestyle. You don't get many friends and beautiful men and women in bathing suits by drinking Bud Light, and you don't get to be an excellent skier or snowboarder by drinking Coors Light, and you don't become a wealthy CEO by clicking away on your Blackberry.

But the insight is often exaggerated. Often, many people insist that the job of advertising is to dupe and confuse, to create whole-cloth new desires that we didn't have before. There are many interesting cases of this, but the cases remain few relative to the vast majority of actual cases. In the vast, overwhelming majority of cases, what we already want is what product manufacturers are trying to discover and cater to.

This is what helps account for the explosion of options in our supermarkets in something like the late '80s and throughout the '90s. Product manufacturers realized that, in the words of Canadian trend-follower and chronicler Malcolm Gladwell, there is no best Pepsi, only best Pepsis.

The words are said by Gladwell, but he is referencing Dr. Muscowitz, a food researcher from back in the late '70s, early '80s, who was asked by Pepsi to figure out the ideal amount of sweetness, aspartame, to put in their Diet Pepsi product. Muscowitz discovered that there was no ideal amount, only ideal amounts for different groups of people. And that just means that, in very many cases, the product manufacturer is better off catering to the preferences we actually have, rather than try to launder our preferences, or create preferences, through advertising.

Watch the TED lecture for more:

h/t LRC

Posted by P.M. Jaworski on February 24, 2009 in Economic freedom | Permalink


I agree with Colby Cosh's comment on Gladwell: Doesn't he just tell us in a humorous way what we all knew already, anyway?

Personal note: Gladwell went to my high school, in one of my sister's grades. His older brother played on the chess team that I was captain of.

Posted by: Grant Brown | 2009-02-24 3:09:17 PM

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