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Is marketing manipulative?

Is marketing manipulative? Is it controlling your mind or tricking you?

I recently spoke on this subject with Tim Burrowes (founding editor of mumbrella) at xChange.

It’s an interesting question to explore, and one that has been relevant to consumers for decades. For example, smoking would not be popular today if it weren’t for tricky marketing. From manipulative marketing at its very first inception, to doctors claims in the late 1940s that cigarettes were good for you, through to product placement and what we know of the cigarette industry today.

At its most basic definition, the purpose of marketing is to get particular people (usually an organisation’s ideal client) to think and feel about them in a certain way, and then for them to respond positively to a call to action. In my circumstances, marketing is designed to influence a person’s buying criteria (if getting people to buy your product/service is the goal).

As a small business owner, could marketing influence you? Yes.

In fact, I think it would be impossible to find an Australian small business owner who has never been influenced by marketing in their personal or business choices.

In Part One of this article I will share with you two of the marketing industry’s age-old secrets that some marketers would rather be kept under wraps, and how you can ethically use these tools to benefit your business:

Marketing tool 1: Leaving out the negatives

People often complain about organisations constantly highlighting their good points or selling propositions when we can find fault in the organisation or the brand, such as positive television ads for unhealthy children’s cereal.

However, just as you would not start a first date by listing your faults and the downsides of entering into a relationship with you, it is not wrong for organisations to only promote their good points.

What is wrong is when a company makes false claims, or if when asked about those negative or concerning points, they do not answer or are dishonest. What is also wrong is not having all of the risks, clauses, and downsides available for people to find if they go looking for them. You can see an example of this with Optus being fined by the ACCC for their misleading Unlimited plans.

How can you use this tool to benefit your business? Be ethical and make sure any information that someone may want to know about your business is either easily found or readily available when asked. Bottom line: Don’t be misleading. Similarly, when doing business with others, they need to be willing to send you any information that you ask for regarding possible risks and clauses.

Marketing tool 2: Subliminal messages

You might think of subliminal messages as very fast flashing images during the ads at cinemas, however subliminal messages are everywhere through repetition.

A great depiction of how repetitive messages can greatly influence human behaviour and perception, can be seen in this short video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyQjr1YL0zg

From the perspective of marketing a small business, you may see an organic skincare brand in a feature on organic moisturisers in a magazine, and then you might read a profile on the business in Dynamic Business magazine. Then you see them mentioned in your newsfeed on facebook and you also see their coverage retweeted on twitter. Then you see a point of sale display at a chemist. Then someone you respect or see as an authority on beauty endorses or is seen using the product. You get the picture.

Without knowing a huge amount about the actual products, and perhaps without ever trying them, you can over time see this skincare brand as a reputable product.

How can you use this tool to benefit your business? Make sure you are using multiple marketing tools in combination to support the journey that you want your ideal customers to take from never of hearing of your business, through to becoming a loyal and referring customer. A marketer can give you advice as to which tools to use determined by your ideal customer and also by the level of risk involved in your business. For example, asking someone to sign a 24-month contract or spend a large amount of money will require more points of influence or more repetition than you would to ask someone to buy a chocolate bar.

These marketing tools can be used in an unethical and manipulative way, and they can also be used as an influential or attention-grabbing way for your business. The difference is your motive, transparency and honesty.

What do you think? Is marketing manipulative or simply influential? Do you know of any examples where these tools have been used (good or bad)?

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Phoebe Netto

Phoebe Netto

Phoebe Netto is the Managing Director of Good Business Consulting, a business advisory specialising in marketing and public relations (PR) for small-to-medium sized businesses. Phoebe has lead PR and marketing programs for a diverse range of clients, from listed Australian companies, global brands, not-for-profits through to sole operators. She now takes these skills that are often reserved for big businesses, and uses them to help good small businesses grow and meet their objectives by retaining their customers and attracting new ones. Follow Phoebe on twitter for PR, marketing and small business advice, plus a little nonsense! @Phoebe_Netto

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