Will You Do As You’re Told?

There are three rules of advertising.

1. “It’s free!” is tempting, even when you don’t actually want the thing.
2. If there’s a button to be pressed, someone’s going to press it.
3. Obedience is easy.

Dan Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University in North Carolina, “Free is Dangerous“:

“Free” is kind of an incredibly tempting human hot button. And sometimes it’s great and sometimes it gets us into trouble. I’ll describe to you quickly the experiments we do. So in the experiments we do, we say “Okay what do you want, the Lindt Truffle for fourteen cents or Hershey Kiss for one penny?” Almost everybody says “Thirteen more cents for a better chocolate is a good deal because it could only take one of the other.” Everybody understands the value of the Lindt is high. Then we discount them both by one penny. Now, the difference and the qualities are the same – difference in price is the same – but now everybody goes to the free Hershey Kiss. And you thought about the transaction cause, you thought about all of those other explanation. The moment something becomes free, we go that trap.

I got an email from Australia:

I’ve been visiting Edinburgh Eye for a few months now and really like it! I’m reaching out to you because of a video on youtube that I thought your other readers may enjoy. It’s a video of a crazy vending machine put in a mall in Australia that gets people to do hilarious things in order to get a snack for free.

The neat part of this story is I actually am in the crowd in part of the clip, so I’m pretty excited about it all! It was pretty crazy I happened upon a big group of people surrounding the machine and random dancing haha.

Do I believe this?

The video is part of a series for an Australian snack – 100g boxes of flavoured rice crackers. (The “portion size” is defined as 25g on most of the nutrition listings I saw.) A box costs just over $2 Australian (£1.32). While the nutritional values vary slightly depending on the “flavour”, very roughly the crackers in each box are worth: 444 kCal; 5.6g protein; 13.6g fat (of which 1.6g saturated fat); 74g carbs (of which 7.2g is sugars); 848mg sodium.

Note that

The average Australian consumes around eight or nine times more sodium than they need for good health. The National Health and Medical Research Centre’s (NHMRC) suggested dietary target advises that Australian adults should aim to consume no more than 4g of salt a day (or 1,600mg of sodium) in order to prevent chronic disease. Generally, infants and children need less than adults.

Around 75 per cent of the salt in our diet comes from processed foods. Nutritionists recognise it may be difficult for many people to reduce their salt intake to the ideal level, given our current food supply. Heart Foundation advice is that all Australians should at least reduce their salt intake to less than 6g of salt a day (approximately 2,300mg of sodium a day) as a first step towards reaching the recommended levels. This is approximately 1½ teaspoons of salt.

The “crazy vending machine” is a trap. (Whether the incidents filmed were edited out of genuine incidents or the thing is a regular advert: does not matter.)

Traps exist because at any given moment in time people experience impulses that motivate them to act. These impulses are reactions to internal or external stimuli. Sometimes, a stimulus is so powerful or triggers such automatic behavior that the individual acts without recognizing that other options exist. At other times, he or she is aware of other choices, but the stimulus’ impact overrides these potential actions.

The essential question the authors posed was: What prompts the individual or organization to begin to move in an ill-fated direction?

If there is a button, people will press it, as in this justly famed ad for TNT “We Understand Drama”:

When they press the button, they are told that they will have to press the button 20, 40, 80, 200, 1000, 5000 times to get a “free” box of these rice crackers. The video depicts one woman pressing the button 5000 times to get a box (tears, hugs of accomplishment, etc, for a snack that would have cost her less than £1.50.

If you’re asked to do something cleverly enough, you probably will. The Fifty Things About Me Meme (example) in many variations, simply seems to exist to get people to broadcast enough information about themselves that it would greatly improve a hacker’s attempt to figure out what passwords you use tor your personal account.

One of the cleverest “flash mob” ads I have ever seen is this one for Forever Manchester – “charity the Mancunian Way. Helping local people do extraordinary things together”:

It works partly because no one likes chuggers, but also because it has much more the feel of a real flash mob.

The previous ad release for the flavoured rice crackers was in the same theme “How far will you go” and depicted a man dressed up as a woman in order to joins his wife’s friends for a hen party and nosh on rick crackers. As one reviewer commented: “Whoa…the 90’s called, they want their creative back!”

Even a more positive review said:

To begin with, I think this is a nice idea. But I think the execution could be better. The critic in me can’t help but wonder if it would have been funnier if the women were oblivious to the fact one of them was a guy dressed as a lady, and he was sharing some insightful anecdote about life as a woman that had everyone else in stitches. ….

As is, there isn’t anywhere for the audience to think “that’s not a woman”, because the actors have done that for us. What’s left for me? I relate the brand to kind of an awkward social moment. Probably a bit harsh. But there it is.

So what else can they do, now they’ve done the “make fun of transvestites” ad?

A display of obedience.

The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred, all of the essential features of obedience follow. The most far-reaching consequence is that the person feels responsible to the authority directing him but feels no responsibility for the content of the actions that the authority prescribes. Morality does not disappear — it acquires a radically different focus: the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority.

You can prove that people will go to considerable lengths to get something “for free”, no matter the non-financial cost.

Behavioural economists like Dan Ariely have written exhaustively on the concept of free, though perhaps we needn’t look further than an example on infomercials to prove the point. The argument for free, of course, is that humans are suckers for it; if Product X is lousier than Product Y but Product X is free, we’re more likely to grab the item that’s of no cost to us, regardless of the qualities involved. After 1 a.m. each night, broke people are routinely lured by this plight. Near the end of your average infomercial, the “but wait, there’s more!” moment comes, and we watch how an incredible add-on can be ours for free – all we have to do is paying extra shipping and handling. Well, that’s great, but we don’t need a second set of containers for boiling eggs, and suddenly we’ve been duped out of a pricey postage fee for something we don’t need (or even, in many cases, want).

The fact is: the habit of rebellion is not easy to maintain.

I have purposefully not mentioned the product’s name and tried not to link to sites identifying it by name.

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