So now we have ‘placebo politics’, meaning “elevating or reducing the status of this or that group through symbolic actions that won’t have much if any material impact on policy.” In this article the USA’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreements is seen as placebo politics: it won’t make any difference because the agreement was only ever a voluntary one and it’s “already being flouted”. Why, then, invoke the placebo response? Perhaps … for votes at home?
“I was just amazed that you could change what price you were going to launch a product at, and you could change what brand it was, and people would have dramatically different impressions of that product. And they would tell you incredibly different things about the product: they thought it was made of different materials, they thought it weighed more or it weighed less. Really out-there stuff that, at the time, we joked about but we couldn’t explain.”
More here. And meanwhile, for your listening pleasure …
‘Cognitive enhancers’? Oh, do us a favour. Highly hyped and highly price energy drinks like Red Bull are all about the sugar and the caffeine, that’s all. Lots of sugar and caffeine. So why pay the premium, the enormous mark-up? It’s marketing, probably one of the shiniest examples of the placebo effect in marketing. Some science on this over here.
Do the buttons on crosswalks – and for that matter, the ones that ‘call’ an elevator – actually work? Or are they there for the placebo effect, to help us calm down and wait patiently …?
Image: James Merry
It seems that using an esteemed name-brand piece of sporting equipment actually generates stronger results.
“Our results indicate that strong performance brands can cause an effect that is akin to a placebo effect,” researcher Frank Germann of the Department of Marketing at the University of Notre Dame said in a press release. “Our results also suggest that the use of a strong performance brand causes participants to feel better about themselves when undertaking a task—that is, to have greater task-specific self-esteem. This higher self-esteem lowers their performance anxiety which, in turn, leads to the better performance outcomes.”
If a drug company treats a doctor to a nice lunch and a presentation on their newest products, is prescribing affected? Doctors generally think not, but the research evidence overwhelmingly says yes. And if these events do affect doctors’ decisions on patient care, should we be worried?
Couldn’t they just prescribe placebos? Of course not! Where’s the profit in that?
It’s true; in workouts and exercise we all get random adrenaline rushes that allow us to give max effort, even when the tank is empty. But what about taking pre-workout supplements, which promise to give you that extra boost? Do they really work, or is it more just the mental idea associated with it? And how much power does your mind actually have? A recent study shows just how much of physical fitness is mental. Read more about placebo ‘encouragement’ in exercise here.
We’ve published his work here before, but it’s time for some more truisms on the placebo effect from marketing guru Seth Godin, one of the godfathers of ‘viral marketing’ (in Crucial Elements for the placebo effect). Seth’s really into placebos!
Placebos, used ethically, are powerful tools. They can cure diseases, make food taste better and dramatically increase the perceived quality of art. They can improve the way teachers teach, students learn and we judge our own safety.
They do best when they improve something that is difficult to measure objectively.
Argue all you want about whether or not you want to be buying or selling placebos, but it’s quite likely that the right placebo with the right story can dramatically increase certain outcomes.
If you want to improve performance, the right placebo is often the safest and cheapest way to do so. The opportunity is to find one that’s likely to work, and to market it in a way that’s ethical and effective.
If you like Seth’s style, he has another blog post on the placebo effect in marketing here (Marketing of the placebo: Everyone gets their own belief) and a whole downloadable essay/course here (Placebos) which contains some keen – and entertaining! – thinking on the placebo effect as it relates to marketing (which to Godin, is critical to more in our lives than we imagine!)
Facing a long plane trip with a nasty cold, I headed over to the health food store.
“Excuse me, do you have any placebos? I have a really horrible cold… I’ll take the strongest one you’ve got.”
She looked at me with pity. “A placebo?”
“Do you know which company makes that? I don’t think we have any placebos?”
I waited for a second, thinking hard about what was happening.
“Hey Sylvia,” she yelled, “there’s a guy out here who wants some placebo, but he doesn’t know who makes it. Do we carry that?”
Sylvia didn’t know.
A scary story in Salon about overt corporate deception in the marketing (even just the *naming*!) of certain drug products – as in the ‘repackaging’ of Prozac by Eli Lilly to exploit new markets. As in other, non-pharmaceutical marketing, cultural expectations play an enormous role.
‘I suggested to Moerman how odd it is that the meanings we ascribe to a pill can sometimes be more powerful than its active substance, especially in the realm of psychopharmacology.
“Well, James, you’re an anthropologist, right? You know the power of meaning! Every culture has its symbols and objects of veneration and it is no different with us. Once, for us, we revered crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary, but now pills and stethoscopes capture our worship. So even an inert pill can affect us because it has shape and form and a context, and it has language attached. It comes in a blue box or a pink box, it’s taken in a pharmacy, doctor’s room, or hospital with all the panoply of a thousand years of medical tradition behind it to give it overwhelming symbolic weight.”‘
Online marketing guru Seth Godin talks openly here about the placebo effect and its relation to modern marketing. He says that, “(As marketers) … we don’t like to admit that we tell stories, that we’re in the placebo business. Instead, we tell ourselves about features and benefits as a way to rationalize our desire to to help our customers by allowing them to lie to themselves.
The design of your blog or your package or your outfit is nothing but an affect designed to create the placebo effect. … It’s all storytelling, it’s all lies.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In fact, your marketplace insists on it.”