A Brief Diversion on the Manipulation of Statistical Data and the Depraved Subculture of Marketing Ethics

I returned home from dropping someone off at the airport at six-thirty this morning. Pumpkin coffee from [brand name redacted] kept me awake. I picked up a Salman Rushdie novel (Midnight’s Children) from my study, made some tea, and took a seat in the part of my bedroom that I pretend is a baroque drawing room.

I turned on the television (Read: Hulu) and saw a commercial for something I’m sure all 7 of you dear readers are familiar with: “5-Hour Energy”. It featured some plastic cougar talking about their surveying 3,000 physicians on the benefits of ingesting their product. By cursory observation of the actors’ phrasing, here is a breakdown of their statistical data:

The statement is:

73% of physicians surveyed said they’d recommend a low-calorie energy supplement to patients that already consume energy supplements.

That means the patient is already using energy supplements. It also means that 27% – almost a third of physicians in the survey – would not recommend using energy supplements.

What the physicians are saying, quite literally, is: “Hey you know that thing that you’re already doing? You should see if you can do that consuming less calories, if possible.”

/* begin empathy section*/

Let me share my experience, because I’ve asked the same question, by coincidence, to my primary care physician recently, as I was considering energy supplements. She’s very personable:

Me: Sometimes I have no energy, and it’s hard to get going. I know you say to keep caffeine to a minimum, but how about supplements, like ginseng, or energy drinks, that kinda stuff?

Doctor: Yeah, or how about you use that elliptical more? Remember when you got into it? You said you had much more energy, consistently. What happened?”

Me: Just got really busy with work. Friends came into town, etc. Long list of excuses. How about supplements?

Doctor: Take holistic supplements if you like. Some work for some people – physiology varies. But generally, your body will pass many supplements.

Most questions I ask her result in my having more questions than I began with. How often should I exercise? “As much as possible, but not obsessively.” Can I eat bacon? “It depends, can you eat bacon responsibly?” – and so on. But she was pretty careful not to outright recommend energy supplements for some reason.

Generally speaking, everything she has says expresses some basic principle of physics, or common sense, or chemistry, somewhere down the line.

/* end empathy section*/

So then, back to:

Marketing: The Art of Dazzling With B.S.

Please allow me to qualify myself before going any further. Many friends, clients, and colleagues work in various marketing fields, and the large majority of them are good people. For some, it’s the catalyst to their desired field. Graphic designers making banner ads. Novelists writing ad copy. Developers creating conditional geo-targeted content ( Hey, we love [GET_USER_COUNTRY_CODE]! Get your [product_ID] made just for you!, etc )

I’m not referring to those folks, or the typically smarmy higher-up M.B.A.’s and their buzz-words. Not even the dis-honesty-riddled, labyrinthine sub-industries of SEO, or the too-common presence of ‘Senior Project Managers’ with seemingly no valuable skill, save for extroverted-ness and an A+ on some arbitrary test in regurgitating conjecture, created by an analog of themselves, and fueled by none but ego and a thesaurus.

To clarify a bit further, I don’t mean advertising. Advertising is a necessary facet of capitalism. “Hey, we know you guys liked that thing we made. We made another one with more stuff, please buy it.” Honest. Transparent. At least in the beginning.

Marketing is entirely different. And it works on large scales, largely because people don’t know where marketing ends anymore. Where once it was limited to the charisma of single salespeople, the exponential growth of capitalism and the bounty of technology has combined with apathy and greed, and marketing has permeated into the fields of sociology, psychology, pharmacology, architecture, biology; everywhere.

XKCD once wrote:

…human sub-cultures are nested fractally; there’s no bottom.

In spirit of that statement, here is a random bit of the field of Media and Brand Project Management. A test a colleague of mine took on Project Management asked:

“When diversifying all vertical shifts, what key components are best out-sourced to a qualified B2B, and what components can instead be internally synergized?”

– This isn’t the University of Burger King or anything; it’s Pearson/Vue, where you take Adobe, DaVinci, Cisco, and the more technical Google certifications, among many other tests.

I mean marketing. It’s unsustainable, and swallows entire economies on its’ great quest to turn human civilization into a charred, impersonal, Orwellian horror. McMansions as far as the eye can see. Increase conversions. Buy more lists. Quantity. Automated personalization.

Lets pick apart what they’re actually saying in that exam question. They’re saying “If you’re making changes to your product or service that significantly alters your entire business model, try not to freak out. Do as much of it in-house first (say you’re using a new material to build a sturdier case for your product – you’d use existing materials instead of immediately buying more stuff). So why the smoke and mirrors? Why the jargon? Because they need a private language. A language of status and posturing. A way to train the mind to think of humans as cattle.

Marketers buy books like this from other marketing people, the ones that made it big. The eloquent ones that did their research, and found out little things like: If you put the grocery items people need most frequently at the END of the store, they have to walk through all the crap first, and will buy it. Someone give me a bonus!

Not many people can naturally be good at this train of thought. You must nurture apathy, and care dearly about elements like what car you drive, what trinkets you own.

Allow me to conclude my meandering diversion with a very simple example of the manipulation of statistical data commonly used today:

You ask three people if each of them likes tacos. Two say yes, one says no. Thus, two-thirds of people like tacos. Because you have to disclose the details (with tiny writing on the bottom of the page/screen, this seems to be the legal line), You write the ad like this:

Two out of three people LOVE tacos! *

*Details of study available upon request. A survey was conducted, wherein 66.6 percent of subjects indicated a positive response to taco-related stimuli.

Author: Rami


2 thoughts on “A Brief Diversion on the Manipulation of Statistical Data and the Depraved Subculture of Marketing Ethics”

  1. Other groups of people have a private language, one that gives them status and trains them to think of themselves and others in certain ways. We call them cults. I say we start defining these sleezy marketers as cult leaders. They develop followers and everything too, for the right amount of money. I understand we need advertising. That’s how you get the word out. And I understand we probably need marketing to a certain extent. But the sleezy stuff just goes way over the line.

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