The chicken made me do it

It was an innocent age where the major threats to freedom were mustachioed men with hydrogen bombs and the monopolistic tendencies of big business. In the paradoxical world of Clive Hamilton, the free market liberals of the 1950s never realised that the most serious threat to freedom would turn out to be people trying to sell things. Today marketers are probing our brains, gathering data on our buying habits and targeting our pre-teen children with manipulative campaigns they are ill prepared to resist.

But then again, it’s possible that a liberal like Hayek might have picked up a copy of Vance Packard‘s 1957 best seller, The Hidden Persuaders. If he had he might have read about how advertisers and public relations experts were drawing on the emerging sciences of the mind to probe our hidden weaknesses and shape our behaviour according to their wills.

I can’t help wondering what Clive would make of Burger King‘s Subservient Chicken — a website where visitors can issue instructions to man in a chicken suit and see them executed on screen. (Of course the chicken won’t comply with every request. If you tell him to ‘Go Vegan‘ he’ll march up to the camera and give you the finger.) According to the ad’s humble creators it was: "Quite possibly the most successful marketing website of all time. Over a billion hits. One hundred million unique visitors. Sales of Burger King’s chicken sandwiches doubled in a matter of weeks."

So if Clive, Vance and the creators of Subservient Chicken are right, what hidden weakness did American consumers succumb to when their attempts to dominate a virtual chicken-man ended with a burger purchase? Did the chicken violate their inner freedom?

While Clive complains about deception and fraud in advertising, it seems to me that if this campaign did have an impact on sales, it would probably have been through a relatively weak agenda-setting effect.

Here’s what Clive has to say in his latest book:

From his 1950s viewpoint, Hayek could not have imagined the extent to which the neoliberal revolution he spawned would lead to the emergence of societies where fraud and deception are endemic to the reproduction of the system — where pre-teen children without incomes are targeted by corporations in an attempt to build lifelong brand loyalty; where teenagers declare that the brands they wear and otherwise consume determine ‘who they are’; where both popular and classical culture are systematically mined for icons and images that can be used to sell products; where the intimate details of our personal lives are secretly collected and sold to marketing organisations; where sporting, artistic, literary and educational institutions have become the playing fields of advertisers; and where the essential data of our actions are provided overwhelmingly by a handful of media corporations. Hayek would be shocked to discover that his assured free sphere is no longer protected but has itself become the domain of the most powerful form of coercion, the psychological techniques of modern marketing. Even the neurochemical functioning of our brains (the mechanics of our thought processes) — perhaps the most private aspect of each of us — is being mapped by marketers so that they might manipulate our responses for commercial benefit (p 53).

And here’s Vance Packard:

Certain of the probers, for example, are systematically feeling out our hidden weaknesses and frailties in the hope that they can more efficiently influence our behavior. At one of the largest advertising agencies in America psychologists on the staff are probing sample humans in an attempt to find how to identify, and beam messages to, people of high anxiety, body consciousness, hostility, passiveness, and so on. A Chicago advertising agency has been studying the housewife’s menstrual cycle and its psychological concomitants in order to find the appeals that will be more effective in selling her certain food products.

Seemingly, in the probing and manipulating nothing is immune or sacred. The same Chicago ad agency has used psychiatric probing techniques on little girls.

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Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
13 years ago

The often transient nature of brand or product domination suggests that this manipulation, if we call it that, must be shallow – with a much weaker hold than more traditional sources of identity such as family, work, church and nation. Nothing resembling coercion.

Richard Green
Richard Green
13 years ago

I can’t help think that the product that advertisers are most adept at selling is advertising.

I remember the amount of faff written about beer ads, and particularly the “Big Ad” by Carlton Draft, in which the “phenomenal success” of the ad was evidenced by page views and buzz etc. In the year of the ad, Carlton Draft sales fell.

They fell less than other mainstream beer brands, but this means that all the advertising could do is shift people whom had already decided to buy a bland mainstream beer to a different coloured bottle. The fundamental consumption decision, on whether to buy such a variety of beer or not had already been made.

And the fall in mainstream beer consumption in itself is explained more by straighforward factors – like higher prices due to higher grain costs, lower prices of substitutes like wine and lower implicit costs of higher quality beers due to greater distribution – than they are by ideas about changing consumer tastes.

In fact, look at the TV or a paper or a magazine for a moment and look at all the most advertised products. Beer, cars, clothes, fast food, soft drink.

They’re all goods in markets that have many sellers selling products that are extrememly similar in price and quality and availability. These people need to advertise, because brand is the only point of distinction, the colour of the bottle.

And changes in the colour favoured are probably random, but if the advertisers can affect that, is it really an issue? After all, they’re wasting money on a static stock of customers whilst the fundamental decision by consumers is untouched. The decision on whether to buy fast food or not, a car or not, or a mainstream beer or not, is where issues of freedom are important, not the logo on the box or the badge at the front of the car.

And the main fundamental decision marketers have managed to influence is the decision by companies to advertise.

melaleuca
13 years ago

Andrew Norton says:

“The often transient nature of brand or product domination suggests that this manipulation, if we call it that, must be shallow … ”

Not entirely accurate, Andrew. Coke has been the dominant soft drink for generations. Levis were the dominant brand of jeans thru the 70s and early 80s , Nike the dominant sneaker for well over a decade etc The “right brand” is a major fixation for tweens and teens.

JC
JC
13 years ago

Coke and Nike are very exceptional, Mel. Levis fell on their backside. Many people have gone broke trying to satisfy teen tastes. Andrew is right, brand affiliation is very shallow especially with (your example) teens.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
13 years ago

I did say ‘often transient’, not all transient. Vegemite, Corn Flakes, etc, there are more that last. However Hamilton misunderstands the role these brands play in identity; kids aren’t indentifying with corporations but with their peer group through some common consumption items.

Caroline
13 years ago

Advertising should be taxed. Heavily.

JC
JC
13 years ago

Great idea Caroline.

What would you do with shop fronts, tax their advertising too?

Richard Green
Richard Green
13 years ago

Coke also I think is less to do with brand (Nike and Vegemite are still anomalous) than other business techniques.

Mainly in this case availability. Coke is omnipresent in a way other beverages aren’t, and whilst it can be argued this is due to consumer demand, I think it is more due to the practice of drawing up exclusive contracts with sellers and especially providing the branded fridges for free on the proviso that they only hold Coca Cola Amatil beverages, and several shelves of Coke alone.

But anyway, I still argue that the marketing would be worrying if it affected the choice to buy a soft drink rather or not buy a soft drink, rather the specific brand.

melaleuca
13 years ago

“kids arent indentifying with corporations but with their peer group through some common consumption items.”

True.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
13 years ago

specially providing the branded fridges for free on the proviso that they only hold Coca Cola Amatil beverages, and several shelves of Coke alone.

So not about branding; rather, about branding. Insightful.

Richard Green
Richard Green
13 years ago

Um, you quoted the clause about the proviso that they only stock coke, so you did read it I assume.

Point being, most places don’t have a huge line of fridges, and if they make the only fridge there a coke fridge (because a free fridge is cheaper than a paid for fridge), and a customer walks into a shop that only sells coke beverages wanting a soft drink, chances are they’re going to buy a coke.

So saying that coke outsells pepsi (for instance) for marketing would be as accurate as saying that pepsi outsells coke in KFC outlets because of company specific marketing.

On issues of affiliation however, I think it’s notable that the places where Pepsi outsells coke (Quebec and Nebraska) have VERY strong regional identities, particularly the former, and the place where the largest shift took place (the former soviet bloc when Pepsi’s monopoly ended) it was related to domestic politics (and associated affiliations) and not marketing (unless coke ran a “this red is totally different to communism red” campaign).

melaleuca
13 years ago

I’d still want to ban ads on kids tv due to this:

“Junk-food advertising’s influence on young children has been confirmed by research revealing vegetables taste better to preschoolers if served in McDonald’s wrappers.

In a study prompting renewed calls for restrictions on fast-food marketing, four out of five children preferred hamburgers, chicken nuggets, fries, milk and even baby carrots served in McDonald’s packaging, over identical food in plain wrappers.

Childhood obesity experts said the results of 300 individual tasting comparisons, with 63 children aged three to five, were alarming.

Seventy-seven per cent preferred fries served on a wrapper with the golden arches logo, compared with 13 per cent who liked them better in plain packaging.

Chicken nuggets in a bag branded with the logo were favoured by 59 per cent while more than half (54 per cent) thought baby carrots in a branded french fries bag tasted better than in a plain bag.

Forty-eight per cent liked the hamburger with the fast food company’s logo compared with 37 per cent who preferred it in a plain wrapper. Even milk tasted better, with 61 per cent preferring it in a McDonald’s cup.

The study found that the more televisions there were in a preschooler’s home, the more likely they were to prefer foods and drinks from McDonald’s.”

http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2007/08/06/1186252630072.html

JC
JC
13 years ago

Isn’t just a surprise. It took The Melbourne Age to tell us kids like junk food and candy drinks through a paid for research piece. So the assumption is that parents are unable to decide juniors diet and therefore the state to help them with junior through advertising bans?

My understanding is that McDonalds product mix has changed over the years to even include such horrors as lattes and cappuccinos and various breakfast meals. Should we ban advertising on a company by company basis or the calorie intake per meal?

melaleuca
13 years ago

I do wish you’d ease up on the stalking, Joe.

Here’s a review of 29,000 research papers that puts the power of advertising directed at kids beyond any reasonable doubt:

Several studies have indicated that food advertising and marketing is associated with more favourable attitudes, preferences and behaviours among children towards the advertised products (Taras et al, 1989Coon et al, 2002). 2 , 3 Even exposure to advertisements as brief as 30 seconds duration can significantly influence the food preferences made by children as young as two years old (Borzekowski and Robinson)

In a systematic review of studies on the effects of food promotion to children, Hastings et al (2003) 5 identified over 29,000 relevant papers, and after eliminating those that were not of sufficient quality, concluded that food promotion has an effect on children’s preferences, purchase behaviour and consumption, and this effect is independent of other factors and operates at both a brand and category level. The report added that, although the evidence reviewed did not amount to proof that advertising had a direct effect on childrens diets, in our view (it) does provide sufficient evidence to conclude that an effect exists. It concluded:

Overall, there is evidence that food promotion causes both brand switching and category effects, with stronger support for the latter effect. Although no study provides a thorough comparison of the strength of both types of effect, both types of effect have been examined independently, and there is reasonably strong evidence that both occur. In other words, the effects of food promotion are not limited to brand switching.

The Hastings report had been commissioned by the UK governments Food Standards Agency (FSA) and,following criticisms from industry and industry sponsored sources, the FSA mounted an open peer review in October 2003. This review found that the conclusions of the Hastings report were justified (FSA, 2003). 6 The
review panel added:

if further research were to be undertaken in this area it would be helpful to consider an alternative methodological approach, which took account of the social, economic and cultural context within which advertising operates. That said, it was not felt that further research was necessarily required as, on the balance of evidence, the Hastings review had provided sufficient evidence to indicate a causal link between promotional activity and children’s food knowledge, preferences and behaviours.

The Hastings reviews has subsequently been updated (Hastings et al, 2006) , and the findings confirmed that:

JC
JC
13 years ago

Stalking Mel, because I’m responding to a comment? It’s not exactly like the …. well I’ll just avoid the argument.

Let’s stick with the subject.

What’s the point of your comment? That advertising may influence kids to ask for Maccas? We know that. Parents have known that for decades and we don’t really need research to tell us that advertising may influence kids. Isn’t that what advertising is supposed to be about anyway?

You’re essentially asking the state to restrict the freedom of a firm in way that isn’t exactly clear. What exactly do you want to achieve with an advertising ban? Do you want to prevent the firm itself from advertising or do want to prevent the firm from advertising certain products. If you choose the latter, how exactly would you go about this? If the former what criteria do you use in apply the ban on a firm and why? Is is a personal preferences issue.

Would all hamburger & chips advertising get a ban? How about frozen chip based foods they advertise at times? How about other milk drinks?

Here’s a much easier suggestion, maybe the parents should say no more often. It solves a lot issues rather than having the nanny state doing it for you.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

has anyone actually tried the subservient chicken site?

It really is kinda creepy

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

Jason – I found it a bit disturbing too. I don’t really want to go back.

BTW: When I said I couldn’t help wondering what Clive Hamilton would think of it, I was serious.

JC
JC
13 years ago

Yea;

It was really creepy, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

Jason’s really creeped out as he’s spoken about it twice now :-)

What’s wrong with it? Is it the color combos? The ugly chook? I wonder if other people found it to be also and if so was it a deliberate ploy by the firm?

How much an hour the dude’s getting to creep out millions of people over the web.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

Yes Don I know what you mean. Though on the plus side, having tried it I can see it is obviously partly automated and pre-filmed and there isn’t really some guy in a chicken suit standing there 24/7 awaiting our commands.

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melaleuca
13 years ago

“How much an hour the dudes getting to creep out millions of people over the web.”

No more than you I’d imagine :)

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
13 years ago

On their web site the Barbarian Group say:

It was so creepy, weird and well-executed that many people who visited the site thought that they were actually controlling this person in a chicken suit in real life.

Rick Webb, one of the group’s co-founders said that part of what makes the ad work is that “There’s this mild state of excitement when you realize you don’t really know what’s going on.”

JC
JC
13 years ago
Ingolf Eide
Ingolf Eide(@ingolf)
13 years ago

One of my favourite sites, JC. (Naked Capitalism, that is).

JC
JC
13 years ago

He’s very negative, Ingolf.
You need to be on strong uppers going there …..suicidal tendencies may overwhelm as he’s always preaching economic doom. :-)

Ingolf Eide
Ingolf Eide(@ingolf)
13 years ago

True, but since I’m broadly speaking in the same camp the risk’s already baked in for me . . . . .