The Placebo Affect*
[*spelled wrong on purpose. This post is from three years ago, and I thought it was worth another look:]
Everybody already knows how powerful the brain is. Take a sugar pill
that’s supposed to be a powerful medicine and watch your symptoms
disappear. Have a surgeon not perform bypass surgery on your heart (link.) and discover that the angina that has been crippling you vanishes.
The placebo effect is not just for sick people anymore.
Why do some ideas have more currency than others? Because we believe
they should. When Chris Anderson or Malcolm Gladwell writes about
something, it’s a better idea because they wrote about it.
Even as your culture of ideas and marketing enters its long–tail,
open-source, low-barrier, everyone-has-a-blog era of mass publication,
we still need filters. Would your iPod sound as sweet if everyone else
had a Rio? Would your Manolo Blahniks be as cool if everyone else were
Arthur Anderson audited thousands of companies, and those audits gave us confidence in those companies, made them appear more solid, which, not surprisingly, made
them more solid. Then, post Enron, the placebo effect disappeared. Same
companies, same auditors, but suddenly those companies appeared LESS
solid, which made them less solid.
The magic of the placebo effect lies in the fact that you can’t do
it to yourself. You need an accomplice. Someone in authority who will
voluntarily tell you a story.
That’s what marketers do. We have the “placebo affect.”
(* The knack for creating placebos.) Of course, we need to persuade
ourselves that it’s morally and ethically and financially okay to
participate in something as unmeasurable as the placebo effect. The
effect is controversial and it goes largely unspoken. Very rarely do we
come to meetings and say, “well, here’s our cool new PBX for Fortune
1000 companies. It’s exactly the same as the last model, except the
phones are designed by frog design so they’re cooler and more
approachable and people are more likely to invest a few minutes in
learning how to use them, so customer satisfaction will go up and we’ll
sell more, even though it’s precisely the same technology we were
Very rarely do vodka marketers tell the truth and say, “here’s our
new vodka, which we buy in bulk from the same distillery that produces
vodka for $8 a bottle. Ours is going to cost $35 a bottle and come in a
really, really nice bottle and our ads will persuade laddies that this
will help them in the dating department… nudge, nudge, know what I
mean, nudge, nudge…”
It would be surprising to meet a monk or a talmudic scholar or a
minister who would say, “yes, we burn the incense or turn down the
lights or ring these bells or light these candles as a way of creating
a room where people are more likely to believe in their prayers,” but
of course that’s exactly what they’re doing. (and you know what?
there’s nothing wrong with that.)
It’s easier to get people to come to a meeting about clock speed and
warranty failure analysis than it is to have a session about
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. The sound Dasani
water makes when you open the bottle is more of the same. It’s all
storytelling. It’s all lies.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In fact, your marketplace insists on it.