If you knew then what you know now, would you have made the same decision?
In the last fifty years, more than 25,000,000 Americans have died prematurely due to cigarette smoking. Worldwide, it’s significantly higher. That’s fifty times as many U.S. citizens as died in World War II.
How did cigarette marketers manage to keep selling their product for decades once the danger was known? And are we able to see how many industries use this playbook to sell us on actions that are against our interests?
The key drivers of widespread marketing impact are status and affiliation.
The status of doing what James Dean or another movie star did in a movie. The status of a rock star or a spy.
Women didn’t smoke much in public until a well-publicized stunt had society women causing a scandal by smoking while walking in the Easter Day parade on Fifth Ave. in New York. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Status cues.
And affiliation? Peer pressure, the freedom of the Marlboro Man, the social requirements created by the high-status folks who required it… No teenager wants to be left behind by their peers.
The same thing happened with the seemingly less fatal but also expensive meme of a diamond engagement ring. Using similar tactics, DeBeers created status expectations and cultural standards that pushed people to spend billions of dollars on small rocks.
And, surprisingly, again with gas stoves. I got tricked by this, as did millions of others. Walking away from the affiliation of what our parents did (those spiral electric heating elements) to the power and status of a gas stove that seemed right out of Prometheus.
Of course, traditional diamond mining is brutal, dangerous and dirty. And we now know, and have known for a long time, that gas stoves in a kitchen or apartment are needlessly dangerous, particularly to children and others that breathe.
And yet we resist! We don’t want to give up that thing that is part of our identity, that we grew up with or aspire to acquire. It doesn’t really matter that there are elegant and beautiful alternatives to the stones, or that an induction cooktop works even better than gas. It’s the story and the way it was sold to us (they hustled Bob Hope’s writers to give him jokes where the punchline was “now we’re cooking with gas”).
The status quo is resilient. Almost everyone in the jewelry business or the appliance business will do fine (perhaps even better) if we switch. Unless you own a diamond mine or a pipeline company, switching to a more resilient, safer and kinder alternative is probably good for business.
But the stories persist. The stories about status, about affiliation and the risk of the new.