Are Consumers Dumb? Yes, and Advertisers Love It!

Dopey, copyright Walt Disney Productions

Dopey, copyright Walt Disney Productions

Companies and their marketers rely on consumers to be dumb—or at least momentarily dumb. You hear a lot about how smart consumers are, but really, that’s a bunch of bull. We still fall for the same tricks and are attracted to shiny objects. Otherwise, JCPenney’s Fair and Square campaign might have worked. (I’ll get back to that in a bit.)

First, before you think this is some sort of attack, I’ll use myself as an example. I consider myself a smart shopper. I read labels, read reviews, compare specs, etc., but I am still a sucker for endcaps and bright designs.

In case you don’t know, a store’s endcap is the product shelving at the end of a row that faces the main aisle. It’s valuable space where they put all the bright, shiny objects they want to sell most. And it works. I just bought a pack of “Dark Side” Skittles because they caught my attention and I was curious enough to throw them in my cart—even though the only “candy” in my cupboard is usually chocolate.

Watch for Red Flags

Right now, one industry trying to take advantage of these sorts of random bouts of stupidity is the auto insurance industry. I got this in the mail from Allstate:

Allstate DriveWise postcard

Allstate wants your reaction to be: “Ooh, look honey, we’re safe drivers, we can finally save more money just by putting this little doohickey in our car.”

But look closer. This is what it does (Progressive has the same thing.)

  1. Call to get your device. You’ll get a 10% discount just for signing up (red flag!).
  2. Plug it in under your car’s dashboard.
  3. Drive safely.
  4. The device collects your car’s driving data (red flag!). You can then track your data and savings online. (Distraction: Wow! We can see how much we’re saving.)

Notice the wording too. The device “collects”—a harmless-seeming verb—while you “track.” They were very careful to put the focus on what you can do, and even smarter to make it seem like they’re helping you. But yes, of course, their device is tracking you. That’s how they’ll determine pricing, by your monitored behavior.

People complain about “big brother” and the government intruding on privacy, but many companies are making much more inroads on mining private data than the government. Allstate’s DRIVEWISE device and Progressive’s Snapshot device are essentially monitoring tools.

All companies need to do is get you hooked—who doesn’t want to save 60 percent, right? (But you’re not going to save that much.) Then later, they can add more and more restrictions until you’re stuck—until we’re all stuck really, as the other types of plans fade away and become more pricey. This is how industries change (like health insurance did), all under the guise of giving consumers more control.

Don’t fall for it. Yes, we will probably always be drawn to fun or fancy designs and bright colors. But take a few moments to read the fine print.

Back to JCPenney

They began with two great ideas:

  1. Let’s do something different from our competitors.
  2. Let’s be straightforward with our pricing and save customers time and money.

Fabulous! Except, we consumers like to be tricked. We need visual reminders we’re getting a good deal. That’s why we clip coupons and shop sales (even on holidays and when we have to line up at 2 a.m.). As much as we hate haggling over the price of a car, we love it too, because ultimately when we walk away, we feel like we won.

Now we have “loyalty” cards that track all our shopping habits and now have these devices for our car that will send all data about how we drive to our car insurance company. All because we don’t want fair pricing—we want gimmicks, prices that end in “99” and sales to make us feel like we win.

Stop being the sucker advertisers want you to be. We have smart phones, smart appliances and smart TVs—isn’t it time we have smart shoppers too?

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