This week’s Time Magazine reviews Geoffrey Miller’s book Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior. The book makes the case that much of our behavior can be traced to self-advertisement in the pursuit of mates.  One quoted section in the review caught my attention.  The reviewer titled this paragraph, “On the futility of consumer capitalism:

“We take wondrously adaptive capacities for human self-display — language, intelligence, kindness, creativity, and beauty — and then forget how to use them in making friends, attracting mates and gaining prestige. Instead, we rely on goods and services acquired through education, work and consumption to advertise our personal traits to others. These costly signals are mostly redundant or misleading, so others usually ignore them. They prefer to judge us through natural face-to-face interaction. We think our gilding dazzles them, though we ignore their own gilding when choosing our friends and mates.”

Although Miller is writing about general human behavior, many companies make the same mistakes with marketing.  They “forget” how to use basic human skills for attracting customers, relying instead on manufactured, unnatural, flashy means of communication, such as advertising, which are ignored most of the time.  Customers, instead, prefer to judge companies through natural face-to-face interactions.  Parallel to what Miller says, advertisers think their gilding dazzles customers, though the advertising professionals that produce this gilded communication make their own personal purchase decisions in the same way non-marketing professionals do: not by evaluating advertising, but by evaluating the constellation of more relevant interactions that happen through the normal course of doing business with a company.

Human communication is not about what you present, it is about how you are understood.  Why is so much money and effort spent communicating companies’ messages in ways that are so inconsistent with the way we live our non-marketing lives?

1 Comment

  • Dan Gunter
    May 26, 2009 - 16:51 pm

    While we ultimately judge relationships and our experiences as customers on just that — the experience — we are also innately curious creatures. We can, in fact, be drawn in to begin with by superficial factors and appearances. Case in point: many is the man or woman who was attracted to a person of the opposite sex by appearance and the image they portrayed of themselves (i.e., “self marketing” or self promotion), only to discover over time that the person was not a good “fit” and made them downright miserable. This is a major contributor to high divorce rates — jump into a marriage only to discover over time that you didn’t marry the person you thought you did. You bought the sales pitch. You fell for the marketing. Now you know the truth and you are not happy with it. Maybe the other person did likewise.

    Marketing attempts to take advantage of a simple weakness that is unavoidable: being ignorant of the truth. But that is only true initially. We might believe the advertising claims because we have no “data” in our memory banks to tell us the ad claims are false. Once we actually do business with the company or purchase their product, we gain that data a la experience. If said experience is negative, we don’t go back or we don’t purchase the product again. And we often tell others about it.

    Consumers are becoming a bit more savvy. They are better equipped with the ability to go online and read customer reviews, complaints, etc. To offset this, companies merely spend more and more money trying to advertise false claims to the contrary in order to get new “suckers” to give up their money. Where a lot of potentially good companies miss the golden opportunity is that instead of spending more money to make more false claims, they should instead invest in fixing the problem — improve the quality of the services or goods. Then be honest in telling John Q. Public — we are “New and improved” or “Under new management,” so to speak.

    “It’s far cheaper to keep a customer than to earn a new one.” We’ve all heard that over and over. But we haven’t internalized it. Advertising companies don’t want us to think about that because they have a devil of a time figuring out how to make a commission off of “word of mouth” referrals and good, old fashioned, reputability.

    Perhaps the last fact above is why we’re seeing a whole new breed of advertising specialists succeed. The new — shall we say more “sustainable” — breed of advertising firms are the ones who take the approach “If you offer great services and products, we will help you establish a viral marketing campaign.” The best of the best of these know from the outset that they don’t want to get caught dead trying to market a dud. They want to align themselves with real winners and build their reputation on it.

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