Ever felt particularly hungry after a Wendy’s commercial? Felt better about yourself after buying "natural" products wrapped in green and beige plastic? Been enticed to buy cool sunglasses after seeing your favorite celebrity sport them in the latest action movie?
These are all examples of “nudging,” an advertising strategy mentioned by Purdue President Mitch Daniels in his recent Washington Post column, “Someone is watching you.”
Nudging works by using strategies such as emotional advertising, subtle hints, differently colored packaging and more expensive default settings to prod consumers to spend more money, according to an article written in the Harvard Business Review. These nudges are supposed to influence customers’ moods and desires to buy more products without having them realize that they’re being swayed.
Critics of nudging complain that these psychological advertisements relieve people of their personal autonomy and keep people from making well-informed decisions. Some may posit that nudging is akin to deceiving and lying to customers, thus breaking a fundamental promise of honesty and trust between business and consumer. Much of the data employed by “nudgers” is used to send user-specific ads, such as keeping track of past purchases to suggest new deals for Amazon Prime subscribers.
In truth, the worry that our data is being used against us is ridiculous. Complaints against nudging that suggest that personal autonomy does not exist should be regarded as baseless, and they simply aren’t true: Everyone has the capacity to make their own decisions. A company that sends you ads based off of your search history isn’t forcing you to purchase anything. Nudging is nothing more than a well-thought-out advertising strategy, not an evil to subvert free will, and it should stop being treated as such.
On a more pragmatic note, if your data is being used to provide you with deals specific to your interests or on items you purchase regularly, where exactly is the problem?
That aside, advertisers aren’t trying to explicitly lie to customers.
The only “unfair” advantages that marketing departments have are the countless years spent researching their audience market — no brainwashing ray guns or magical spells force consumers to buy their products. While advertisers may have a slight upper hand due to years of research, consumers hold the ultimate moral responsibility for what they purchase.
If an “all-natural” tagline or well-shot commercial actually makes you purchase something, there’s a higher chance that you have a problem with self-control, not that some advertiser is controlling you from a far-away cubicle.