Placebo MarketingWe all know what the placebo effect is – give a group of patients a sugar pill instead of a medication with active ingredients, and some of them will show an improvement in their symptoms. Drug researchers treat the placebo effect as an annoying artifact that must be eliminated by using double-blind studies. Other health care advocates see it as remarkable evidence of human capacity for self-healing, and a topic that deserves extensive study. But what relevance does it have for marketers? New research shows that the placebo effect is related to the brain’s reward system, and it’s not a big leap to say that much of marketing is trying to achieve a non-medical placebo effect in the minds of customers.

First, the new research: a ScientificAmerican.com article by Nikhil Swaminathan, Expect the Best? Placebos Are for You! New study links expectations of rewards to placebo effect, describes a study performed by neuroscientist and radiologist Jon-Kar Zubieta and colleagues at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Subjects were first tested for their response to a placebo “painkiller” administered prior to a needle stick; as is typical, subjects exhibited different levels of pain relief from the bogus injection. On another day, they participated in a seemingly unrelated game of chance in which they were told they could win money.

Participants were told they could win or lose a certain amount of money each round; they would then push a button to determine the real take. Several of the participants showed a flurry of activity involving dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens while awaiting the outcome, indicating that they were expecting a reward. The people whose nucleus accumbens lit up during the game also reported greater relief from the sham painkillers. “What surprised me the most was the strong link between this element of reward processing and the fact that you can predict the placebo response,” Zubieta says. “The placebo effect is a resiliency mechanism in the brain. You don’t [really] need the medication, you simply need to be convinced that something is going to work.”

This is significant news for medical researchers, who see new avenues of treatment being opened up. Long before neuromarketing became a buzzword, though, marketers have known about managing expectations. Simply put, marketers know that if they can create an expectation in the mind of their customer, and then not do anything to contradict that expectation, they have a good chance that the customer will find that expectation to be fully met. The “not contradicting” element is the key part of the process. Marketers try to create expectations with just about every customer contact. Often, though, those expectations are crushed, or at least strained, during the actual experience. It’s easy for a marketer to create an expectation of “fast, friendly service” – but if the customer has to wait in line to be served by a surly clerk, the expectation will fail to turn into the customer’s actual perception. Indeed, the dissonance between the promise and the reality may actually increase the customer’s perception of bad service.

But lots of expectations are a bit more nebulous – if a customer is expecting to be served coffee that is “aromatic, rich, and bursting with complex flavor… made using the finest coffee beans from the farthest corners of the globe, picked at the perfect moment, and roasted using a special process to lock in flavor and enhance the taste” and gets a cup that’s not half bad, he may attribute some of those superior characteristics to it. Like the placebo recipients, though, some customers are more likely to be influenced by the message than others. The same kinds of positive individuals who expect to win in a game of chance will probably experience the product as described by the message if there are no major disconnects between them.

Although the reports on the placebo study didn’t describe the personalities of the groups for which the placebo worked vs. those for which it didn’t, I’d assume that the latter group contained individuals more cynical in nature with generally pessimistic expectations. This would be the same type of person who, given a chance to wager a sum of money, would say, “I know I’m just going to lose…” These individuals are likely to cast a jaundiced eye at any marketing effort, assuming that the marketer is exaggerating if not being actually deceptive. (Maybe we’ll do a piece on “marketing to cynics” in the future.)

This concept differs from priming. Priming is more subtle than a placebo because it works entirely below the conscious level. By presenting the subject with non-obvious cues, the subsequent behavior of the subject is altered. In administering a placebo, an overt act is accompanied by a description of the expectated experience, e.g., pain relief, relaxation, etc.

To sum up, the key elements of placebo marketing are,

  • Describe the positive experience the customer will have when she uses the product, visits the establishment, etc.
  • Ensure that the actual experience doesn’t actually contradict the expectation you have established.
  • Understand that some, but not all, customers will end up having the experience you described for them.
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