Manipulation vs. Customer Focus, Dilbert-style


One of the post-speech questions I’m often asked is whether employing my neuromarketing strategies is “manipulative” and/or unethical. This weekend’s Dilbert strip by Scott Adams highlights the divide between manipulation and customer focus:


All too often some people in a business look to neuromarketing (in the broad sense) as a quick fix to boost sales in the short run. Much like the CEO character in the strip, it’s another tactic (like raising prices) that’s good for the company for a brief time but most likely bad for both the customer and the company’s long-term prospects.

It’s certainly true that pushing the right emotional buttons or using some technique out of Persuasion Psych 101 can improve the response to an ad or campaign. But, those gains will be short lived if the product doesn’t deliver what is expected or if it’s not right for the customer.

My response to the “manipulation” question is always, “If you are being honest, and if you are helping the customer get to a better place, it’s not manipulation and it’s not unethical.”

The master salesperson, Zig Ziglar, could offer a hundred tips and tricks to help move a deal forward or get the customer to sign a contract. But, he always emphasized that his most important persuasion tool was his own integrity. He would sell only if customer wouldn’t regret the purchase and would, in fact, appreciate the effort of the salesperson.

Ziglar’s approach to persuasion with integrity ensured not only happy customers but future referrals as well.

In today’s age of enforced transparency for business, manipulative tactics that deceive the customer simply won’t work. They will be quickly exposed and, with consumer voices amplified by social media, cause far more damage to the business than any short-term benefit.

So, learn from Dilbert… he’s a techie, not a marketer, but he understands what’s important: focus on your customers and their needs.

  1. Jennifer says

    Yep. I get this question a lot too. Almost daily if I think about it. And I feel the same. The definition of manipulate is to “control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously”. ANY marketing can be unscrupulous, not just neuromarketing. Indeed there are companies using neuromarketing and other tactics to manipulate consumers, which is why it’s all the more important that businesses who care about their audience/customers learn the same tactics because cognitive biases exist whether we want to address them or not.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Exactly, Jennifer. Ads can be misleading, or outright false. Salespeople can lie or omit key information. Any marketing or sales tactic can be used in a manipulative or unethical manner.

  2. Stanislav says

    For my understanding, subconscious manipulations are something you cannot resist, even if you perfectly know how it works. Many brands use it for tens of years without any hiding. The only way to protect yourself from performing of their instructions is do not see/hear the commercial or ad. Otherwise, neuromarketing hacks will 100% get into your brain and do their work. Or we talk about different neuromarketings?
    Neuromarketing IS “a quick fix to boost sales in the short run”. It is absolutely possible to arrange neuromarketing compaign quick, effective and inexpensive if you know what you are doing. No metter it is visible or covert, if you’ll do it right, the result is predicted by biology of human body!

    1. Roger Dooley says

      “Cannot resist” really overstates the potential of any ad, Stanislav. (If only it were so!)

      If you do A/B testing, you’ll find nothing converts at 100%. At best, you can hope for a statistically significant boost in results by employing neuro/behavioral strategies.

  3. Miles says

    Right you are, Roger! Marketing tactics can work in the short term, but if you don’t provide true, honest value to your customers they won’t return…they may even turn against you online and proclaim to the world their dissatisfaction.

  4. Dillon Compton says

    An interesting corollary here is that if someone tries to buy your product or service, and it *isn’t* the right choice for them, one of the best things you can do is refer them to a competitor who is a better fit. Sounds counterintuitive, right?

    There a ton of good blog posts and articles out there on this (James Altucher has an anecdote that I like but can’t find right now, so here is another instead The takeaway of them all is that referring a potential customer to the right solution, instead of selling them yours, breeds trust, loyalty, and a brand experience that those potential customers will remember. Later on, maybe they’ll need what you offer — or refer you to someone who does. Even if nothing comes of it, you’ve done right by another person, and that’s what really counts.

    Providing value will beat selling yourself. Every. Single. Time.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I couldn’t agree more, Dillon. Marketers and salespeople focused on quick wins regardless of customer needs will become quick failures soon after.

  5. Stanislav says

    Let me explain it. I do not talk about single campaign, which will bring 100% conversion rate. I mean that if you made correct, truly neuromerketing solution, which acts with subconscious, 100% of viewers/listeners will receive included suggestion and it will become a part of their reality without any conscientious objections. For marketer it is a “golden key”, which can be then activated many many times to achieve a goal and receive desired conversion.
    If you develop a brand with long future life, you have enough time to wait until this key will work. Good marketing is not what to show one time to express customer forever, but ability to apply many iterations of contact of potential customer with brand in order to train him to associate immediately Nike’s swoosh with all he knows about its product.
    A/B tests don’t give a picture of effects of long lasting marketing strategy. Only current cut, which will be subjective anyway. Moreover, the advantage of neuromarketing is ability to plan and implement marketing strategies without any A/B tests. Results received in any neuromarketing study can be used to develop another marketing product, as all leaving humans have same biology. And this makes sure that product will work 100%. Using neuromarketing you can precisely predict the result of your strategy, and clearly understand which part of your identics/site/banner/ad/jingle etc. makes neuro effect.
    This what I mean cannot resist.
    Most common error is to understand “manipulation” as something preformed one time. If you remember work of Steve Jobs, so his strategy is entire manipulation. Everywhere! Over and over. Under your wide closed eyes. He performed neuromarketing miracle by making people be addicted of Apple products. In every pixel, you have seen from Apple. Did you get it? Can you see it in fMRI?

    Watch “1984” it is full of neuromarketing. If you do neuromarketing studies so long time, you must be able to explain as 1,2,3 how it works without any fMRI and A/B. It is very interesting to see your comments on this Ad in near publications.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I see what you mean, Stanislav. Very few brands have the budget and patience to build that sort of long-term subconscious preference. Coca Cola comes to mind as one brand that has done that.

  6. Stanislav says

    McDonalds is one of best at my point of view. I dont know if you’ve seen this ad, but it is fully neuromarketing.
    What do you think about it?

  7. Roger Dooley says

    Interesting ad, Stanislav. Definitely an emotional/branding type ad, in the same vein as some of the Budweiser Super Bowl commercials in that there is very little focus on product, pricing, etc. In this case, though, the product does play an important role.

    Did the ending work for you? I thought it was kind of a down note to finish on. Time for an UNhappy Meal!

  8. Miles says

    That ad makes me hungry, and I don’t even eat french fries. Must be a pretty good ad.

  9. Stanislav says

    The ending is the break of pattern – required element of any subconscious impact. It gives several seconds, while our brain is hanging in cycle, to apply the suggestion without one’s conscious approval. Negative emotion does not make meal unwanted, contrariwise, it actually attracts people to buy product. Where did you see positive emotion in Apple’s “1984”?
    Beside common emotional direction of this ad, can you specify, what neuro attractive images and tools were used by authors and why. As there are at least 10 such images, each having impact power due to our psychological features.
    This ad is one of best neuromarketing examples I have seen. It was half year on Ukrainian TV.
    By the way, world’s most visited McDonalds is situated in Kiev, Ukraine!

  10. JMoli says

    Emotions are our Achilles heel. However, there is a growing concern about these vulnerabilities and people are more likely to stand up for their rights if they are cheated. It is nothing bad about it, because customer awareness pushes companies to fulfill their promises and deliver better services.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I agree, Jmoli – it is far more difficult for a business or brand to treat customers poorly or sell products that don’t deliver what they promised. Consumers are all connected, and they will expose bad actors quickly.

  11. Luke Boobyer says

    Great point here: “If you are being honest, and if you are helping the customer get to a better place, it’s not manipulation and it’s not unethical.”

    If you are honestly helping the customer and you know for a fact it will help them get to a better place then I don’t believe it’s manipulation or unethical. What I am really uneasy about however is when people deliberately lie to customers just to make a sale. I see it all the time in the web design industry and it really grinds my gears. You get a short term gain but in the long run your lies will unravel and you will damage your reputation will tarnishing us honest folk.

  12. Kulli Pillussa says

    What’s wrong with manipulation? As long you won’t be caught and it’s not illegal just do it.

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