I'd like to start this blog post by using an historical event as an example. At the time of this event, consumers felt that they were expressing their free will in the marketplace. But according to the orchestrator of this event, free will and consumer choice played no part.

In his seminal 1928 book, Propaganda, the father of public relations, Edward Bernays, describes how he increased sales of velvet:

[The] problem arose, not long ago, when the velvet manufacturers were facing ruin because their product has long been out of fashion. Analysis showed that it was impossible to revive a velvet fashion in America. Anatomical hunt for the vital spot! Paris! Obviously! But yes and no. Paris is the home of fashion. Lyons is the home of silk. The attack had to be made at source. It was determined to substitute purpose for chance and to utilize the regular sources for fashion distribution and to influence the public from these sources. A velvet fashion service, openly supported by the manufacturers, was organized. Its first function was to establish contact with the Lyons manufactories and the Paris courtiers to discover what they were doing, to encourage them to act on behalf of velvet, and to help in the proper exploitation of their wares. An intelligent Parisian was enlisted in the work. He visited Lanvin and Worth, Agnes and Patou, and others and induced them to use velvet in their gowns and hats. It was he who arranged for the distinguished Countess This or Duchess That to wear the hat or the gown. And as for the presentation of the idea to the public, the American buyer or the American woman of fashion was simply shown the velvet creations in the atelier of the dressmaker or the milliner. She bought the velvet because she liked it and because it was in fashion.

Bernays then goes on to dissect and explain why this worked:

The editors of the American magazines and fashion reporters of the American newspapers, likewise subjected to  the actual (although created) circumstance, reflected it in their news, which, in turn, subjected the buyer and the consumer here to the same influences. The result was that what was at first a trickle of velvet became a flood. A demand was slowly, but deliberately, created in Paris and America. A big department store, aiming to be a style leader, advertised velvet gowns and hats on the authority of the French courtiers, and quoted original cables received from them. The echo of the new style was heard from hundreds of department stores throughout the country which wanted to be style leaders too. Bulletins followed dispatches. The mail followed the cables. And the American woman traveler appeared before the ship news photographers in velvet gown and hat.

The created circumstance had their effect. "Fickle fashion has veered to velvet," was one newspaper comment. And the industry in the United States again kept thousands busy.

Where do I see this happening today? At the centre of one of the world's largest and growing markets; a market which is not only central to many peoples' daily lives but is branching into an ever-increasing number of imaginative corners to become omnipresent: communication technology. This is a market which is dominated by three public companies: Apple, Google and Microsoft.

[I haven't included Facebook in that list because the way I see it, Facebook reacts only to a single taste receptor, unlike the three mentioned above.]

Three of the world's largest corporations are ruling increasing areas of our daily lives. These three corporations often feature towards the top of most-trusted polls, so it should come as no surprise that these are three of the world's most valuable companies. [Images are © Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corporation.]

This is a market in which analysts and economists talk about vertical and horizontal integration whereby a company sells you one product or service, then sells another product or service through the first, or sells you a complementary product or service on the basis of some tie-in with the first. These products are no longer simply commodities that you use but are increasingly becoming articles upon which we base our lives, and the impression which we give others about the way we live our lives, i.e. our identity. Because of these vertical and horizontal tie-ins, whichever company makes the greatest impression tends to become the dominant vendor upon which we rely to get through the day (and night).

Our Choices Bubble to the Surface

Are you an iPhone user? If so, did you then buy an iPad, reasoning that life would just be easier if all your devices run the same software? Or are you a user of Google's Android operating system? Did you perhaps buy a phone because of a lower price, then find that Android and Google's services covered all your technology needs, and they were free? Or maybe you reasoned that you've been using Microsoft's Windows for years and you may just as well stick with what you know, and bought a Windows Phone or maybe even a Surface tablet? You have rational reasons, I'm sure, for making purchases like this, and I'm equally sure you could explain them to me.

To anyone who hadn't been taught in school that under the surface of the Earth is liquified rock this would seem like nonsense. After all, we walk around on hard, stone-like surfaces; if we trip and fall we can break bones, such is the solidity of the ground. If this really is just a crust on top of liquified rock, what's keeping it in situ? Why doesn't the ground collapse? But then we can look at a volcano, to the magma spewing forth and we can see that this volcano constitutes a channel to the primal and torrid liquid layer under our surface. We now know that this liquified layer eventually becomes solid iron in the very centre of our planet, and that the interplay between these two layers explains our magnetosphere, and that this in turn explains many facets of our atmosphere, including visual phenomena like the Northern Lights.

Or to put it another way, unseen forces under the surface play a pivotal role in what we see on and from the surface of our planet, as well as its appearance and activity if viewed from space. Quite simply, the liquid magma layer deep under our feet greatly influences the identity of and life on our planet.

Just like the maelstrom under the surface of the Earth, as humans we all have underlying, subconscious thought patterns that form our psyche, our ego. We're usually unaware of this whirring away in the background, but like a volcano reveals the underlying nature of a planet, our behaviour reveals our underlying thought patterns.

The undercurrents which are responsible for the way our planet behaves occasionally show themselves to observers on the surface and in space, much like the subconscious affects each persons' behaviour. [Images from onebigphoto.com and The Telegraph.]

Returning to the reasons for buying today's technology: purchases like this were made on sound reasons, you read about it beforehand, or you listened to what the salesperson in the shop had to say. Or you thumbed through the promotional literature in the shop and arrived at a decision. And you may well still be happy with that decision to this day. But there's a darker side to these reasons, and it's mostly hidden from us. There are underlying reasons we make the decisions we make, and these underlying reasons bubble to the surface. Between our ego and our conscious brain they pass other thoughts which influence them, and when they arrive in our conscious brain we believe that we've constructed that decision through a logical, rational, explicable process. The unsettling truth is that the decision was made before we even asked ourselves the question.

Unconscious Approval

We don't live our lives in silos, we consciously and unconsciously influence those around us, our friends, family and colleagues. Even those people we sit next to on the train. It was first observed by Gustave Le Bon and Gabriel Tarde that we spend our time in a multitude of overlapping crowds of influence, and that each of these crowds has individuals with a greater degree of influence than others. You may not realise, but simply walking past other people on the street, talking about an unrelated matter with friends, or being introduced to a new person through work influences the commodities that you buy in just the same way that, according to Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation, we each exert an unobserved gravitational pull on everyone else around us.

Gustave Le Bon (left) and Gabriel Tarde, both of whom were pioneers in researching group behaviour. [Images from Le Bon and Tarde.]

Think about this: you've paid a not-insubstantial amount of money for a new phone. It's yours; you handed over money for it and it now belongs to you. So why does the manufacturer's name or logo have such prominent placement? Why is it their name or logo and not yours that dominates the back of the device for others to see? Clearly, this is done so that when others observe your using the device - and in so doing you are unconsciously influencing them - they can see the name of the manufacturer and know that that's whose device you are using. If you think about it objectively it might seem slightly absurd that we all agree to become walking advertisements for a large company whom you've just paid for the opportunity of owning one of their devices.

So why do we agree to our becoming walking advertisements? This is down to two reasons.

  1. Placement of the manufacturer's name or logo is so commonplace that there's no alternative; we've come to expect a manufacturer's name on the device.
  2. Because at a subconscious level we actually want people to see whose devices we are using.

In fact, to extrapolate on that latter point, by willingly holding up a manufacturer's name what we are actually showing our peers is that we were willingly influenced. In other words, although we may not have consciously realised, we saw, we liked what we saw, and when the opportunity arose we decided to place ourselves into that same set. And now we want others to see that we are part of that set. There's nothing wrong with this, we do it in so many other areas of our lives: when we discuss TV programs we've watched the previous evening, when we tell others of music we enjoy, when we vote in an election - even if we don't inform others of our voting choice we are still paying some degree of attention to a party's or candidate's pledges and endorsing or accepting them. Absorbing and endorsing the attitudes of those we cross paths with is a major part of living amongst other people, and it probably has been so for millenia.

This is why Bernays believed that consumer spending was the highest form of democracy.

Why is that we willingly accept manufacturer's branding on our person? The placement is such that the branding is visible not to the owner but to the observer. [Images from Zalando and www.softsupplier.com.]

In the second part of this post I'm going to explain how modern advertising is affecting consumerism in the communication technology market, and how I see one of the major players being affected by this. What I want you to take from part 1 is that the decisions we make, particularly purchasing decisions, have been highly subconsciously influenced. And because this takes place beneath our level of awareness, we wrongly believe in more rational reasons as the cause.