Idiomdrottning’s homepage

Probably the best gravel in the world

I got asked a rhetorical question the other day after I said that I believe that people and policies are to a large extent influenced by market forces, like advertising.

The question was:

I don’t buy that. If corporations can sell anything, why don’t they just sell the cheapest possible product, like gravel or raw sugar, at the highest possible margin? Sure, there’s a marketing industry but it’s mostly to distinguish product A from the similar product B. People aren’t really to any greater extent getting influenced to buy product from categories they don’t even want.

Like, if you wanna buy chocolate, the ads might influence which exact band you buy, but if you don’t wanna buy chocolate, ads aren’t gonna make you buy chocolate.

OK. So for that first question, the product composition is part of the marketing. Market capitalism isn’t teleological or even easily harnessed. It’s a wild, evolved system. Gravel on its own wouldn’t the product; gravel plus an ad campaign would be. And sugar isn’t the product; sugar + cacao + coloring + texture + packaging + branding + ads is the product. The evolution and composition and combination of different commodities into more complex products is an emergent process afforded by the foundational market processes.

Just like the Earth isn’t solely populated by prokaryotes and goop. There are cacti and storks and snakes and all kinds of weird stuff. Conway’s “Life” game is one of the starkest distillations of that process; no cell is an island. Things glob together in gliders and generators.

It’s not that some shady smoky table thinks “ho ho ho, let’s poison them with candy”. It just happens to be what works. That’s what emergent systems are. Millions of spaghetti strands getting thrown at the wall and some of it sticks and what sticks isn’t necessarily what’s best for us or made with our best interests in mind. (And the dumps and landfills of so many failed products show the flipside of this process.)

The decreased fungibility of composite products are an evolved part of their value proposition in the pseudobiological ecosystem of these candy markets.

For that second presupposition, I believe prettty differently. I believe that ads try to, and often succeed, convincing people to buy something they wouldn’t otherwise buy, to buy a product category they wouldn’t really wanna go near. It’s not the only factor; there was demand for booze even during prohibition, for example.

The enduring presence of the ad industry is for me one of the biggest signs that it does work, second only to my own anecdata experiences of being successfully tempted by effective marketing campaigns.

But there’s no need to try to use philosophy to reason about this. It seems like a reasonably falsifiable and studiable proposition. “Do people buy things based on ads?” seems like it could be tested beyond the way it’s already being proven every day a company that advertises is more successful than one that doesn’t.

The Swedish word for advertising, “reklam”, comes (via French) from Latin “reclāmāre”, which means to shout something repeatedly. Getting exposed to a message again and again is part of why it works.

The idea of “free will” is a useful interface to how we navigate the world but to maintain that, it’s pretty key to know that we can get influenced in ways we don’t even know about.