Thursday, April 10, 2008

Brave New World revisited: Blissful ignorance, like Soma for consumer regrets

“The warm, the richly colored, the infinitely friendly world of soma-holiday. How kind, how good-looking, how delightfully amusing every one was! "
- Aldoux Huxley

We all know someone like this, be it a friend, a co-worker, a sister, in-law, or favorite cousin: At a restaurant with this person, whatever they order, it’s going to get sent back to the kitchen.

My special someone like this – let’s call her Heidi – always, always, always wants her steak done differently, her fish without sauce, and her sandwich without mayonnaise, even if she ordered it that way in the first place. She could find a dirty spot on lettuce that has been put through an industrial dishwasher. And then there’s Heidi’s partner, Stan, who likes to buy things at Costco, bring them home, and then take a few weeks to decide if he really likes them. He put a flat screen television on his American Express card a few months ago, watched the Super Bowl, decided it was too small, and back it went. Picky eaters, buyer’s remorse, indecisiveness, rejection, and regret are anathema to manufacturers and marketers alike. Wouldn’t it be great if you pre-empt or eliminate this, without perhaps, lacing the water supply with mood-enhancing drugs?

It might not be necessary, according to a study done by professor of marketing Dhananjay Nayakankuppam at IU, which found that people don’t want to know too much negative information about their purchases. The study used three fairly typical experiments on consumer choice: two consumer tests on chocolate and hand lotion, and then a video rating experiment.

Researchers dubbed their finding the “Blissful Ignorance Effect,” but they might as well have called it, “the Marketer’s Dream Study” because it’s so keyed in to what the marketing world wants to hear about its clients – less is more and the image is all.

But if you look closely, the key point is this: “once people commit to buying or consuming something, there is a kind of wishful thinking that happens and they want to like what they’ve bought.” I wonder: is that such a complex insight that needed a funded study? Give me some chocolate and unless it tastes like cardboard (or is shaped like something hideous), it’d take a cataclysmic event to get me to regret eating it. I mean really, chocolate?!!! What is there to regret? Nayakankuppam says, “We want to be happy with our decisions.,” and points to people’s emotional attachment to their purchases. But it’s false reasoning (or wishful thinking!) to apply those insights backwards to the original decision-making process and suggest people don’t need the information in the first place.

What marketers often fail to consider is that all material things – especially consumable goods – have a biography and history. Marketers focus on brand loyalty a lot, but the truth is, it’s much more complex, especially when products are relentlessly and continually altered and labeled “new.” The unending quest for newness has to be countered by something, perhaps either regret or blinders, just so people have a chance to move on! Case in point: I’ve just barely begun to enjoy my latest cell phone or my laptop and there’s a better version of it out there. Yes, technology changes fast. But does that mean I don’t want information about it? Certainly not AFTER I bought it.

What is lacking in this study is context. After all, if people professed to be unhappy with their purchases, would that be better? Are consumer experiences really divided only into angry regret and blissful ignorance? One key question the UI researchers neglected was whether they’d go back and buy the same product again.

Consumers have the unenviable conundrum of having both too much and too little information. From chocolate to hand lotion to DVD players, how much does any of us really know about the exact process by which they are made (ask and I’ll be happy to tell you all about chocolate)? The only time it’s transparent is when there’s a problem (lead paint) or the production process is part of what’s being sold (the market for green or sustainably-produced goods, for example). So much information that comes with advertising is not useful or not clearly authoritative. Ignoring bad feelings or second thoughts after a purchase is probably a great safety mechanism for our overloaded brains. Simplicity is good, but not because consumers are whacked out on soma, but because they’re bored with too much useless info and a lot of pressure to move on to another purchase before they’ve had much time to enjoy the one they’ve got!

Now eat your soma, I mean chocolate, and be happy.

Tags: , ,

No comments: