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The Placebo Affect*

PillEverybody already knows how powerful the brain is. Take a sugar pill that’s supposed to be a powerful medicine and watch your symptoms disappear. Have a surgeon not perform bypass surgery on your heart (link.) and discover that the angina that has been crippling you vanishes.

The placebo effect is not just for sick people anymore.

Why do some ideas have more currency than others? Because we believe they should. When Chris Anderson or Malcolm Gladwell writes about something, it’s a better idea because they wrote about it.

Even as your culture of ideas and marketing enters its long-tail, open-source, low-barrier, everyone-has-a-blog era of mass publication, we still need filters. Would your iPod sound as sweet if everyone else had a Rio? Would your Manolo Blahniks be as cool if everyone else were wearing Keds?

Arthur Anderson audited thousands of companies, and those audits gave us confidence in those companies, made them appear more solid, which, not surprisingly, made them more solid. Then, post Enron, the placebo effect disappeared. Same companies, same auditors, but suddenly those companies appeared LESS solid, which made them less solid.

The magic of the placebo effect lies in the fact that you can’t do it to yourself. You need an accomplice. Someone in authority who will voluntarily tell you a story.

That’s what marketers do. We have the  “placebo affect.” (* The knack for creating placebos.) Of course, we need to persuade ourselves that it’s morally and ethically and financially okay to  participate in something as unmeasurable as the placebo effect. The effect is controversial and it goes largely unspoken. Very rarely do we come to meetings and say, “well, here’s our cool new PBX for Fortune 1000 companies. It’s exactly the same as the last model, except the phones are designed by frog design so they’re cooler and more approachable and people are more likely to invest a few minutes in learning how to use them, so customer satisfaction will go up and we’ll sell more, even though it’s precisely the same technology we were selling yesterday.”

Very rarely do vodka marketers tell the truth and say, “here’s our new vodka, which we buy in bulk from the same distillery that produces vodka for $8 a bottle. Ours is going to cost $35 a bottle and come in a really, really nice bottle and our ads will persuade laddies that this will help them in the dating department… nudge, nudge, know what I mean, nudge, nudge…”

It would be surprising to meet a monk or a talmudic scholar or a minister who would say, “yes, we burn the incense or turn down the lights or ring these bells or light these candles as a way of creating a room where people are more likely to believe in their prayers,” but of course that’s exactly what they’re doing. (and you know what? there's nothing wrong with that.)

It’s easier to get people to come to a meeting about clock speed and warranty failure analysis than it is to have a session about storytelling.

We don’t like to admit that we tell stories, that we’re in the placebo business. Instead, we tell ourselves about features and benefits as a way to rationalize our desire to to help our customers by allowing them to lie to themselves.

The design of your blog or your package or your outfit is nothing but an affect designed to create the placebo effect. The sound Dasani water makes when you open the bottle is more of the same. It’s all storytelling. It’s all lies.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In fact, your marketplace insists on it.

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Placebo Affect*:

» Creating Placebos from The River
Fantastic post from Seth Godin about the essential nature of marketing. While I don't believe the placebo effect can make up for terrible products/services/ideas, I do believe that fundamentally sound things can go much further if they have a compelling [Read More]

» Placebos And Other Opportunities from CommonSenseDesk
Seth Godin has some thoughts on the placebo effect. [Read More]

» Is telling a story lying? from Perspective
While I thoroughly enjoy reading Seth's Blog, his post today on The Placebo Affect has much to say that I find myself disagreeing with on principle. First, the specific paragraphs that I have an issue with,That’s what marketers do. We [Read More]

» The Placebo Affect from Synapse Chronicles
Seth Godin: The Placebo Affect. Would your iPod sound as sweet if everyone else had a Rio? Would your Manolo Blahniks be as cool if everyone else were wearing Keds?... [Read More]

» Why is it that only marketers know how to get a message across? from Ryan Sholin's J-School Blog
Every time I find someone who really gets story structure, or how to sell a story to the public, it’s a Marketing type. ... [Read More]

» The Placebo Affect* from Point-N-Click
Seth Godin strikes up a very interesting conversation about our ideas, and perceptions, and how the marketer's job is to help create that conversation almost preemptively. And, oddly enough, because I am blogging about his article, I am creating plac... [Read More]

» Sugarpills, Anyone from achievable ends
Seth Godin nails another brilliant post on the power of The Placebo Effect. We don’t like to admit that we tell stories, that we’re in the placebo business. Instead, we tell ourselves about features and benefits as a way to [Read More]

» The Accomplice from reBang weblog
Some of my entries are going to seem like they just don't belong here. I realize that. I post entries on applied art, virtual reality, and rapid prototyping technology, and a fair number of you probably don't see how I connect those things; espec... [Read More]

» Let's Make Some Sugar Pills from Fresh Glue
Once again Seth Godin reminds us of the role marketers play with his post The Placebo Affect. [Read More]

» Telling Stories from Wurkit - Daniel Ritzenthaler
Seth Godin is chuck full of good ideas and is valiantly trying to get people to realize that being more than a store down the street and becoming a company with a story is the best thing you can do for success. I think he's right! How clean your sto... [Read More]

» "The Placebo Effect" – how to cast a halo around your product from Online Idea Buzz
Perception is everything. Seth Godin's perceptive and humorous post [Read More]

» The Placebo Affect from BizBlogs
The Placebo Affect: The placebo effect is not just for sick people anymore. Why do some ideas have more currency than others? Because we believe they should. When Chris Anderson or Malcolm Gladwell writes about something, it’s a better idea [Read More]

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