Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Marketing, Microsoft, and ... Buddhism

Let's say you suddenly became completely isolated from the rest of the world, and decided, as your first task, to come up with a list of things that you would need to be happy and lead a good, meaningful, “productive” life. What’s on that list?

Of course, this is an unrealistic question – people derive satisfaction from the context that they are placed in and the things that they take from and contribute to society. It may be more useful to think about what characteristics a society needs to have in order for its members to be happy and lead meaningful lives.

In any case, the “isolation” that I’m trying to get at in the above scenario is not so much isolation from society as it is isolation from the elements of society that have a vested interest in convincing people that they “need” an item or a service in order to separate them from their money in its name – namely, marketing departments.

So what would we deem as “necessary” if marketing weren’t constantly running in the background of our lives?

It's easy to vilify marketing and think of it as billboards and banner ads, designed to take advantage of the fact that many people are easily suggestible if the message is repeated enough. In a way, people have delegated, by default and without much conscious thought, much of their decision making when it comes to their spending to marketing departments, resulting in a kind of Darwinian battle where the most persuasive message -- though not necessarily the most truthful or accurate one -- wins.

On the other end of the spectrum, take sources of information, such as personal recommendations and word-of-mouth referrals, that might be considered as far from billboards and banner ads as one could get, in their degree of customization for their audience and their level of "authenticity." These are still effectively "ads" for products -- it just so happens that the products are good enough to sell themselves, and the company doesn't directly pay for these endorsements. Have you ever seen an ad: "Google, for all your searching needs?" Of course not.

However, marketing departments have already figured out that a seemingly genuine, personal recommendation is far more likely to work than an impersonal ad that makes the user skeptical from the first claim. Marketers have probably have known for some time, though they lacked the tools (and, of course, the buzzwords like "astroturfing" and "viral marketing") to act on it on a meaningful scale until recently.

It seems obvious to point out that viral marketing can be somewhat disingenuous at its root; after all, the originators are still trying to sell you a product. But I tend to be more impressed (and more likely to have a favorable impression of the brand) upon seeing clever, "viral" marketing that in the end reveals that it's selling something as opposed to the kind of word-of-mouth marketing that, although it truly is genuine, has little to do with "truth?"

This is all heading back to the point that led me to create this post in the first place (I swear...). The inspiration for this was the bungled marketing of Vista (and, it seems, Microsoft products in general) that leads to the kind of blind Microsoft-hate that spreads by word of mouth and without regard to any form of "truth."

I will first admit that, despite the fact that I have never used a machine running Vista for more than a few minutes, never tried to install any peripherals, never really explored the user interface that is so obviously bad because it's new and different, I still find myself making negative, off-hand remarks to people about it. ("Oh, you got a new machine? Vista huh? Good luck.")

And why? Solely because of the anti-hype that it's gotten. I think what the Mojave Experiment (hat tip to Sam) shows, besides the fact that the issues with Vista are beneath the surface, is the rampant effects of anti-hype, much of which is generated by Microsoft's direct competitors (I'm thinking of a fruit here). People get one message (Vista = Bad, or Microsoft = Bad) and allow it to completely color any shred of objective judgment they may have had.

I suppose the lesson I'm taking from this train of thought is a reinforcement of a lesson I heard a very long time ago in the context of Buddhism about taking a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thinking with you, no matter who the source is (in this case, no matter if it's a banner ad or a buddy of yours). One of the teachings of Buddhism is that if you trust a lesson of the Buddha simply because it comes from the Buddha, you have missed one of the most important lessons of all, to find the noble path (and "truth") by always asking questions and never taking anything as true unless you have personally vetted it yourself.

That's it for the attempt at an intellectually stimulating post; up next, some navel-gazing in the form of a life update.


  1. The tricky thing is that your skepticism is a scarce resource. So you end up having to be skeptical about where to expend your skepticism budget, which only further taxes your skepticism budget (which is especially bad when you're skeptical about a tax write-off a buddy told you about). Wicked problems, indeed.

    Also (more seriously), I think one major impediment to exercising skepticism in a social context is how your friend will respond when you question their position. It's often easier to agree with someone, and then investigate the issue further on your own time, than to question them about the validity of their position (I prefer friends who are generally open to such questions, but everyone has their dogmas). Except, maybe you are busier than you expect, and two of your friends a few days later offer the same opinion, and you agree this time, because you have a cloudy recollection of hearing it somewhere else and examining it. So the next day you put forth that opinion to yet another friend, and on and on it goes. Whence, I suppose, the childhood injunctions against rumor-mongering (and whence their inefficacy!)

  2. I think summoning up an incredulous mindset requires more energy than we're willing to exert every time we hear new information. For instance, I don't care a ton about Vista; I don't care a ton about doing research about it. If you've done it, then I don't have to, and I will believe you. If you start disparaging the new David Sedaris, then I might rouse up some skepticism - it's a subject I care about. People may think I'm credulous because I'm naive or world-unweary, but in truth I'm simply lazy. Do you feel this is different than having a finite supply of skepticism?

    Let's get back to your original question! What would you want on your desert island? I could go with a record player, ice cream, and someone desiring psycho-social support.

    Andy thanks for a great post!