Why I'll Probably Try to Manipulate You

I became a hippie when I was a freshman in college. When I say I became a hippie, I don’t mean that I wore tie dye t-shirts all the time, smoked a lot of weed, and listened to “All you need is love” all day. I was a hippie even though I owned zero tie dye t-shirts, wasn’t cool enough to get invited to the weed parties, and had never heard that famous Beatles song that more conventional hippies love. Although I lacked the traditional trappings of a hippie, I became  hippie in a truer sense of the word:

I was suspicious of “the system,” man.

My hippie readers know what “the system” is, but the rest of you will probably have to watch this video, a video that is more than a little responsible for my conversion experience. Since most of you will probably look at the 20 minute length time on that video and say, “yeah right. I’m not watching this,” I’ll give you the readers digest version:

There are people with lots of money who are using morally questionable methods to retain and/or increase their profits. One of the morally questionable means by which “the system” keeps its profits rolling is to manipulate consumers into purchasing products. The word “manipulate,” as I’m using it here, means to attempt to persuade someone in a way that circumvents their ability to make a rational decision about whether to engage in some behavior.

What’s a “rational decision?” I don’t really know, but don’t get philosophical on me right now. Answering that question could take a lifetime for a philosopher like me, and we know enough about rational decisions to know that they aren’t motivated by ritual and the manufactured emotional need to find satisfaction in the consumption of new products.¹

We know that a rational purchase, for example, is not one that is made because we happened to see a commercial featuring a girl with shirt low-cut enough to convince us that having the product will make us more masculine. We know, to take another example, that a rational decision is not one that’s caused by a team of people working all day to find just the right combination of sugar, salt, fat, food additives, and visually appealing color-combinations to get you to buy another pack of those delicious Publix cookies with icing on them. (Those jokers have had me on the hook since high school.)

So, we sometimes fall prey to manipulation by clever marketing. That’s not quite the point of the story here. Let’s get back to that.

Just about a year after I became a hippie, something else happened: I became a wannabe philosophy professor. So, with my hippie and philosophy powers combined, I was on a mission to shape the minds of young people, to blow the whistle on “the system,” and to inoculate them against the B.S. that we are exposed to on a daily basis.²

More recently, the philosophy ship has sailed. I’m a wannabe hacker and entrepreneur now. I want to build a company that sells products, and, surprisingly, I’ve found that I’m willing to “trick” you into buying them.

I’m joining “the system,” man.

Why would a hippie-philosopher like me be willing to join “the system?” Well, it turns out that I’m also an abolitionist and a wannabe champion of the poor. I started a student group in undergrad that fought against human trafficking and I wrote my undergraduate thesis on our moral obligations to the world’s poor, and as I alluded to in my first post, I want to become the kind of person who has the desire and the resources to make significant dents in the problems of human trafficking and global poverty.

Having resources means having money. Having money potentially means doing a tech startup. If I play the startup game well, I will pick an idea for a product that you will like and I will probably market the idea in ways that won’t appeal to your rational faculties. I will pick colors that will make it more likely that you’ll like my product. I will write silly, emotionally appealing blog posts with silly justifications for why you need my product. I will try to find cool people that you look up to so that you’ll feel like you’re missing out on a cool thing if you don’t have I’m selling. In short, I will try to be manipulative.

Yikes. Writing those words out makes me feel crappier than I anticipated.

Its strange, moreover, that a hippie-philosopher like me would wind up making morally grey decisions like this, but I honestly think that the moral trade off here is worth it: I treat you as a “mere means” to the end of health and freedom for the world’s poor. Sorry, but millions of children are dying.

As always, I’m open to being wrong about this. It might turn out that manipulative marketing techniques aren’t a key piece of pulling off a startup. It might also turn out that manipulating folk for the sake of the world’s poor is not worth the trade off. If I’m wrong, maybe I won’t try to manipulate you, but if I’m right, at least you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Notes:

  1. I’m thinking here of the quotation Annie brings up from Victor Lebow who said, after realizing the productive capacity of our economy post WWII, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and selling of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption…”

  2. Real talk: I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t also just stoked about the idea of getting paid to talk and read about interesting, abstract issues that have much less to do with our well-being.