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Nudging vs. Covert Persuasion: Are Your Behavioral Marketing Designs Ethical?

By Steven Genco

Nudging vs. Covert Persuasion: Are Your Behavioral Marketing Designs Ethical?

“… there is a fine line between using behavioral economics to improve customers’ experience and using it to manipulate consumers.”¹ Beginning with the pathbreaking work of Kahneman and Tversky, behavioral economists have identified many practical implications of cognitive heuristics and biases for directly or covertly influencing consumer choice and behavior.

Two paths—contradictory in their goals but similar in their methods—have emerged in recent years. The first, which might be called the consumer well-being path, focuses on the idea that behavioral designs can be used to help people make better choices. As summarized by behavioral economist Dan Ariely , the purpose of this approach is to develop “behavioral interventions that help people be happier, healthier, and wealthier.”² The method of choice is to use choice architectures and behavioral designs to “nudge” people to overcome various biases that might lead them to make bad decisions.

The second path, which might be called the covert persuasion path, emphasizes how heuristics and biases can be exploited to increase the effectiveness of marketing messages such as online ads and in-store displays. Along this path, the focus tends to be less on the well-being of the consumer and more on the wellbeing of the marketer. The somewhat reluctant godfather of this approach is Robert Cialdini, whose Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, originally published in 1984, outlined six “weapons of influence” that powered “the pitches of peddlers, fund-raisers, and operators of one sort or another.”³ Although Cialdini’s original purpose was to help consumers resist such pitches, his insights were quickly adopted by marketers as techniques for overcoming consumers’ resistance to persuasive marketing.

These two paths differ most significantly in the way they characterize consumer wants, needs, and goals, presenting marketers with a challenging dilemma: should they leverage heuristics and biases to help consumers achieve their intrinsic aspirations to be happier, healthier, and wealthier, or should they use them as a way to “tip the scales” of consumer choice in favor of their own products or brands?

Behavioral Designs for Consumer Well-Being

If there is a manifesto for the consumer well-being path of behavioral design, it is the book Nudge, co-authored by economist Richard Thaler and law professor Cass Sunstein. Nudge makes the case that government-sponsored behavioral interventions are legitimate public policy tools because they enhance the well-being of both individuals and society as a whole. Thaler and Sunstein call the ethical rationale for such interventions libertarian paternalism, which they define as:

… an approach that preserves freedom of choice but that encourages both private and public institutions to steer people in directions that will promote their own welfare.⁴

Following in the footsteps of Kahneman, Tversky, Thaler and Ariely, a formidable movement has emerged in some areas of consumer behavior that deploys the insights of behavioral economics to design and implement choice architectures and behavioral interventions in the service of consumer welfare and well-being.

Behavioral Designs for Covert Persuasion

A very different mindset informs much of what I’ve called the covert persuasion path of behavioral design. As a marketing strategy, covert persuasion uses the heuristics and biases literature as a toolkit of techniques to help marketers achieve the overriding goal of persuasive marketing—to get consumers to do what marketers want them to do.

No doubt enticed by the success of Cialdini’s Influence, a massive catalog of psychology and marketing books has been published. Searching for “persuasion methods” in the books section on Amazon.com, for example, brings up over 350 books with titles that imply a somewhat dehumanizing attitude toward the targets of the proposed persuasion techniques. As the author of one “how to” book on persuasion states unambiguously in his introduction:

Humans are marionettes. Attached to each of us are sets of strings that, when pulled in a certain direction, guide our behavior without our awareness. If you want to control the strings, then you know how to control behavior. This book teaches you how to control those strings. This book will teach you how to successfully (and ethically) become a puppeteer in a world full of human marionettes.⁵

The depiction of humans as marionettes is about as far as one can get from seeing humans as self-motivated agents pursuing their own goals and interests in a complex world.

It provides a particularly vivid metaphor for thinking about persuasion as a technique for transferring control and agency from one person to another.

Do these techniques of covert persuasion work? Yes, they do. They work because heuristics and biases are ubiquitous, consistent, and accessible in all human brains. They work because we are all susceptible to loss aversion, framing, the endowment effect, and all the other heuristics and biases catalogued by a growing cadre of behavioral economists. They work because they take advantage of processes in our brains that bias how we think about and respond to choice situations, often in ways that bypass conscious awareness. 31 // 2020 31 // 2020 This article (textual and pictorial content) is subject to copyright. For educational purpose only. More information: Neuromarketing Science & Business Association (www.nmsba.com) 1 8 But is covert persuasion ethical? That is a more difficult question. The short answer is: it depends.

What Makes Marketing Ethical or Unethical?

In 2011, Shlomo Sher, a professor of Humanities and Ethics at the University of Southern California, published a littleread but important piece in the Journal of Business Ethics titled “A framework for assessing immorally manipulative marketing tactics.”⁷

Sher views manipulation as a midpoint along a continuum of persuasion tactics that runs from rational argument at one end to coercion at the other. Rational argument is the gold standard for ethical persuasion because it “respect[s] the interests of the party the marketer is attempting to persuade by not undermining their capacity to make a rational decision through manipulation or deception.”⁸ At the other endpoint is coercion, a clearly unethical form of persuasion that not only fails to respect a person’s capacity to make a rational decision, but presents an “offer” that the recipient must either accept or face consequences so onerous that they virtually guarantee that the offer will be accepted.

Manipulation occupies a wide middle ground between rational argument and coercion that may be judged as ethical or unethical based on certain features of the manipulation attempt. Sher does not embrace the extreme position that rational argument is the only ethical form of persuasion. He argues that manipulation can be ethical in some circumstances, particularly when it is deployed to help people pursue and accomplish their own goals

According to this framework, there are two major ways in which manipulative marketing can be unethical: if it is deceptive, or if it takes advantage of a vulnerability in its audience’s normal decision-making process. What does this definition tell us about the ethics of covert persuasion via behavioral design?

First, deception is not common in behavioral interventions or designs. None of the most common types of marketing deception are central to the logic of covert persuasion, because they all have to do with deceiving the consumer about the content of an offering. Behavioral interventions and designs in general, whether dedicated to enhancing consumer well-being or increasing product sales, are not mechanisms for manipulating content claims. Instead, they are more properly seen as mechanisms for diverting consumers’ attention from the content of an offering to its form or context. To accomplish this diversion, they exploit consumers’ known heuristics and biases with choice architectures and behavioral interventions that contextually nudge consumers toward one behavior or another.

This leads us to consider the second way marketing manipulation can be unethical. Are heuristics and biases "vulnerabilities" in consumers’ decision-making processes, or are they simply “normal” aspects of those processes? Sher identifies four types of vulnerabilities that, in his view, constitute potential sources of marketing manipulation: 

- Emotional vulnerabilities, many of them near universal, such as fears of social embarrassments and inadequacies, worries about physical harm, insecurities about physical appearances, and the deep need to feel appreciated and loved.

- Perceptual vulnerabilities that distort how we view objects or situations, such as optical illusions that make things seem bigger than they are.

- Cognitive vulnerabilities that affect the way we think and remember, such as our use of heuristic generalizations.

- Ethical failings/character flaws, such as vanity, greed, and unhealthy obsessions.

Here things get tricky. All of these cognitive processes may be “vulnerabilities,” but they are also normal parts of how people think, choose, and act, as revealed by mountains of brain science research.¹⁰ What brain science tells us is that “vulnerabilities” cannot be separated from “normal” decision making processes. All human decisions depend on automatic, consciously-unregulated cognitive processes that may be assets in one context, vulnerabilities in another.

Marketing that leverages an automatic (and often unconscious) cognitive process—be it processing fluency, conditioning, priming, a known heuristic or bias, or any other cognitive operation—is not in itself ethical or unethical. The key consideration is the purpose with which it is implemented: whether the goals of the seller in deploying this tactic are antithetical to the goals of the buyer. With this consideration in mind, a simple criterion for determining the ethical or moral status of an act of covert persuasion can be formulated:

Covert persuasion is unethical if it disrupts, disregards, or attempts to displace a consumer’s existing goals with new goals that benefit the seller but do so by damaging the health, wealth, or happiness of the buyer

The rise of behavioral design as a practical, unobtrusive way to influence consumers brings these issues into sharp relief. Once the latest ideas from brain science are taken into account, the notion that nonrational aspects of consumer choice are vulnerabilities that interfere with “normal” consumer decision-making becomes problematic as basis for ethical judgment. Whether or not marketers explicitly target automatic cognitive processes like processing fluency, implicit learning, priming, and the activation of heuristics and biases, those processes are “normal” and deeply embedded in how consumers think and act in the marketplace.

As human beings, we think the way we think. We cannot change the cognitive machinery our evolutionary history has passed down to us. When these processes serve us well, we call them clever decision-making shortcuts. When they sometimes serve us poorly, we call them biases and vulnerabilities. But they are inherently neither. It is the ends to which they are put, not the means by which they are invoked, that determines their ethical status.

In the final analysis, the ethical status of covert persuasion hinges on the marketer’s intent.

To the extent it is designed to meet the marketer’s goals at the expense of the consumer’s goals, covert persuasion is exploitative and unethical. Conversely, a behavioral intervention designed to benefit the consumer as well as the marketer may generate enough redemptive value to compensate for the original manipulation.

What Kind of Marketer do You Want to be When You Grow Up?

If human beings were as easily manipulated as the persuasion literature implies, marketing would be the world’s easiest profession. But it is not. People do not like being manipulated and they have many means at their disposal for resisting both overt and covert persuasion, from conscious resistance strategies to unconscious reverse priming effects. Consumers are not push-overs, easy marks, or puppets.

If marketing is seen primarily as a way to manipulate and control others, it will appeal as a profession to people who get personal satisfaction from manipulating and controlling others. People with such needs may be attracted to marketing organizations filled with others who think and feel the same way. Such an organization is not difficult to identify. A culture of disrespect for buyers of a company’s products is hard to change, bad for business, and ultimately corrosive to the self-esteem of those who work within it. For marketers who find themselves in such an organization, but who reject the idea that consumers as puppets to be manipulated and controlled, there is really only one choice: find a more ethical place to work.

This article excerpts and summarizes a much more lengthy discussion in Genco, Stephen, Intuitive Marketing: What Marketers Can Learn from Brain Science, Chapter 16, “Ethical Marketing in a Post-Rational World.” Available here: https://amzn.to/31oeEVy/

References available on request via office@nmsba.com

This was originally published in Insights, all NMSBA members have access to the full archive of this quarterly magazine on neuromarketing. Interested in joining? Check the options