Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Don’t think. Just buy.

The motto of WebMD is “Better information. Better health.” It should be, “The best medical information money can buy.”

If you were on the site recently and you took a test to determine if you suffer from depression, no matter how you answered the questions, the result was, “You may be at risk for major depression. See a doctor immediately.” The test was sponsored by Eli Lilly, the maker of the antidepressant Cymbalta, so it might not come as a complete shock that the test was rigged. WebMD quietly changed some of the questions after being outed, but the damage to the site’s credibility is spreading across the Internet.

The larger issue is the insidious melding of news, advertising and entertainment. In my field, marketing, we talk about “brand loyalty” and the “purchasing lifecycle” as if manipulating a customer to form a psychological relationship with a certain brand of toilet paper is a good thing. The same is true in other fields. Twenty-first century capitalism does not encourage critical thinking. Why is it still possible to have two bottles of ibuprofen on the shelf that are exactly the same, except one is a national brand and the other is a store brand that is two dollars cheaper? I would call this a no brainer, except it’s not.

The battle for customers today is not about who has the best product or even the lowest price, it is about who can most successfully manipulate you to buy one product over another, regardless of its merits, quality or price. Sure, this has always been the case, but believe it or not, there was a time when news was news, movies were stories on the big screen, and television shows and commercials were separate entities. Then someone said, “Hey, mister movie director, I’ll pay you a bundle if you put a can of Coke in that last scene.” “Hey TV show producer, write a show around a futuristic, talking Pontiac Trans Am.” “Hey, news producer, our channel is owned by GE, so we need to drop that story critical of them.” And thus it began.

Today you simply cannot trust that the news, information or entertainment you consume isn’t a below-the-radar attempt to manipulate you in some fashion. Whether it’s WebMD or CBS Evening News or your favorite Marvel Comics movie, you should always ask yourself, “What are they trying to sell me?”

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