Category Archives: placebos

The doctor placebo effect


A new study finds nearly half of doctors in the United States regularly prescribe placebos — pills that do nothing but make you psychologically feel better. It’s kicked off an ethics debate over whether the mental health benefits outweigh the nuance of a doc outright lying to a patient.

Which makes us think of most product and service marketing. People tend to buy things (or, this fall, vote for candidates) that they believe will please them — and consumers use preconceptions to judge the value of their choices. The vast majority of advertising is designed to create a placebo-type artificial reality around a product. Is a Lexus with leather seats really better than a Toyota with leather seats, if 90% of the parts in the vehicles are the same? Somehow the brand badge on front makes people feel better about the purchase.

Bottled water, vitamins, gas stations, coffee, supermarkets, leather jackets, men’s suits, toothpaste, personal computers, non-smart cell phones, consulting groups, hospitals — the list of commodities differentiated only by our expectations is long.

Setting expectations is more important in marketing than meeting them. You can order shoes from Zappos.com after reading about their incredible customer service — which is true — but you’ll probably end up with a shipping box containing shoes. The reality of true service or product differentiation is almost non-existent … but if you believe it exists, you’ll feel better.

Photo: Brendan Adkins