Cavemen, Camel cigarettes and Christmas sales

This is a story about how holiday sales don’t really exist, but that’s OK, because you need the fiction to survive.

Communications designer and caffeine addict Hal Thomas found this classic Camel cigarette ad in a July 1952 edition of Life magazine. Ethics aside (for the record, our agency does not work with tobacco companies and has led anti-smoking campaigns), it reminds us of the basic strategy of framing value for your customers. If you have ever bought something on sale, marked “40% off” a higher price, you’ve been the recipient of framing. All those red tags with discounts in this holiday shopping season are simply attempts by marketers to follow Richard Thaler‘s advice: “frame” the price against another benchmark to convince consumers they’re getting a good deal.

Customers, as we’ve written before, are bad judges of value. We don’t know what a diamond should cost — but if the engagement ring is $3,000 marked down from $5,000, it feels fair. We’ll pay $3,000 perhaps if we see an illusory $2,000 above it in “savings,” even if that higher price point never really existed. This old Camel ad does the same thing to consumers of the 1950s, framing a cigarette choice as a safer alternative by juxtaposing it against images of doctors. Businesses fall for this all the time, too; take the marketing director who demands “30% in value-add” from any media buy; she’s likely getting the same amount of ad space within a given budget, but feels better because the vendors restructure the pricing of ads to give “some” away for free. (Hey, not that we negotiating don’t try.)

We shade truth because we need nuance

Why do people insist on this? It’s human nature. We all tweak communications in a way to make them more appealing to the recipient. If you call home late from work tonight, you will likely explain you’re on deadline or stuck in traffic (late due to outside forces, beyond your control, not really such a bad thing). The message arrives inside a context, and if we set the context appropriately, it sounds better. The dissembling tactic likely has an evolutionary benefit; no one survived in the wild by collecting all the data carefully and analyzing it — a wild lion would eat you before you ran the odds of where to run — so we had to make snap decisions based on what others told us about our environment. Comparing options to other choices also helped humans evolve; the caveman Ooga might not have been handsome by today’s standards, but if cavewoman Booga thought he was the hottest in all the tribe, she passed on the best genes.

Framing is everywhere, when you look for it. Are you buying stuff “on sale” for Christmas? (Suckers.) Does your business judge new potential vendors by their case studies? (If they succeeded there, they may help you here.) Do you get upset when your child gets a B at school? (If others get an A, then he is slipping by comparison.) Is your Twitter follower score above 2,000 yet? (If so, you must be really clever, because other clever people have lots of followers.)

Or — in the most obvious framing device of all — how is that fictitious number with zeros after it in your bank account doing lately; is the personal score we call “money” moving up or down?

So here’s a provocation for your marketing team’s next meeting: Explore all the ways you can compare your product attributes to something else to make it more appealing. Tactics include communicating discounts from other price points (think clothing sale), or bundling your product in an unusual configuration (think candy boxes at movie theaters or auto dealer option packages), or even framing it against other brands (Coke vs. Pepsi). If you focus on the product itself without putting it in context, customers may not get what you mean … or want what they’ll get.

(Thanks, Hal, for inspiring this holiday spirit.)

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