Why understanding marketing is a survival skill

In 2008, I earned an MBA in Marketing…which makes me an expert!  Just kidding.

But seriously, I believe having a fundamental understanding of marketing is necessary in today’s world.  I’ve used it to progress my career, maintain a high degree of technological savvy, avoid slip ups and most importantly to improve our financial lives.  Allow me to explain.

In my experience, many people frame up conversations about personal finance and building wealth around education or the lack thereof.  Terms like financial literacy, financial education and quotes such as “when you know better, you do better” prop up this notion that if only people knew how money worked, they’d have more of it.  I call bull$hit!

If that’s how the human brain worked, then there would be fewer preventable diseases and everyone with a degree in finance would be filthy rich.  We know that education is important but it’s certainly not the “end-all-be-all”.  Rather, I believe that sustainable, meaningful change in people’s relationship with money can only come from addressing the cultural, social and systemic obstacles that get in the way of them achieving their goals.

This is why we spend more time writing about our everyday lives and overcoming personal conflicts than we do showing you fancy charts and explaining financial jargon. To us, it’s more impactful to be relatable than it is to be an expert particularly when the obstacle you’re facing is rooted in your cultural or social identity.  But when it comes to tackling the “systems” you have to understand marketing and the role it plays in your relationship with money.

[Savvy] marketers are wildly intelligent and can tell you almost everything about their target consumers.  They know their age, gender identity, where they live, where they’ve traveled, health records, sexual preferences, political views, favorite television shows, credit scores and more.  Through panels, focus groups, surveys and interviews, they also have insight into deeper emotional values about their target consumers family life, desires, challenges and aspirations.

In some cases, they have statistical data that shows how much more meaningful one part of another person’s life [family] is versus another [career aspiration].  Now, they even know your DNA because people gave it to them in exchange for something of value like an answer to a burning question [where am I from?], a few moments of curiosity or an ability to feel connected with people you don’t see regularly.

It’s because of this God-like treasure trove of data and insights that marketers are able to understand and therefore shape how their consumers feel through creative communications.  This gives them the power to “highjack” their attention with a few clicks thus freezing their ability to think for themselves..and this is where the trouble starts.

On a small scale, marketers use tactics like a “nugget of truth” and frame it up as something their consumers value.  One of my fave’s is when a power company tells you that a great way to save on your power bill is to leave your air conditioning on because the “energy” required to cool down a hot house is greater than the energy required to cool down an already “cool” house.  The “nugget of truth” is that yes, it does require more energy to cool down a house from 78 to 72 degrees than it does to cool down a house from 73 to 72 degrees.  But the notion of setting it and forgetting it  [which is what they want you to do] in no way saves you money.  What it does do is ensure a more predictable energy usage for power companies during a time where people are prone to not use it [summer and winter season]. Talk about mind-phuckery!

Another example is the never-ending innovation around beauty products.  Without fail, every few months you can guarantee marketers are trying hard to convince you their new product is solving a problem their old product didn’t.  Except, instead of actually solving the problem, they are really just selling you an attribute [at an upcharge] that you’ve said is important to you. A great example is Gillette’s claim on “the closest shave ever” with their razors.

At some point, you’ve gotta wonder how much closer can they realistically get?  How many more blades will it take to get to the stubble?  Nevertheless, you can guarantee there will be more high-tech, futuristic razors coming soon that are more expensive than the last one and come with a matching razor cream. Oh and in the aisle, the new product will have flashing lights, counter-signage, coupons, commercials, pitch-men/women, in-app prompts, will sponsor your favorite sports halftime shows, pop up on your facebook feed, Instagram stories and will likely be in the hands of your favorite actor in the season’s big blockbuster action film.  RIP coincidences.

I don’t mean to pick on Gillette because the same is true for hair products, kitchen appliances, cleaning supplies, toothpaste, paper products, cars, travel, pharmaceutical drugs, brokerage firms etc.

These tiny “white lies”, mentions and placements slowly but surely convince you to take more coins out of your pockets and put it into the hands of corporations.  It’s been said that on average, Americans are exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements a day [167-417 per hour] which is why understanding marketing should be a survival skill in these streets!  Otherwise,

the inability to identify truth from advertising makes you constant prey to the upsell Click To Tweet

On a larger scale, these sort of marketing tactics are happening with your 401(k) accounts.  When you log into your account, it’s not uncommon to see some sort of intentionally scary [and likely red colored] indicator to motivate you to invest more of your paycheck.  I’ve even seen comparison indicators that show you how much you’re investing versus your co-workers.  Rest assured these are all marketing attempts to get you to give brokerage firms more of your money.  Generally speaking, we’re big fans of 401(k) accounts but if you don’t know what you’re investing in this can lead to some pretty big problems for you.

Target-date funds are another example of this sort of “trickery”.  These are the fund choices in your retirement accounts that get you to estimate your targeted retirement date [say the year 2035, 2040 etc.].  by positioning your selection of funds around a year you want to retire.  Unfortunately, this illusion is incredibly effective at getting you to NOT think about the funds you’re choosing and can also lead to some expensive mistakes in the long run.  It’s magic…except not cool.

I should note that we are in the game too.  As noted at the foot of our website, we are active participants in the for-profit world of marketing since we are affiliates for a handful of products and services.  It’s why you’ll often see in-content advertisements like the one below for Hulu on our site.  We’ve used the service for years, we love it and know that it’s a big part of our strategy to keep our cost of living down vs. satellite television or cable.  Therefore, we recommend it to others.

In exchange for the exposure on our platform and if you decide to sign up, we receive a commission.  As of today, we’ve been the proud participants of a whopping $33 worth of commission through this blog.  How’s that for “rich”?

These examples are fairly easy to spot.  But there are a long list of not-so-obvious exposures to marketing that are intentionally deceptive.  Not saying they’re bad or wrong…just deceptive; and if you don’t know how to spot them, it’s easy for you to not pay attention to the subtle price increases, the inability to find cheaper alternatives or the forced-upsell.  This leaves you defenseless in a world where you’re bombarded with temptations that have been specifically designed to meet your every want and need.

Here a few recommendations of what you can do to limit your exposure to marketing

  • Unsubscribe from every and all non-essential email marketing promotions
  • Call up every magazine subscription you have and cancel your subscriptions
  • Consolidate your credit card/loyalty programs down to the one that matters the most to you.  Then, carry just that card.  Keep the rest at home or cancel your account.
  • Consider opting out of junk mail (paper).  See 4 options here
  • Look for the words “Sponsored” in the article headings you read.  These are all “native” advertisements
  • Turn off mobile phone app notifications from stores
  • Use savvier browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox that better protect your privacy and have add-on features
  • Get rid of all unnecessary apps on your phone and put only the most important on your home screen.
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2 comments

  1. This is so true… the shear volume of ads in our lives is astounding. I sold my TV around 3yrs ago, cancelled most magazine subscriptions, and turned off most push notifications. Avoiding random ‘shopping’ whether on line or in real life helps too. I still see ads, but not nearly as many as before…and if you don’t know something exists, it’s easy to not want it!
    I just finished reading your entire blog from beginning to end…very enjoyable, I like your collective ‘voice’ – keep up the posting!

  2. […] The other day I carried his lil azz up 3 whole flights of stairs, while dragging a plastic lawnmower behind me and balancing a bowl of Cheerios between my neck and chin. I’m scared I might be feeding him too much. But then I remember that he’s not a fish…not that it matters!  My body aches, my willpower is weakened and my credit card company upped my limit out of nowhere.  I’m scared I’ll use it as a permission slip to buy more, instead of seeing it for what it is— another form of marketing. […]

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