Consumer Manipulation

Tim Harford talks about consumer manipulation:

Consider, first, confusion by design: Las Vegas casinos are mazes, carefully crafted to draw players to the slot machines and to keep them there. Casino designers warn against the "yellow brick road" effect of having a clear route through the casino. (One side effect: it takes paramedics a long time to find gamblers in cardiac arrest; as Ms Schüll also documents, it can be tough to get the slot-machine players to assist, or even to make room for, the medical team.)

Most mazes in our economy are metaphorical: the confusion of multi-part tariffs for mobile phones, cable television or electricity. My phone company regularly contacts me to assure me that I am on the cheapest possible plan given my patterns of usage. No doubt this claim can be justified on some narrow technicality but it seems calculated to deceive. Every time I have put it to the test it has proved false.

I recently cancelled a contract with a different provider after some gizmo broke. The company first told me the whole thing was my problem, then at the last moment offered me hundreds of pounds to stay. When your phone company starts using the playbook of an emotionally abusive spouse, this is not a market in good working order.

This is a security story: manipulation vs. manipulation defense. One of my worries about our modern market system is that the manipulators have gotten too good. We need better security -- either technical defenses or legal prohibitions -- against this manipulation.

EDITED TO ADD (1/23): More about how cellphone companies rip you off.

Posted on January 23, 2014 at 7:03 AM • 64 Comments

Comments

MartijnJanuary 23, 2014 7:09 AM

Harford, not HarTford.

When I read Liars and Outliers, it reminded me in a number of ways of Harford's way of thinking and writing.

WinterJanuary 23, 2014 7:21 AM

Department stores and supermarkets are well known to do the same.

Even if you know exactly what item you want and where it is, you still have to walk past a large part of the merchandise. And the sweets are next to the checkout line where they draw the kids when you can least keep them in check.

ButchJanuary 23, 2014 7:26 AM

Telcos have specialists appointed to maximize revenue (ARPU is the KPI) with derived tarriff forumlae - big Excel sheets in other words. They also profile your usage and network of contacts on a regular basis for marketing purposes - EG They know if you're the central player of your social network and initiate X amount of calls, they will offer you a deal.
Powerful datamining techniques which according to some, don't invade your privacy becos you don't know about it.

KaitheJanuary 23, 2014 7:41 AM

@Winter

And the sweets are next to the checkout line where they draw the kids

As far as I'm concerned, if the supermarket chooses to put the sweets within the reach of those with no capacity to pay, it's not my problem!

...and anyway, (IANAL, but) a child under 18 is not legally able to enter into a contract. As far as I can see, buying goods for cash is the simplest form of contract.

AutolykosJanuary 23, 2014 7:53 AM

Yeah, he's probably right. I can't tell for sure if it's a trend or if I'm getting increasingly allergic to this (I can't think of a more reliable way to piss me off than trying to manipulate me), but it seems that a lot of people either don't notice or don't care - which is why this works.
And it's not only in business. You'd be surprised how many personal relationships are mainly built on mutual manipulation and blackmail, once you take a closer look at it. (And refusing to play that game tends to make you kinda lonely, but it still beats the alternative IMHO...)

Man in BlackJanuary 23, 2014 8:29 AM

@Autolykos
People don't care. Nobody stands up for anything because it's an inconvenience. This is par for the course on the silent majority. It's a worldwide prisoners dilemma, where we're all ratting each other out.

JerryJanuary 23, 2014 8:53 AM

A grocery store near me has great cookies in the bakery section but they relocate them every few weeks.

I asked why and the honest worker said it was done so that I had to look at all the other good treats to find my cookie hoping I'd buy more than just that one cookie.

kashmarekJanuary 23, 2014 8:58 AM

This story might fall into the manipulation vs manipulation defense...

Security Vendors Self Censor Target Breach Details

http://it.slashdot.org/story/14/01/22/239235/security-vendors-self-censor-target-breach-details

Why would they censor this information? Is this to protect consumers, the stores they buy at, or the security vendors?

I sense the security vendors are pulling the covers over this because they can't protect the consumers or the stores, or maybe knowledge of such events diminishes sales of security vendor products.

Any other thoughts?

Martin BonnerJanuary 23, 2014 9:39 AM

@Kaithe IANAL either but, children *can* enter into contracts. However they can void the contract if they so chose except for contracts for necessaries. It's not clear whether sweets count as contracts for necessaries.

However this is not the supermarkets business model. They expect the children will pester their (adult) parents into buying the sweets.

(Claims that the parents should just resist their children are usually only made by people who have not had sub-teenage children in the last twenty years, or by parents whose children have not yet learned to talk.)

paulJanuary 23, 2014 9:50 AM

Ultimately some kind of regulatory approach is necessary because of the asymmetry in costs between attacker and defender. The folks doing the manipulating can spread their costs of thousands of millions of targets, and each target has to defend against attacks by dozens (or more) of manipulators. Otherwise you get a combination of a) excess transfers of wealth and resources from the targets to the targeters and b) a general reluctance by many targets to participate in transactions where they can expect to be ripped off yet again. Neither of these is good for a market economy.

DemiJanuary 23, 2014 10:03 AM

There is a reason McDonald's interiors are red and bright. They determined by studies, that your eye gets tired and it is an optimal to get rid of you in 2 minutes and 30 seconds, without you realizing. That table spot is costly piece of real estate, and must be rotated as quickly as possible.

Jenny JunoJanuary 23, 2014 10:03 AM

@demi

It's my belief that the eventual result of the "Big Data" phenomenon will be abusive marketing psychology. At some point the marketing departments will decide that the return on "targeted marketing" is not enough. We'll see the rise of "targeted manipulation" -- a sort of spear-phising if you will - marketing techniques based on individually crafted psychological profiles of each consumer using all the profiling data that's been collected about them.

It will stop being about showing you ads for stuff you are interested in and will start being about exploiting any weaknesses they've been able to identify. Much in the same way that donating to one charity often gets you put on a "sucker list" that is then sold to other charity marketing groups who expect that because you had a soft-spot for one cause you will be a push-over for other causes.

Greg LindenJanuary 23, 2014 10:11 AM

This seems more like economics than security? More around correcting problems with information asymmetry and unequal bargaining power than "manipulation defense"?

art78January 23, 2014 10:23 AM

There's an intersection between marketing psychology and the psychology of propaganda and zersetzung.

Many of the same principles of human nature apply.

Studying marketing psychology can thus be a window into the unpublished world of military manipulation.

I found this book to be useful: "The Advertised Mind" by Erik Du Plessis.

Paco JavoJanuary 23, 2014 10:24 AM

Recently I had a spat with Comcast/Xfinity over the use of the wireless box in my house to provide roaming wireless service. This was part of new "service" this company is launching: basically they use customer WiFi boxes to provide access outside the house (with a different WiFi signal and the SSID "xfinitywifi") to any Xfinity subscriber. I saw various problems with is (including security) and requested the outside siginal be turned off. Despite climbing several levels of the "customer service" hierarchy I got the same story: they would charge me at least $80 to do this. I finally gave up and filed an FCC complaint. It worked. And I got a small rebate on my phone bill

NobodySpecialJanuary 23, 2014 10:26 AM

And so the arms race continues - it's fun!
I have so many pop-up and ad blockers on my browser that I couldn't see one of the sites linked to.
I never go to the mall but buy online.
In the supermarket I deliberately only buy the yellow-label value lines. The ones specially designed to look unappealing so that I'm am embarrassed into buying the more expensive brands.

Tyco BassJanuary 23, 2014 10:36 AM

Fascinating scary older book by Keith Bradsher (NYT) with info about how early SUVs were researched and designed to appeal to the selfish "reptile brain."

yesmeJanuary 23, 2014 11:04 AM

Complexity is the mother of all evil. The financial crisis of 2007-08 is a perfect example of that (think derivates and MBS).

But also computers. Software for instance. C++ is so complex that no two programmers use the same syntax and to understand it you need to know every syntax (operator and function overloading, macros, templates, multiple inheritance etc.). In some programs it makes a difference when the order of included header files is different. Serious, its crap.

But also the OSI model is smelly. There are too many layers. The ftp protocol is still not obsolete!!! Not to mention BIND that has more security holes than Swiss Cheese.

And the W3C also fucks up regularly. I mean XML and all the smelly derivates of it. Compare MathML for instance with LaTeX. And WebDAV??? The plan9 guys were right. 9p is the answer for a lot of crap. You want a secure connection? Just add a parameter to the mount command. Namespaces everywhere. No root user!

Also take a look at the F-35/JSF. 20 mln lines of C++. Good luck with that.

There are other areas too. Such as the legal system and taxes. But I am an engineer and lack the knowledge to talk about these.

And even language. I am from The Netherlands. The Dutch language is a nightmare for foreighners. English is a lot simpler, but still has serious issues.

It's really too bad that we prefer the complex system. I don't know whether it's politics or the lack of knowledge or just deliberate. But the fact is that most systems are too complex.

Isaac Newton radically changed the Mint in the UK. I think it takes guys like him to change the mindset of all the rest of us mortals.

BarneyJanuary 23, 2014 11:11 AM

Taking things from shops without paying is theft, not breach of contract. Minors certainly can be convicted of theft in many countries, although of course young children can't.

boogJanuary 23, 2014 11:13 AM

@Kaithe: "As far as I'm concerned, if the supermarket chooses to put the sweets within the reach of those with no capacity to pay, it's not my problem!"

I think that was not the point. If kids see candy and start begging their parents to get it at the back of the store, they can just leave that part of the store / not go there in the first place. If candy is at the register, kids always see it and cry and beg for it and their parents are more likely to give in and buy it just to shut the little brats up.

It's a form of manipulation is what I think Winter was getting at.

anonymousbertJanuary 23, 2014 11:30 AM

In chapter 9 of The Dilbert Future (1997), Scott Adams predicted that

In the future, all barriers to entry will go away and companies will be forced to form what I call "confusopolies."

Confusopoly: A group of companies with similar products who intentionally confuse customers instead of competing on price.
. . .
Several other industries are already dominated by confusopolies:

Existing Confusopolies:
- Telephone service.
- Insurance.
- Mortgage loans.
- Banking.
- Financial Services.

Those types of companies are natural confusopolies, because they offer products that would be indistinguishable to the customer except for the great care taken to make them confusing.

AdrianJanuary 23, 2014 11:54 AM

Didn't the MGM Grand in Las Vegas have a big strip of yellow-brick-road carpeting running down the main thoroughfare of the casino? Seems like an almost literal counter example to the first quoted paragraph.

AnuraJanuary 23, 2014 11:56 AM

Ikea is another company famous for these mazes. After watching Deadliest Catch, I like to call them consumer pots.

I imagine these are fire hazards as well.

anonymousbertJanuary 23, 2014 11:57 AM

Bruce: "One of my worries about our modern market system is that the manipulators have gotten too good"

Something just occurred to me. I'm brainstorming here, so this is not a fully-formed thought. Please bear with me.

During the Cold War, conservatives would often lament the affects of Soviet propaganda. Their believed that the American people were too ignorant, too gullible, too foolish, or too whatever, to resist being manipulated by those clever Communists, who used science, psychology, etc., to trick people into thinking a certain way.

Yet conservatives ignore the fact that corporations manipulating consumers is a multi-million (multi-billion?) dollar industry,using science, psychology, etc., to trick people into thinking a certain way. Corporations wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't profitable. Yet consumers should not be protected from the manipulations of the advertising industry, because the American people are rational individuals, constantly calculating their preferences and incentives. And, uh, capitalism. Suggesting that consumers can be tricked by an unethical corporation is some kind of Communist propaganda.

John HardinJanuary 23, 2014 12:29 PM

@paco javo: I had zero problem getting Comcast to turn off the "public wifi" on my router, no static and no charge - but then, I have a separate firewall and only use the cable access box as dumb network bridge, not a router.

I don't clearly remember if reconfiguring it to be a bridge automatically turned off the wifi, or if they just turned it off when I asked them to while that was being done, but there was no attempted manipulation of me on their part.

AnuraJanuary 23, 2014 12:41 PM

@anonymousbert

Well, the stupid thing about that is that we Americans have been hammered with our own propaganda throughout the entirety of the cold war, and it hasn't stopped.

As for the corporations, advocates of a free market point to the theory that free markets mean everyone gets what they want and pays what it's worth. The problem is that the theories that say everything in a free market is pefect also assume everyone is both perfectly rational and perfectly informed, but any advertising or other marketing beyond purely informational advertisements exploit the fact that people are neither perfectly rational nor perfectly informed. It's a case of idelogy trumping reality, and I really do think this goes back right to the cold war propaganda we have been pounded with for nearly a century.

Now manipulation goes beyond just simple marketing tricks, it's politics as well. News for enertainment has become the norm, and 24 hour news networks are being used to push propaganda on the people. Democrats and Republicans are being treated as polar opposites, and media is teaching us to have nothing but fear and hatred for the other side. It's entertaining and gets great ratings, but with devastating effects on our society.

The people have accepted the media portrayal of politics as facts, and now have nothing but contempt for others, and that deep seated hatred prevents any side from rationally evaluating policies. Look at comments on news sites: one line talking points supplemented by fear, hatred, and vitriol. In these debates, it's almost impossible to educate people on facts (especially when facts often require more than a one line comment, which tends to not get read).

So beyond just the need to understand marketing tactics, people really need to be informed on the dangers of propaganda, as well as things like confirmation bias. I have no clue how to convince people, however, our minds are very good at rejecting facts that conflict with our beliefs. Tell a member of the Periwinkle party that they are being subjected to propaganda, and they will tell you that it's the Chartreuse party that's trying to brainwash everyone.

pfoggJanuary 23, 2014 1:28 PM

The line between manipulation and concepts like 'attractive presentation' or 'consumer-friendly' is fuzzy and vague. The quoted example also sounds like more of an absence of design than an intentional manipulation: "tech support" avoids costs by rejecting ambiguous support requests, and "customer retention" achieves its goals with direct bribes. That sounds like an approach the company more or less landed in as a response to the landscape of marginal costs and normal human behavior on the part of customers.

I can't see how a technical fix can plug the basic holes in human judgment highlighted in Cialdini's book "Influence", and writing legislation to address the problem would mean either pretending the line was well-defined, or setting up commissions to handle things case-by-case. This means creating a new maze of legal precedents or subjective judgments for everyone to work through.

On the other hand, if we're looking at this as an exploit against gaps in human wisdom and experience, perhaps it could be addressed more directly on that basis by making Cialdini's "Influence" a standard high-school text.

BlackAngelJanuary 23, 2014 1:55 PM

Eh, as you can walk up to people and put them in a hypnotic trance in a few moments, I have little confidence much can be done for counter-manipulation... which, btw, is not really even a term used anywhere.

The good news is everyone wants to manipulate everyone. So there is counter-manipulation right there. And people are forced to stop and think and resist doing things without thinking.

Also, people will believe what they want to believe. So, there are limits to their manipulation possibilities right there.


f3kn3kjfnf3kjfnJanuary 23, 2014 2:18 PM

By American standards isn't this encouraging socialism over capitalism? Think of all the people who have died in wars and coups so there can be career politicians and deregulated industries..

Also both the referrer and the source in the case of this blog post have reputations for marketing semantics which is the driving force behind all of these 'evil doings'.. Is it not a case of the 'pot calling the kettle black'?

CarpeJanuary 23, 2014 2:36 PM

In the realm of manipulation, psychological manipulation is the name of the game. As I have awoken from my war-drunken stupor post Iraq, I have become increasingly aware of domestic propaganda that emanates not just from the government but also from supra-national corporations. A lot of my more interesting research was dealing with the world wars and the evolution of psyops from then to now, and the philosophies behind it espoused by people such as Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. One of the most interesting things I have found is the clamor to buy up and consolidate control of media companies (publishers, newspapers, etc) around that time, with many of the people involved being the same people who were doing psyops in the military during the war(s). Of course many of us are aware of Operation Mockingbird and claims, but at that time domestic propaganda was supposed to be illegal. Now, under the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, propaganda has effectively been legalized, and I fear this has far greater implications that people realize yet.

jdgaltJanuary 23, 2014 3:03 PM

"Mazes" in the economy are nearly always the result of cronyism: companies already in the market paying large bribes to legislators to introduce obstacles, either against new competitors entering the market or against consumers being able to compare and choose intelligently.

Big Media (which includes pretty much all of the communications industry) uses this method very heavily to maintain its near-monopoly, and I'm surprised the fact hasn't already resulted in heavy regulation of the Internet.

By the time it does, we the people need to have developed a web of trust robust enough to subvert and defeat that regulation, even with the NSA and its counterparts in other countries trying to enforce it on us.

bitmonkiJanuary 23, 2014 3:39 PM

I submit that similar manipulative strategies and tactics were used in the run up to the Iraq war, and the war on a tactic (terror).

In fact, I remember that a global PR firm was given a contract under which they recommended professional snake oil salesman Ahmed Chalabi as a preferred 'expert' for manipulating public opinion in favor of that tragic, misguided endeavour.

Or would anyone care for some "yellow cake"?

So in my mind these confusing, manipulative tactics absolutely are security issues.

@Bruce: Thanks! Great post!

MingoVJanuary 23, 2014 4:26 PM

Consumer manipulation falls under the "There's a sucker born every minute." rule. There is no way to legislate it away, because such attempts invariably become bureaucratize it away which invariably become crony-ist bribing to bureaucratize it away only for competitors.

The only way to stop consumer manipulation is to make consumers manipulation proof. Good luck.

Every LibertarianJanuary 23, 2014 4:55 PM

"There's a sucker born every minute."

And therefore, corporations should be allowed to prey on consumers.

jif236January 23, 2014 5:24 PM

@Carpe "Now, under the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, propaganda has effectively been legalized, and I fear this has far greater implications that people realize yet."

The government has a legal monopoly on the use of force. That includes the use of fraud, which is the indirect use of force.

In a fraud operation, a value is stolen by means of deception and then forcibly held to prevent recovery.

There are many laws to protect individuals from fraud perpetrated by corportations, but when the government uses propaganda against the general population, there is no one to appeal to for protection.

SkomorokhJanuary 23, 2014 5:29 PM

I agree that we should find a way to minimise this. But I think I have a different reason.

Buying more in Ikea than you intended or losing your rent money at a casino are first world problems. They won't kill ya.

I believe the problem is not that the manipulation sometimes succeeds, but rather the subtle toll that it exacts by making everything a bit more annoying.

We already have enough real information to sift through. Enough that it causes strife, exacerbates mental illness and makes life less pleasant. On top of this we add so very much fictional complexity; completely made up dilemmas.

Coupons, cell phone contracts, points cards, transit pass vs. tokens vs. cash, mail in rebates, etc. are a tax on the time and energy of people that can't afford to ignore them. In order that those who can afford to will pay more for the privilege of ignoring the bs.

I wonder if any sociologists have come up with a ballpark figure on how much time this crap has soaked up in aggregate? Or the stress load ...which is likely non-linear since even those not caught up in this are around people who it gets to and we affect one another's state of mind.

Alas, it makes sense. Classic price discrimination like this gives you a low price to put on your ad to compare favourably with competitors. Everyone has to do it because everyone else is doing it. We're probably stuck like this too: The market won't change it because, in the moment, we just look for the cheapest way to do what we need to do and tend not to consider the broader social and macroeconomic consequences of our day-to-day purchases. And how would you even regulate it?

Random fact: At grocery stores in Denmark I was pleased to see milk only came in 1L cartons. Spares them the pointless decision of "hmm, I only pay 50% more for twice as much but will I use it before it goes bad and am I okay with wasting the 'free' extra part?".

kashmarekJanuary 23, 2014 5:55 PM

Here is another example of consumer manipulation:

Should self driving cars chauffeur shopping whales for free?

http://news.slashdot.org/story/14/01/23/230212/should-self-driving-cars-chauffeur-shopping-whales-for-free

Note the part of the discussion where Google will "profile" the consumers for some services, which I think also, includes the pricing of products, something that people have already accused them of doing. Google, like the NSA, will have a full load of data about each of us, while the best we can do is not patronize them (as how we respond will also be in that profile). On the surface, this might seem innocuous to some but sooner or later, it will be trouble.

Do we really want marketeers keeping profiles of consumers for their marketing advantage (and who will they share, give away, or sell that data to, which can be disadvantageous for the consumers). Typically, they are not willing to share such data with consumers, such as profiles of the manufacturers, vendors, suppliers, or about the products, especially if it offers consumers the opportunity to make good buying decisions.

All too troubling...

kashmarekJanuary 23, 2014 6:08 PM

To see where much of this started, search the web, especially the BBC, for the 4 part series, "Century of the Self". It is small screen black & white video, but revealing.

anonymousJanuary 23, 2014 6:51 PM

I miss the old Soviet model, where only had two brands of a product available. And they were always out of one.

ChrisJanuary 23, 2014 8:49 PM

Thank you Skomorokh for your rant, you summed up eloquently a lot of things that have been bothering me as well.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 23, 2014 11:24 PM

@ Skomorokh,

    Coupons, cell phone contracts, points cards, transit pass vs. tokens vs. cash mail in rebates, etc. are a tax on the time and energy of people that can't afford to ignore them. In order that those who can afford to will pay more for the privilege of ignoring the bs

Ahh the "barnical-v-premium" customer...

"Lost leaders" (no not Obama ;-) are supposadly designed to get "premium" customers to do something new, which basicaly falls into two types "get them through your door" and "move them to other premium brands" (by the way premium is from the store perspective not the manufactures or customers perspective) which for large retailers is usually their own "luxury range".

The oldest lost leader was the "store front splash" where a big fancy eye catching display would be put in the window with subtal clues like "this week only" or "Today's Special" and less subtal clues such as "only three per customer".

How ever this only works for regular customers these days due to the way shoping is nolonger "local high street" but "drive to". Thus in big stores it's nolonger "store front" but "end of isle".

Coupons progressed from "catalogue business" and "hand out flyers", through newspapers, door2door flyers, then as they appeared "glossy mags" and as bulk postal rates dropped junk mail. In each step becoming progresivly more targeted to "premium" and less to "barnicals".

Now we see technology realy hitting home, whilst there are still newspaper and glossies adverts they tend not to have coupons (unless aimed at "non-premium" customers) and just push "brand image" to get new customers through the door. Coupons have moved to checkout, either printed on the recipt or given with the recipt based on a simple (for the till jocky) rule such as a spend value.

However during the 1980's one of the then "ePOS" aims was targeted marketing. Initialy this was on your "current shop" but with the prevelance of "plastic" based on "past purchases".

All of which means that untill the economic down turn which culled many "premium" customers --with "foreclose notices"-- barnicals were very deliberatly discriminated against.

That is those you say are subject to "a tax on the time and energy" because thay "can't afford to ignore" the coupons etc are being discriminated against because the coupons are not given to them any longer. Whilst "those who can afford to will pay more for the privilege" are given the coupons...

The sad fact is wherever you look the poorest in society are made to pay disproportionatly more not just in proportion to income but in real terms than the more affluent.

It's part of the "status gap" problem that is endemic in many places. People with resources belive --mostly quite falsly-- that they are "better than the mear clay of society" and that they should be "seen to be better". In times past there were laws enforcing this such as to stop those who were actually better from being able to show wealth. Sometimes called "good breading laws" they enforced a hereditary class system which we still see in societies as the "cast system".

The people at the top often behave in a way that looks perverse if you make the mistake of beleiving that what they are interested in is making more money, generaly they are not and look down on those who do as "trade" or worse. They only want money to fund other more political ambitions or their status by buying others. Basicaly they want status above all else the ultimate form of which is summoning the US President to come cap in hand to hear them tell him how unfair he is being to their class and how he must do more to ensure they pay even less to society (because it will only be wasted on closing the status gap to their detriment).

Thus when it comes to a choice of supporting a measure that will improve everybodies status, or make the status gap larger you know which way they are going to buy votes.

WinterJanuary 23, 2014 11:57 PM

It would help if propaganda and marketing were part of primary school teachings. Nothing like telling kids to spot the hidden message.

"So if it has the 'taste of X', do you think it will contain any X?"

"Coke always has water droplets on the bottle, why do you think that is?"

Nhoj TlagJanuary 24, 2014 1:54 AM

All of the problems discussed here are the fault of government. Without armed thugs to coercive the masses to do things against their interests, the world would exist in an optimal state. Perfection? No. Optimal? Yes. Unshackle the masses and you will find manipulation disappear as they start to be come truly educated.

AspieJanuary 24, 2014 5:05 AM

The reason a lot of this works is not merely lack of competitive alternatives.
It's also that society has, by and large (or should that be Buy & Large) been moving towards
a model that keeps consumers relatively cash rich and time poor. Labyrinthine contracts and psychological delaying tactics make all but the
most determined players give up trying to beat these companies at their own game.

I've found that, much like war games, the only way to win is not to play
the game. I consider a cellphone an emergency backup for when things don't work out. Even then, people still have
'phones in buildings and a polite request can often get access to one to make a distress call.
Society is cosseting individuals to become psychologically dependent on smoke and mirrors
to cultivate the belief that without involvement in the latest twit-spike they're somehow
missing out.

They really aren't.

AspieJanuary 24, 2014 5:29 AM

@Carpe - domestic propaganda is illegal...

As a reg'lar subscriber to the BBC iPlayer I've noticed that two TV series
devoted toward tradition and glamourising the elitism of the Paratroop regiment
have been in their playlist for nearly two years.
Most other shows get maybe a week before they're supplanted, two or three weeks in extreme cases.
These play like recruitment pieces first to understand why we need a pecking order
and second to understand why we need soft bodies trained to stop bullets to preserve that pecking order.

Not exactly the Kitchener "... Needs YOU" style posters but I'm sure Goebbels would approve of
their long-term subliminal value.

However, until the governments can garner trust and respect of their electorates
I doubt this will look like anything more than a feeble gesture to preserve the establishment that has left
so many people wondering why they fought for it.

AutolykosJanuary 24, 2014 6:53 AM

@Aspie: Same here. At the moment I don't even have a working cellphone because Vodafone blocked my prepaid SIM after I didn't use any service they profit from in the last three months (ie calling or texting someone else - that's what Skype is for; I rarely need to do it *right now* anyway).
At that point I realized that I'm not likely to pay them anything in the next three months, either - so we go separate ways now.

Every SocialistJanuary 24, 2014 6:54 AM

@Every Libertarian

"And therefore, corporations should be allowed to prey on consumers."

Because manipulating people is less predatory than threatening people.

anonymousJanuary 24, 2014 9:12 AM

Aspie: "Labyrinthine contracts and psychological delaying tactics make all but the most determined players give up trying to beat these companies at their own game."

In "The Fine Print Society" (Dec. 22, 2011), law professor Evan McKenzie wrote

As I go over all the bills and statements and announcements and changes to this or that plan or arrangement or contract that have flooded into my mailbox recently, it occurs to me that this is a form of concerted action. Corporate managers have collectively determined to overwhelm us with fine print.

We can't possibly read all this crap, much less meditate like some 18th century aristocrat on the implications of the content. Yet we can't do so much as download an update to Adobe Acrobat without "signing" a contract. We are conclusively presumed to have read, understood, and agreed to every lawyer-drafted word, and yet everybody knows that none of us reads this. Not even Ron Paul -- so don't start with me.

And the more of these contracts we get, the less likely it is that we will read any of them. So corporations have an incentive to send more of them and make them longer and more verbose. This is a collective decision on their part, and it is working, and they know it.

It's a relatively short blog post of his, so read the whole thing at the link.

McMikeJanuary 24, 2014 10:16 AM

I remember back in the days of telco deregulation, when I first heard the pricing term "unbundling."

How far we have fallen since.

Buying a cell phone plan, choosing a service contract on your appliance purchase, buying health insurance... it's all a giant crap shoot.

Most people know on some level that the game is rigged, and they are probably getting hosed. I do major spreadsheets and try and reason out the risk and distill it down to the underlying assumptions... major waste of time, I think I would be better off flipping a coin.

To Nhoj TlagJanuary 24, 2014 11:31 AM

Unshackle the masses and you will find manipulation...

... happen in other ways.

CallMeLateForSupperJanuary 24, 2014 11:49 AM

I find myself in a tight situation, and it's pretty much got my goat; I see no good way out of it. My only line of communication with the outside world is a copper land line (owned by Verizon), and it frequently gets so scratchy that it's unusable for voice (thankfully, DSL, though affected by the noise, brute-forces its way through). The wiring inside my house is fine; a tech. disconnected it and witnessed static on Verizon's copper.

Getting customer service entails calling an 800 number, drilling through endless automated voice menus, making an appointment to have a technician drop by, and leaving a phone number where I can be reached. That last detail throws a spanner into the automated system's gears, because the number I leave is the same number that has the problem, (Apparently every other customer can be reached at more than one number. Well, I can't!)

At that point the automated system rings up a Real Person and spits me out. "OK. Noise on the line. I'll have to run some tests after we hang up. Please do not use that line until I call you back." Within a few minutes, she rings me back. My phone's sound quality is pristine; I could "hear a pin drop"! Whatever magic "testing the line" accomplishes is very short-lived; the scratchy, "dirty volume control" noise creeps in within a week and ramps up to Proper Cacaphony within a further few days. And so I go through the above-mentioned 20-minute drill yet again. And again. If only I could just ring up Maggie down at the local Bell Telephone Business Office, like back in the 70's. (sigh)

Last month I button-holed a Verizon tech. on the street, described my situation, and asked if there were a permanent solution. He told me 1) "testing the line" consists of zapping it with 100+ volts, which temporarily "cleans" the poor electrical connection(s) that cause the noise; 2) the only permanent fix would be isolating and repairing the bad connections; 3) Verison really-really wants to be done with copper, would like to sell only cellular service, and is unlikely to spend $$$ tearing into copper.

Verizon can easily continue to route customer service calls into its horrible, time-consuming, automated voice menus system until the sun explodes. Customers shoulder all the inconvenience; nobody at Verizon is inconvenienced, and the system is cheap. I lose; they don't. If I drop land line and buy cell, they win twice - one less (cheap) copper customer; one more (big bucks) cell customer - but lose a DSL customer. And I would have no ISP.

Just on general principal I'd like to dump Verizon, but the only land line competition to Verizon in this area is one cable company, and one can't get phone service from that cable company without buying TV as well. I get *nine* TV channels over the air, so having to pay for cable TV to get phone and wideband is a non-starter.

Like I said before, I see no good way out.

StonecutterJanuary 25, 2014 11:30 AM

@NobodySpecial

In the supermarket I deliberately only buy the yellow-label value lines. The ones specially designed to look unappealing so that I'm am embarrassed into buying the more expensive brands.

What's so special about yellow labels?

MrXYZZYJanuary 26, 2014 3:13 PM

Perhaps a consumer group could rate the manipulation factor and publish the results from time to time.

SimonJanuary 27, 2014 7:48 PM

Can confirm the casino part. I walked through Aria (Vegas) early one morning on my way to a bus to the Grand Canyon - almost missed the bus as I couldn't find the right exit >:/

KapitalismJanuary 27, 2014 9:28 PM

That edited to add article starts with "If you live in America..."

Our belowed Amerika. The New NOYTA CCCP.

This sort of issues are not just done by mobile phone companies here. Banks do the same thing. See e.g. the book "Gotcha Capitalism" by Bob Sullivan.

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