Caveat Emptor: Marketing Cause and Effect

Dec 13 2011

“Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors.”  - David Hume

“The invalid assumption that correlation implies cause is probably among the two or three most serious and common errors of human reasoning.”  - Stephen Jay Gould

The logic of cause and effect

In most countries I have visited, there seems to be an uncanny correlation between height and hair length. Taller people are more likely to have short hair and shorter people more likely to have longer hair. I just can’t work out which is causing which?*

Similarly, there is strong evidence that sleeping in your shoes causes a headache, ice cream sales are responsible for an increase in deaths by drowning, and that the decline in piracy has led to an increase in global temperatures! Or maybe there are other causes such as going to bed drunk, Summer swimming habits and …. I have no idea. [*Generally men have shorter hair than women and are also taller.]

In a great infographic in the current edition of Bloomberg Business Week (by Vali Chandrasekaran), you can see for yourself the relationship between Facebook and the Greek debt crisis, Global warming and science funding, the name ‘Ava’ and the US housing bubble, and other bizarre conjunctions of data. In real life it can be much more difficult for us to unwrap correlation from causation, especially as our brains are hard wired to seek familiar patterns in the world around us (which is why we see faces in mountains, clouds and even custard pies!

You can see the infographic below, and the original source is referenced at the bottom of this article:

Brandwashed, Brainwashed or Lindstorm in a Teacup?

Martin Lindstrom would have been well advised to remind himself of the difference between correlation and causation before writing his latest book, which is packed full of reverse inferences which have a tenuous (and sometimes no) basis in reality. He attempts to update the 1957 ‘classic’ The Hidden Persuaders which first introduced the ideas of subliminal advertising and appealing to the unconscious into mainstream debate, although I’m not sure he has added much which is new, apart from a veneer of scientific credibility with the use of neuroscience and brainscans to provide ‘evidence’ for some of the claims he makes.

However, his evidence is more like the arguments of phrenologists of the 19th century, who argued that a specific ‘bump’ on the skull implied a propensity to a specific emotion (such as love). Martin Lindstrom argues that because there is activity in the insula region (often connected to activity relating to love and compassion) of the brain when our iPhone rings, this implies that we are in love with our phones. Correlation does not equal causation, and the insula is involved in a lot of things we do (some estimate around 30-40% of behaviour) including disgust and social interaction.

Washing the dirty linen

Elsewhere in the book he tackles ‘tricks’ used to market to babies, the manipulation of the senses through the power of expectations (I thought one of his previous books argued for that!), the use of nostalgia in branding, leveraging celebrity power, data mining and the use of hope in marketing (some would argue that this is all that marketing is about). Although he quotes many great anecdotal stories, they don’t really add up to even a hill of beans. Does anyone with children believe that they are likely to say ‘McDonalds’ or ‘Ronald’ before they say ‘mama’ or ‘dada’? Many of his examples are badly out of date, such as Swoopo which is now out of business (clearly it wasn’t as addictive as Martin Lindstrom believed), and the growth of the Method brand which is based on five year old data.

In the final chapter of the book, Lindstrom sets up an experiment to prove that ‘word of mouth’ works and that we often like to copy what other people do (just in case you weren’t aware of that). Apart from being a cynical exercise in manipulating people, the chapter proves very little except that people like Martin Lindstrom will go to any length to sell books and create publicity for themselves.

Clearly these tricks worked on me, as I was stupid enough to buy the book.

Time for a personal brandwash perhaps?


Correlation or Causation? in Bloomberg Business Week, December 9 2012

Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy by Martin Lindstrom (2011)

The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard (1957)

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