When we today enter a supermarket, we are bombarded with choices: dozens of brands of what essentially is the same product beg for our attention and try to convince us that they are superior to the other. Are they really? And does this much choice help us?
From Ancient Times To Today
Even in ancient Egypt and Rome, advertising was known. Through wall or rock paintings, merchants advertised their goods, politicians running campaigns told voters why they are better than that other guy and gladiators heralded their superior cunning and strength (and sold what today would be coined “action figures”).
But it wasn’t until the late 19th century that advertisement became what it is today, when industrialization made mass production viable. Because that made it possible to produce goods cheaply, which led the dilemma that then many similar products appeared, each needing something beyond its given properties to differentiate itself and stand out from competing offers.
Over the last 100 years this has taken up a dimension that nearly is incomprehensible.
Confusing Our Choice
In 1930 a person was happy to buy a bottle of water. Today, in the US alone, there are 184 different brands available of what essentially is still nothing but water. In some cases it is even nothing but tap water – of Coca-Cola’s Dasani we are told it has “added minerals”, for a “fresh, pure taste”, but in reality it’s the same water you can enjoy at home by opening the faucet. Except for the premium price.
For cereals, a US shopper has about 380 brands to choose from and it is hard to imagine in how many distinctively different ways you can treat rice, corn and wheat to make 380 kinds of cereal that each offer a fundamental difference to the others.
It Is No Choice
They often don’t. Not the cereals, neither the water, nor any other product. We are mostly buying certain brands because we are coaxed into believing that brand A is the best or at least better than brand B, while in reality hardly any of these supposed superior qualities have ever been proven. Chances are that the generic brand product standing at the bottom of the rack was made by the same company manufacturing the name brand product.
In his book The Power of Persuasion – How We Are Bought and Sold, Robert Levine, professor of psychology at the California State University, exemplifies this with the help of toothpastes:
With all the toothpastes on the market, companies need to somehow make theirs appear different. Once upon a time, Crest set itself apart by advertising that it—implying it alone—had stannis fluoride and was recommended by the American Dental Association. Now shelves are filled with competitors who fight cavities with fluoride. Since each has pretty much the same cavity-fighting formula, advertisers are challenged to find some other “differentiator” that will establish a “position” for their product. In other words, how do they create a visible contrast between their product and the competition?
Every toothpaste, I learned, touts its differential by highlighting one or two ingredients or a specific benefit that is its alone. Arm & Hammer tells you it’s the baking soda + peroxide toothpaste. Listerine toothpaste kills germs that cause bad breath. Tom’s of Maine is the natural toothpaste (with calcium to boot). Rembrandt is the whitening toothpaste. Metadent has fluoride, baking soda, and peroxide and—lest you confuse it with Arm & Hammer—adds that it has “the ingredients dentists recommend most for the care of teeth and gums.” One brand just calls itself by its differential: Plus + White Toothpaste. My own favorite is a Colgate toothpaste that contains “micro-cleansing crystals.” Take that, Mr. Tooth Decay. Crest, meanwhile, hasn’t stood still. It now promotes a series of toothpastes, each with its own special formula. The entire Crest line is contrasted not only with competitive brands but against itself. One Crest toothpaste features sensitivity protection, another has tartar protection, a third offers cavity protection, a fourth has gum care protection. Would it really be so difficult, one wonders, to mix all those protections together in one tube?
How does any of this help us come to a sensible decision, especially where food is concerned? It only takes up our time by having to make mostly unnecessary judgments, scanning dozens of colorfully screaming boxes, cans and packaging for a bit of information that just might bring some sense into this barrage of meaningless information.
To put insult next to injury, at the checkout we then even pay twice for our own confusion: The costs for expensive packaging and advertisement campaigns are directly calculated into the price tag ending up on the product, while the quality of ingredients often are reduced, to keep that price manageable.
As a closing point to this article, have a look at this picture:
At what point did you notice the two lonely humans in this flood of “choice”?