I’ve been reading the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, and it’s got me thinking.
Ariely is a college professor at Duke University who studies behavior – specifically, irrational behavior. He asks questions like, “why don’t we trust politicians?” and “Do nurses prefer to use procedures that are easier for them or less painful for the patient?” He studies how zero effects our buying habits and why we overvalue what we have.
But the thing I’ve been thinking about the most is his chapter, “The Power of Price”.
The Power of Price
The Power of Price revolves around Ariely’s discovery that more expensive medicine actually heals better than less expensive. This is shocking because he’s shown that identical pills heal differently based on their price.
So the $5 dollar Tylenol is more effective than the penny Tylenol even though the pills are the same. At first he thought it was the label that influenced us, but after further study he discovered that lowering the price but keeping the labels the same caused the effectiveness of the medicine to go down.
It’s called the placebo effect. Our brains work so well that when we’re presented with something we think is helpful, it usually will be helpful. Our brain creates the desired effect because we think it should.
And if you think this isn’t true about you, think again. Regardless of your background, placebos change how you feel after taking medicine.
It’s why snake oil salesmen were effective. It’s why chicken soup can heal a cold. It’s why certain surgeries, when tested (which they rarely are), turn out be little more than expensive, painful placebos.
A Problem For Marketers
This poses an especially tricky dilemma for marketers. If a pill is 90% effective, but only as a placebo, is it morally wrong to tell people it has medicine in it that will help them?
A good example of this problem is the Airborne tablets that were popular several years ago. In the mid 2000s, Airborne because a huge success when a 2nd grade teacher developed a tablet that promised to boost your immune system and help fight the germs you collect when surrounds by large groups of people.
The tablet was an overnight success and people all across the country sung its praises.
Until, of course, studies were done on Airborne. In a $23.3 million dollar lawsuit, Airborne was punished for being a placebo that couldn’t boost your immune system or fight germs. It was just a fizzy tablet that tastes good.
It was just a placebo.
Unfortunately, it was an effective one and after the news came out the Airborne effect ended for most people. The pill (which is still for sale) lost most of its momentum and I haven’t heard of anyone using it in a couple of years.
But it was effective. It worked because people thought it would work. If a pretty package and fizzy water can convince millions of people to stay healthy, is that something we should ignore? Is what he did morally wrong?
It’s hard difficult question to answer.
In Your Wallet
So now you have a choice between a cheap, penny headache medicine or a more expensive one. You know they both contain Tylenol, the ingredient that helps with headaches. You’ve heard they are equally effective, and yet if you buy the more expensive brand you’ll likely have better headache relief.
Which do you choose? It’s a question I can’t answer, but one we all need to be thinking about.
What placebos have been ruined for you by science?