Why All Great Marketing Contains the Power of the Placebo Effect

image of placebo

Back in the 1950s, a bedridden man faced certain death from cancer of the lymph nodes.

Tumors the size of oranges had invaded the man’s neck, groin, chest, and abdomen. The patient’s only hope was a new experimental cancer drug called Krebiozen.

Three days after initial treatment, the man was out of bed and joking with nurses. As treatment continued, his tumors shrunk in half.

Ten more days later, he was discharged from the hospital … the cancer was gone.

Strangely enough, none of the other cancer patients treated with Krebiozen showed any improvement.

Stranger still, a few years later it was conclusively determined that Krebiozen had no therapeutic value whatsoever.

Welcome to the power of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect and the power of belief and experience

A placebo is, by definition, a substance that doesn’t actually provide the promised benefit. In other words, it’s not real.

The placebo effect, however, is very real.

Research spanning decades demonstrates time and again that placebos (sham treatments) have resulted in true beneficial results. According to Scientific American, “placebos have helped alleviate pain, depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, inflammatory disorders and even cancer.”

The placebo effect works in very real ways because people consciously believe the treatment will work. Not only that, but the experience of being treated, even with a “fake” medication, creates subconscious associations that lead to recovery.

Belief and experience are two vital ingredients of effective marketing as well. In other words, the things we buy fulfill our expectations if belief and experience remain consistent, regardless of “reality.”

Can a glass make wine taste better?

Consider the case of Riedel wine glasses, a highly successful line of glass-blown wine receptacle designed to deliver the wine’s “message” via the carefully-crafted form of the glass. In other words, the shape of the glass makes the wine taste better.

Skeptical?

So was Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator. Premier wine critic Robert Parker, Jr. was also initially unconvinced.

And yet Matthews, Parker, hundreds of other wine experts, and thousands of customers now swear it’s true. Taste tests throughout Europe and the U.S. proved time and again that wine — expensive, inexpensive, and middling — tasted better in Riedel glasses.

Except it’s not true. At least not empirically.

When subjected to double-blind testing that doesn’t let the taster know the shape of the glass, people found no detectable difference in taste between glasses. Objectively, the shape of the glass just doesn’t matter.

But subjectively, when belief in the glass and the experience of the glass are added back in the mix, it matters. And the wine does taste better to these people, just like the placebo effect can make people well.

So how do you get a placebo effect going for your product or service?

Your placebo effect is story

The Riedel glass story kicks off Seth Godin’s All Marketers are Liars Tell Stories, probably his most important marketing book after Permission Marketing.

The book is also one of his least read, because Godin accidentally proved his point by violating it – he told the story of how marketing really works in the context of lies, and his audience of marketers didn’t like that much.

This is what I mean when I say the audience determines what’s authentic. Not you, no matter how “real” you’re keeping it.

Seth thought he was keeping it real, but his audience largely rejected the story he was telling because of the frame he chose. And the frame is everything.

The basic idea is to frame your story in a way that matches the worldview of a subset of people. In other words, you tell the story of why you believe your product or service is exceptional, unique, or just plain better in a way that other people also believe to be true (authentic).

If your story is deemed authentic, people will kick in belief by telling the story to themselves, and buy.

If the experience of your product or service remains consistent with the belief, your story becomes their story, and these early adopters will become evangelists for you in a fervent crusade to convert non-believers and expand a tiny market into a larger one.

Yes, my language in that last sentence was intentional. This is how religions, cults, and Apple work as well.

Tell a story that spreads

The key thing to remember is to tell a story that resonates strongly with some, instead of trying to tell a story that pleases everyone. No story works with everyone, not even Apple’s.

But the people who dig your story have the power to spread it, now quicker and easier than ever.

For example, if you believe your Converse skate shoes are cooler than Vans, and wearing Converse makes you feel cooler, then as far as you’re concerned, you are cooler, all thanks to the story Converse (and you) are telling.

And you’re likely to validate the story you’re telling yourself by trying to get your friends to switch away from those whack Vans, too. These stories are how your placebo effect spreads and becomes real to more and more people.

George Riedel passionately believes the story he tells about his wine glasses. And thousands happily agree with him, all thanks to the new reality that belief and experience create.

What’s your story?

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Google+.

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Comments

  1. Most people think that seeing is believing when the opposite is more true: believing is seeing. The placebo effect is direct evidence that we can change our own reality by changing what we believe.

    • @Chris Cree — Very well put Chris. Doesn’t this also go back to one of Cialdini’s laws of influence? Commitment and Consistency?

      Thanks for writing this article Brian!

      • Chris nails it in the head. People will simply believe what they want to believe and cherry-pick evidence from their environment to support what they already believe or want to believe.

      • “Believe what you want to believe.” There is no other way around it, people will believe what they want, and it’s up to us to make the most out of it.

        It all starts with beliefs.

    • Really liked how that pointed related to the wine glasses.

      Amazing how the mind works, even for professionals.

  2. Brian, this is a great article. I actually had a conversation about this exact thing over the weekend, and was going to write it up, but it seems I no longer have to. I do want to add one thing though…

    This will come as no surprise to you, but for everyone else, who knows!

    Neuroscientists wanted to test the placebo effect. They found that when people believe that they’re taking pain medicine, the brain secretes pain medicine too. The human brain changed the way it worked because people took a drug that they believed would work. Perception became reality.

    I’m simplifying this here, but for anyone who wants to read the full article, you can find it here.

    (Oh, I may still write something up, but instead will probably focus on the neuroscience approach. Hrmm)

    • Derek, you should definitely do the neuroscience angle as a companion piece (make sure to link ;)).

      I started to go more into the brain science aspect, but I decided to stay focused on story. Stories of one kind or another seem to be the major catalyst in these amazing things we can now observe happening inside the brain.

  3. If you can get your customers to believe your story, they’ll forgive you for just about any of your faults. For instance, Mac fanatics won’t even blink twice at the price of a new laptop because they firmly believe it’s worth the price. Same thing with avid Starbucks drinkers. You can’t convince them that an alternative could be better.

  4. Great stuff, Brian. I was lucky to stumble onto All Marketers Are Liars as the Seth Godin book I read, and the Reidel story is one I’ve shared with a lot of people.

    One interesting thing here that nobody has yet mentioned is the way the commitment/consistency principle that Cialdini writes about reinforces this… if you pay $75 for a wine glass, you’d better believe you’re going to try really hard to enjoy your wine more when you drink from it.

    The same goes for so many other products, of course, if they’re positioned to make use of this.

    • Matt, that’s spot on about commitment/consistency. It’s a very powerful persuasion technique that we perform on ourselves (with plenty of help from the initial story told by the marketer).

    • @Matt — Woops, I made the same comment above about commitment/consistency before I scrolled down. Sorry.

      The two concepts are joined at the hip. They kind of feed each other. Great stuff!

  5. Brian,

    Thanks for writing this. I just read it on my phone in the parking lot before a morning meeting with another small business prospect and it reinforced what I thought had been working really well in my current sales pitch. I have been “features boy” in my sales approach in the past and now that I am communicating my belief and passion in our services and telling basically the same story it has really impacted our sales positively. You just know its working when you go to that follow up meeting and the person you pitched to is telling the story to the always skeptical partner, spouse whoever. Belief, passion telling a story, it sounds too soft but it works.

  6. Another illustration of medical trials was the one in which the medicine was administered by doctors with and without white coats on. The patients treated by the doctors in the white coats got better, the others didn’t. The power of uniform? Haha well the fascists knew all about that one.

    This is an absolutely brilliant video that illustrates all these points in a cool way.
    http://devour.com/video/strange-powers-of-the-placebo-effect/

  7. Interesting concepts. Personally, I’ve never doubted the reality of the placebo effect. The brain is a powerful thing, and it’s not surprising to me that focused thought (whether conscious or due to the influence of others) can lead to real, powerful changes.

    That said, the suggestions you make aren’t as easy and intuitive to apply as they seem on the outside. You talk about ensuring your story is consistent with the message your readers want to hear, but do you have any suggestions on real action steps to take in order to be sure everyone’s on the same page?

    Thanks much – great article!

    • Sarah, the article I link to at “the frame is everything” breaks it down into 3 steps. But for a more comprehensive approach, I recommend Godin’s book (also linked above) wholeheartedly.

  8. Now, If we can only get writers to realize that belief in writer’s block is a self-fulfilling placebo. :)

  9. The other thing that sometimes gets missed is that the placebo effect is in place even if something also works on its own. So belief and story reinforce the “real” effect and make it more powerful.

  10. Hi Brian,

    I’m glad you wrote this because it’s such an essential topic that a lot of people (business owners) have a hard time wrapping their head around. These principles of palcebo, commitment, and consistency are all vital to the effectiveness of the story, but I think a foundational element is also involves “getting inside” your customers head.

    I find that business owners often assume they know the story their customer wants to hear, think the story they believe is the same one their customers do, or they think “their story” (in the ego-centric sense) is the story their customers what to hear. They guess – instead of discovering.

    I think if you’re going to be able to use placebo, commitment, and consistency with the most success, you’ve got to acquire evidence of the story already being told to effectively match your story to theirs as you’ve suggest here.

  11. Why does story telling get such a bad reputation? Even Seth Godin upholds the stereotype of ‘lying’, whereas story telling doesn’t mean exaggerating, bending the truth and definitely doesn’t mean lying. It means ‘presenting’ your story in a way that is ‘interesting’.

    As you asked, Brian (it’s all your fault anyways, right?), my story that I am trying to present at my blog is that of a ‘creatively self employed guy all the way from Pakistan who is doing different things and doing things differently’… that’s the story. And it is presented as most mission statements i.e. in a boring, dull manner. No placebo effect there. But hopefully, the effect is there over at my blog :)

    And as usual, awesome opening para for the post :)

  12. Thanks Brian, I really appreciate your explanation of authenticity. I always thought of it as just being myself, but you’re right, it’s about being myself in an engaged, likeable way that OTHERS deem “authentic.”

    I could be my morose, factual self, and that might authentically represent my nature. But that’s about as animated and appealing as week-old roadkill.

    Joe :D

  13. Brian,

    I often think of he best advertisements as tall tales.

    I think that those J. Peterman catalogs created a terrific placebo effect with their amazing copy (stories). What’s your take?

    Dave

    • J. Peterman is a wonderful example … the story was so intoxicating that it could make you love the jacket or hat or whatever that much more when you got it.

  14. Fascinating.

    And fabulously written, too, Brian! The web is hurting for more of this flavor of high caliber writing.

    Thanks for framing your point in such a compelling and, yes, enchanting fashion!

    Peter

  15. Hi Brian –

    Every time I read a post on Copyblogger, I walk away with a list of new to-do items to make my blog (and my business!) better. I love that. :)

    I’ve been consciously trying to use storytelling in my presentations and webinars lately, after reading “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They make a great argument for why storytelling is one of the best techniques you can utilize for making sure your content gets noticed and remembered. Thanks for your thoughtful post, and for convincing me I need to pay attention to storytelling in my blog, too!

    Beth

  16. Love the post Brian!
    If you believe it, you can achieve it.
    There is story after story about belief and how it impacts your life. I see it in clients when they approach a prospect. If they really believe the prospect should do business with them, they will. If they are wishy-washy, and wimpy, it’s rare that they ever convert the prospect into a paying client.
    You must believe that you are the “Best Fit” solution for your prospects problems and goals.
    Then you will indeed grow your business.
    Believe dat!

  17. Hi Brian,

    Excellent point made here!

    The most wonderful fact I’ve picked up from some wise folks is this: no matter how things appear to be, it’s all simply energy. Everything is a placebo, simply backed with our subconscious knowledge of it. All the wisest seers and teachers knew this.

    If you believe in your story, and it resonates so deeply with you, that your harmonized readers have no choices but to feel it, people will do what you tell them to do. It’s that simple…..and of course, the crowd who doesn’t resonate with your teachings will exit stage left quickly, or criticize you. No problems there, because we don’ t want to waste either party’s time.

    If you believe in what you’re doing on a deep level, like-minded people will believe in it too, and will follow. It’s all energy, all a placebo. Our thinking is that damn powerful.

    Thanks for sharing your insight Brian! Luved seeing a post like this on a marketing blog, right up my alley ;)

    Ryan

  18. Pollyanna has a better life than most of us. Or she thinks she does, and does it really matter?

  19. That particular one of Seth’s booksis one of the many faves that is pride of place on (this marketers!) shelf. Yes even as a marketer I loved the book – although wasn’t crazy about being called a liar, so was happy when he adjusted the title to add the ‘Tells Stories’ bit….
    Stories are more easily remembered than facts. And an important part of the power of story is that it’s empowering for a listener to make a creative leap and connect the story-metaphor to the story of his or her own life. Recognising and creatively grasping an analogy is a way of personally taking on or embodying information – as experience. So the story becomes almost real-life. And the person telling it becomes known to them, almost a friend.
    That’s partly why we remember a good story long after the telling is over

    • I loved the audacity of the choice “Liars,” but it did seem to have the effect of making people not want to read it because the word made them uncomfortable.

      Once again, the clever headline loses. :)

  20. Very interesting article, I never would have guessed that marketing could make people actually think that wine would taste better in a specific glass when compared to other glasses. I always thought people would just think “Glass is Glass, it is just a shape difference”. But I guess I’m wrong on that and a placebo affect can even happen when logic says otherwise.

  21. Impressive post Brian.

    ‘Placebo Effect’ works in many other aspects of human life. It’s one thing scientists have validated but don’t understand .

    I like your point of view, marketers do not actually lie (in its raw form), they tell stories that make people desire their product or service.

  22. Marketers embrace the idea of making you want something you’re not sure you need or have — which is a lot like the placebo effect. Clinical trials give out placebos and don’t tell you because they want you to feel like you are getting something from the medicine (or, in your example the wine glass). We believe something is “different” because we have the “right” people telling us that it is so – at least, what we perceive as right.

  23. Very perceptive articles. A story needs to both seduce and satisfy. Seduction is about the headline, and the hooks in the early sentences or paragraphs. Satisfaction is about the takeaway, and is much more prone to clashing with people’s prejudices and biases. If you want people to have a good takeaway from what you write, you need to find a way to make your message compatible enough with what they already believe that are willing to incorporate the new lesson you are offering.

    If on the other hand, you frame your new lesson as requiring a wholesale discarding of everything they believe and have learned, you aren’t going to get very far. (Or you are going to have to draw your followers from the most disadvantaged and psychologically vulnerable — people already predisposed to discard everything they’ve learned because it hasn’t worked for them — the sorts of people targetted by a _real_ actual cult.)

    This is why certain types of political writers do so poorly and only end up preaching to the converted: they use language that implies that anyone who doesn’t agree with them in every detail is morally compromised or inferior. Noam Chomsky is a great example. I agree with almost everything he says; but I think he is his own worst enemy in terms of how he chooses to communicate it, because (and he is a philosopher of language, remember) he refuses to accept any of the mainstream terms of debate. He insists on coming up with his own terminology that reframes all the state actors as terrorists, etc. He gets stuck on following deifnitions of things and doesn’t actually attempt to mould his message into a form that can actually be injected into the bloodstream of capitalism and readily carried as a ‘nutrient’ — you need to disguise your message as a capitalist nutrient in order to get it anywhere in this world. Of course, it could only be a disguise — it could be a trojan horse — a cell containing the virus. These are the most subversive kinds of communication. Certain forms of popular music, for example, should probably be taken more seriously as agents of change than everything Chomsky ever put to paper.

  24. Hi Brian,

    I guess I should have thought about this before I plopped down major dough for a David Yurman ring. But for three years, I ignored the “kicking” But ultimately I did “kick in belief by telling the story” to myself that ultimately I could not live without it and caved and bought it. Same with the Riedel glasses. I have successfully resisted so far, however I don’t know how much longer I can resist. It seems, at least for me, when I become a die hard advocate, the idea of it takes years to seep in, before I invest in some product or brand that’s hefty.

    I wonder what makes brands so endearing to one person, and a waste of money and trash to the next?

    Our company is a startup, and I’m wondering, how do you become passionate to the point of building advocates verus being spam to people?

    When you say, “The basic idea is to frame your story in a way that matches the worldview of a subset of people. …tell the story of why you believe your product or service is exceptional, unique, or just plain better in a way that other people also believe to be true (authentic).”

    Overall, how do you teeter the fine line between passionate authentic and passionate crazy spammer, and who is to decide?

  25. Oh by the way, this seems like a silly question to ask, but I can’t figure out how everyone in the comments section added their photo beside their comment. Is there something I missed?

  26. This is great! Now, I have another book to order off Amazon…Godin’s Liar book :) Looking forward to the read and thanks for the great analogy.

    Brandon

  27. Michael Stelzner :

    Brian,

    You are an outstanding writer! Good read.

    Mike

  28. The wineglass story reminds me of a programme I saw on the BBC last year called ‘E Numbers: an edible adventure’. E Numbers (the E stands for Europe, of course, since we’re all now ruled by Brussels) are additives in food, and the series looked at colours, preservatives and sweeteners.

    In the colours episode, one of the things they did was to take white wine and dye it red using artificial colouring. Then they organised a blind tasting. Even wine experts though the ‘red’ was actually red.

    In another episode, they had a blind tasting with two types of baked beans. In fact, they were exactly the same beans, but because people were *expecting* two different tastes, everybody said there was a marked difference. Everybody apart from one guy who said they tasted exactly the same (brave chap).

    Modern art is the same. You see something, I don’t. I can’t convince you there’s nothing, and you can’t convince me there’s something. I see an unmade bed (à la Tracy Emin), you see a work of art.

    Like Seth says, we make up our mind, then make the facts fit what we already ‘know’. Very powerful in the hands of a marketer.