Cunning, Tricks and Manipulation

I recently wrote a response to Kristina Bjoran’s Psychological Manipulation in eCommerce Design over on my professional blog. I want to further follow up because it is such a valuable conversation. If you haven’t already read my first response, go ahead and read it now.
I’m not singling out Kristina here— her negative judgment of e-commerce processes seems to be common; look at the number of shares and re-tweets that her article got. But her position is not personally useful. Her assessment of those online offers and processes as trickery and manipulation is wrapped up in notions of victimhood and ultimately disempowering to herself.
Let me present the closest example to manipulation in sales I can think of from my personal life.
In the late 90’s I went to my local VW dealership to lease a bright blue Volkswagen Jetta Turbo. The same color blue that’s on the Blue Angels, but on my car, sweet. That car was a head turner, but I digress. I signed the initial paperwork, but they did not have that exact car on the lot. They assured me that they would get one as quickly as they could; we shook hands and I left. The next day I got a call from the salesman who said, “your car is on a cargo tanker off the coast of Brazil. It will take a couple of weeks to get here. I can put you in a different car on my lot today.” I did not believe that this dealer’s procurement process was so broken that that was the quickest he could get me this car.
It sure sounded to me like a lie, but I was not about to call him a liar on the phone. So instead I said, “that’s okay, I’m in no hurry to get my car.” We hung up. The next day the salesman called me back and said, “good news, we found the same car at a nearby dealership. You can pick it up tomorrow.”
Let’s assume for one moment that the salesman did not lie to me when he told me my car was south of the equator in the Atlantic Ocean. I know, I know, but bear with me. My hunch was correct: the dealer’s procurement process was in fact not that broken. All they had to do was call the next dealer over and get the car from them.
If this is the case, then why did the salesman tell me that my car was two weeks away before he even attempted to call the next dealer over? Clearly, his directive was to move some of the slower inventory on the lot, and that was the process for doing it. Lie to the customer.
Was I manipulated? Clearly no, because I got what I wanted. But did he lie to me? It sure appears that way. If the situation were slightly different—if I really did need to get the car right away—I might have felt that I had no choice but to pick a different car on the lot. At that point manipulation seems apt: a lie in a negotiation that gives the liar the upper hand.
Back to two of Kristina’s examples:

  • Amazon’s free shipping on orders of $25 or more
  • Groupon’s limited time offers

Not even approaching the level of a lie, these are simply how the merchant structured deal. We do this in our personal lives all the time: “Honey, will you take out the trash today?” This is what that party is willing to offer in order for them to be happy. You are free to accept or decline the offer.
Her third example:

  • iTunes receipts e-mailed two days after purchase

The reason for this is explained in the very Wired Magazine article that she cites as her source material: “Apple is trying to batch-process your credit card transactions to reduce its interchange fees”. Somehow Kristina fails to mention this perfectly legitimate reason and goes on to describe it as “feels a bit, well, cunning.” Kristina needs to check her internal barometer of cunning.
But there is yet another way to look at delayed billing. I remember hearing a story about an exclusive Japanese restaurant where the entire dining experience is heavenly. The restaurant is only open a couple days a week and the waiting list is six months. The proprietor made a conscious decision to not present the bill at the end of the meal; instead the bill is mailed to their house after the fact. They did not want the dining experience to be diminished by the act of paying a bill. Brilliant! And I say that not from the perspective of a businessman but from the perspective of the consumer.
Describing a transparent transaction (no lies) as manipulation is unwise at best. Like “The Influencing Machine”, we refuse to acknowledge our active and willful participation in the transaction— it was not me that pushed the “buy now” button. There is comfort in the abdication of responsibility and the projection of that responsibility onto the other party: we avoid the uncomfortable acknowledgment of our own error in judgment and replace it with the slightly more comforting feeling of victimhood. The failure to see our own power in a purchasing process ultimately hurts ourselves, as we are remain comfortably asleep to the fact that we had the power all along, and certainly doomed to repeat the same scenario of buyers remorse.