Monday, March 10, 2008

I love placebos and so should you

Most of us have friends who seem to be always finding the latest cure for our common aches and pains: they do it all: zinc, echinacea, wheat grass, airborne. These mysterious usually foul-smelling vials are always emerging from their bags, with their promoter's assurance that they "really work," but only "if you take them right at the start of the cold."

And of course, they do work, much like brands, through the power of suggestion. Last week, the news was filled with stories of a recent study in which a more expensive placebo, $2.50 in this case, provided more relief than one that cost 10 cents. Both pills worked in the sense that everyone who took either pill claimed pain relief. But a greater percentage of those who took the more expensive pill claimed significant pain relief. Now, we really know what the "extra" in extra strength stands for.

I'm not surprised or even disappointed, being an eager participant in the placebo effect. I don't actively purchase echinacea or wheat grass or airborne, but if some is around i'm happy to take it. Why not? There's something about bad-tasting stuff in interesting packages that always makes me feel a little better, in a magical potion sort of way.

I tell most of my doctors that the success of their treatment is highly correlated to their ability to convince me that they know what they are doing. Most delusional of all: I still buy the brand-name Advil pills rather than the much less expensive generic equivalents. Why? I know they are chemically exactly the same, but I just like Advil, or maybe it's that yummy orange sugar-coating. Kind of like adult M&M's.

In any case, this is great news for marketers, and perhaps some of the best recent evidence that brands and other related signifiers like price can have a dramatic impact on consumer satisfaction.

But marketers beware. Just because consumers believe it, doesn't mean you can legally claim it. News last week was also filled with reports of Airborne's loss in a class action false-advertising lawsuit. It now has to pay out over 23 million to settle the claim, buying back ads and refunding customers. My guess is that it won't stop the believers from purchasing the product. That's one of the great things about placebos and brands and other acts of faith. Scientific studies are irrelevant. Believing makes it so.


Brad Noble said...

I love that health is correlated in some loose way to will power, defined in this case as a brain's ability to turn a thought -- perceived benefit -- into an outcome.

Down with victims! Up with delusions!

sk said...

did you ever any doubt? But i'm easily deluded.