Modern Times

I used to look down on the masses of people pushing and fighting each other for the last flat screen TV. To me, Black Friday was something other (desperate) people did. And from up on my high horse, I’d condemn this pagan tradition and pray humanity would come to its senses. When online shopping became a thing, I was in dangerous territory but as long as I banned myself from accessing certain high street retailers, it seemed to me that I was safe. In the last few years though, I’m not quite sure what happened but navigating the web around this time of year has become something like an obstacle course. Sure, there have always been adverts left, right and centre but never before have I felt like they had access to the most intimate corners of my mind.

I can’t count the amount of times this week I’ve scrolled through my Instagram feed, procrastinating my numerous summatives, to find stunning dresses that couldn’t have been more to my taste if I’d designed them myself. By now, it’s common knowledge that most adverts we see are targeted to suit our buying profiles; companies gather data on each user based on what websites they access, where they access it from and whatever extra information they wish to reveal. This data is then used to match the user’s past choices with products that are consistent with these preferences. After that, items tailored to your taste are shoved under your nose in places where you can’t avoid them. Is this not the modern-day equivalent of the street seller putting bracelets on your wrists and scarves around your neck then demanding payment?

You may be tempted to think that there is nothing wrong with that; that there is no difference between this and the more traditional selling tactics employed in actual shopping centres. You could even argue that retailers shifting their efforts into online advertising is a blessing for all of us; as people move their shopping into the online sphere, the less likely tragic accidents – such as famously the Wal-Mart employee who got trampled to death in 2008 – are to happen. Perhaps we should accept that times are changing and the price to pay for a more ‘civilised’ Black Friday is sacrificing our digital privacy. This is something I’ve struggled to form an opinion on (and still do), but I urge you to consider a few things:

Behavioural economics offers insights into how advertising strategies bypass our rational circuits, taking advantage of predictable biases in our decision-making. Framing, scarcity and loss aversion have been long embraced by marketing teams and the more experienced customers have caught up to their tricks. Who still buys that smoothie maker that will gather dust before being passed on to the local charity just because it was strategically placed next to a photo of a beautiful slim woman in sports gear? Yeah, me neither… The advertising team might be preying on the insecurities of Americans stuffed with turkey and pumpkin pie by offering them promises of a healthier, better self but wait! You have to hurry, it’s one of the last few on the shelf and even better: it’s half price. Not giving in would be almost like losing something – and the purchase makes our self esteem sky-rocket as we pat ourselves on the back for being savvy and quick to act. Plus, committing to a healthier life style is pretty much the same thing as actually doing it, isn’t it?

Some may argue that these are all exploitative tactics meant to ‘trick’ the consumer into buying things they wouldn’t under different circumstances. Personally, I would never blame a company for wanting to sell their stock and make a profit – as long as it’s done lawfully and ethically. Adam Smith had a valid point in saying that self-interest is the driving force of capitalism. But even I, in recent years, have started to question where you draw the line between presenting your products in the best possible light and outright confidence tricks.

We like to think that, as customers, we are endowed with free will, that we can make our own spending decisions freely and responsively. But really, how in control are we when the dress we painfully said no to one month ago is now a quarter of its original price and keeps popping up on our social media feed multiple times a day? Should we follow Odysseus’s example and wax our ears to resist the Sirens? Or can we blame the big greedy businesses for this unfair use of our personal data against our better judgements?

Everyone with an Economics A level should know that first price discrimination (charging different customers different prices for an identical product) is illegal. Gone are the days of traders changing their prices based on the quality of a customer’s attire, yet is this practice not operating under the same principle? The use of different prices for different customers stems from the seller’s ability to differentiate between customer’s willingnesses to pay. They know I may be willing to buy a new denim skirt if it’s half price, whereas the same promotion would be lost on someone like my father. So, although this practice does not charge us different prices for the same products, it does use our personal information in order to assess our willingness to pay and then exploits it. Even assuming that there is no data privacy breach, is this not still first degree (admittedly non-price) discrimination?

Online shopping is a relatively new phenomenon that is more and more coming to resemble the Wild West. I’m not sure if regulation is or can be the solution to this, but I think it can’t hurt for more people to be aware of these selling strategies – and hopefully one day we can also do something about it. But until then I’m looking forward to an avalanche of parcels throughout the week. I am human after all.

by Evelyn Staicu

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