Consumer-opoly: What really motivates consumers?

by Holland-Mark | January 11, 2010

Blogging on behalf of an advertising and marketing firm, I realize that I should be prepared to answer that question, rather than simply pose it; however the truth is that the deeper I dig, the more vexing the question becomes. What actually motivates consumers? Moreover, what motivates consumers to make 180 degree changes in their behaviors, not just switch from one brand of paper towels to another? This weekend I watched two documentaries: King Corn, a film about two Boston boys who move to Iowa for a year to grow corn and subsequently follow the path of their corn through the American food system, and Bigger, Stronger, Faster, a documentary about three brothers, two of whom use steroids, leaving the third brother to wonder whether steroids are as bad as we seem to think they are. Both films challenged my established thoughts about their respective subject matter, but more than that, King Corn left me wondering what on earth it’s going to take to motivate American consumers to think—and buy—differently.

As marketers, we believe that we have the power to help companies do this very thing. Give us the time and creative license and we can show consumers the enlightened path. We can turn Coca-Cola loyalists into Pepsi drinkers via a blind taste test. We can convince people across the land that our toilet paper is softer and stronger using two pound weights and a spray bottle. There is a long-held idealism here: show people the “truth” and they will make the right choice.

But then I watch King Corn and I am reminded why Holland-Mark doesn’t put a lot of stock in consumer research. Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me, Food, Inc., King Corn—every one of those movies is telling us the same thing. With infallible proof and research to back their claims, those films tell us to stop eating the way we eat and demand a higher quality product, because the way that we are eating and the choices that we are making aren’t just gnarly, they are killing us. Seriously. (I even took the time to call my stepfather, a rancher, farmer, and crop duster in Texas, to discuss the information I was taking in. His response was almost exactly the same as the farmers in the documentary: “If people wanted quality food, we’d produce quality food. But people want cheap, tasty bullshit. So that’s what we give ’em.”)

But consumers don’t care. Or perhaps they (we) do care, but not as much as we care about our ratio of cost-and-convenience to consciousness. I want to eat products that aren’t chock-full of corn and bullshit, but I’m also not willing to go out of my way to find them. Oh, and the cost needs to be the same. In other words, while we can convince someone that Pepsi tastes better, you better believe that if the Coca-Cola is on sale, or just in a more visible spot in the store, that Coca-Cola drinker is going to go right back to drinking the red can.

So what—if not impending death and doom—does motivate consumers?

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