Skip to main content
Hubert Gatignon debunking the idea that marketing is manipulative


Manipulating Consumers is Not Marketing

Manipulating Consumers is Not Marketing

Consumers increasingly view marketing as manipulation. It is important to dispel this notion and the profession should take steps to do so.

There can be little argument that consumers are growing more suspicious of business. They question its motives and, increasingly, its marketing which has recently been said to be manipulative. Consumers are ever more aware of the array of internet pop-ups and exaggerated claims they receive in an increasingly targeted fashion, especially on social media channels.

Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law Professor and former Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration, recently published an essay in the Journal of Marketing Behaviour, which argues that manipulation is indeed pervasive in daily life, both in public and commercial realms, and is especially prevalent in marketing. Sunstein believes “those who sell products are engaged in at least arguable forms of manipulation.”

Sunstein defines manipulation as something that does not sufficiently engage or appeal to someone’s capacity for reflective and deliberative choice. But this is problematic. Many choices are made without reflective deliberation. Furthermore, the notion of consumers making cognitive and purely rational decisions is a myth at best. Customers are also becoming more aware of marketing, its motives and its tactics, from price discrimination and discounts to loyalty programmes and atmospherics, and may discount it in their decisions.

Nevertheless, in a reply article, I point out that this awareness is understandably leading to perceptions that marketers are manipulating customers. But marketing is not, and should not be considered, manipulation. Given the pervasiveness of the perception that marketers are manipulators, I suggest that the profession, both academics and practitioners, should be proactive in changing these viewpoints.

Influence, don’t manipulate

To do this, we should turn to the broader definition of manipulation to examine whether this is what marketing is. According to a definition used in the psychology literature, “psychological manipulation is a type of social influence that aims to change the perception or behaviour of others through underhanded, deceptive or abusive tactics.” To say, therefore, that marketing uses deceit and abusive tactics would be inaccurate.

If marketers employ covert tactics to manipulate customers, then they run the risk of being seen as unethical. Take the example of subliminal advertising, where viewers are exposed to information that slips below their conscious awareness. Such practices caused moral outrage in 1957 when it emerged movie goers had been exposed to split second advertisements of Coca Cola and popcorn without their conscious knowledge. Such practices have been banned in the U.K. ever since and it’s still unclear as to whether the practice even works to influence purchase decisions.

As we saw in the case of Volkswagen, where customers were falsely led to believe their cars had lower emissions than they really did, deception was not only detrimental to the customer relationship but to the firm as a whole, landing it in legal hot water. Telemarketing ploys, such as the use of surveys to mask the true intentions of the caller and then pressing customers to commit to a purchase are widely shunned.

Change the perception

To counter the perception that businesses are deceitful, marketing should seek to be a social influence, specifically the kind that is not exerted covertly and does not use deception or abuse to achieve its aims. Given increasing awareness of marketing tricks among consumers, marketers need to approach customers with sustainability in mind. While it is true that the marketers of the 1930s used to think of their job as directing the flow of products to consumers in a very one-way fashion, marketing professionals today are coalescing around the notion of exchange between customers and producers, focusing on value for the customer. This can be seen in crowdsourcing and push and pull strategies in social media. L’Oréal for instance, created a product in response to online customer chatter around a new hair style. Exchange in this way implies agreement and is a status quo that customers not only accept, but take part in. Crucially, organisations should think long-term in such marketing efforts.

Most marketing classes I teach start off with a debate about whether marketers are filling needs or creating them to sell products. This is tricky territory. Who could say consumers wanted iPhones until they were shown the product? Luckily for the profession, the era of big data gives us a golden opportunity to understand customers more deeply than ever before, provided the practice is conducted transparently. Facebook’s famed experiment in which it purposefully manipulated users feeds by changing what appeared in front of them in order to study how this affected their behaviour, caused widespread condemnation and rightly so.

Management practices for marketers

Marketers should aim to create sustained value, considering both the long-term and short-term motivations in marketing a product or service. This will mean the closer study of customers, the creation of experiences not just products and services, developing equitable relationships with customers and considering the impact of all practices on society more broadly. Only then, will we be able to counter the perception that marketing is manipulative.


Hubert Gatignon is the Claude Janssen Chaired Professor of Business Administration at INSEAD.

Started at INSEAD, the Journal of Marketing Behaviour (JMB) is a new, peer-reviewed behavioural journal launched by the European Marketing Academy (EMAC). Compared to other journals in marketing, JMB places a greater emphasis on external validity and behavioural outcomes. It encourages a wide range of research approaches and the combination of multiple methods that have practical implications for managers, policy makers and consumers. Klaus Wertenbroch, is the Editor-in-Chief and also a Professor of Marketing at INSEAD.

Follow INSEAD Knowledge on Twitter and Facebook 

About the author(s)

View Comments

Anonymous User

08/04/2020, 04.58 am

its a very best article one of my best,Yes agreed as a student of marketing i do believe that there should be ethical marketing information to create CRM for long time & sustainable.


Anonymous User

29/09/2017, 07.18 am

When a company spends millions of dollars to figure out what colour makes you more hungry, that is underhanded manipulation.


Christopher Rollyson

02/06/2016, 04.30 am

The elephant in the room

Dr. Gatignon, thank you for drawing attention to one of the most pressing issues of our era, and one that's becoming more important with every passing month. I have pioneered in experiential social media since 2006, and the core of its research process is ethnographic research of social media. I study behaviour and mentor teams on how to interact to improve relationships and business, so I bring that perspective here.

The elephant in the room when considering “manipulation” is the lack of trust. People have learned to mistrust many businesses and organizations, most of which want to look good at any cost and strive to satisfy shareholders as their first priority. Customers and the public often feel that they come second, or worse, in businesses’ priorities.

Sunstein's article, in all its twists and turns, clearly showed that "manipulation" is open to interpretation: one person’s manipulation is another person’s persuasion, etc. Interaction between people and among people is complex and imbued with context and nuance, and I’ve learned that trust is humans’ (and other primates’) key risk mitigation strategy. As far as we know, humans are the king of the heap in terms of having a complex theory of mind: we know that we don’t know what another person really thinks or how s/he might act in a given situation.

Sociality is so complex that our conscious brains can’t fully process all the data, so our unconscious minds do a lot of the work as we observe and talk about people with other people (gossip). Robin Dunbar even attributes our large brains to the need for language and gossip (see

I have also led marketing at several firms in the past, and I must consider your assertion in this article as opinion: “marketing is not, and should not be considered, manipulation.” I don’t think anyone can say definitively that marketing is, or is not, manipulation. I think it’s defensible to say that marketing need not be manipulation. I see many examples of marketing that I consider untrustworthy, that do not consider what I want, that only push agendas. They decrease my trust in the brand with which they are associated.

I am not alone. People don’t do trust consciously, and few can’t express how they do it. They feel it, and they increasingly call out things they don’t like. The issue is that people increasingly reject brands that show they don’t care by treating people like some demographic. My crystal ball says that firms that don’t put customers first in action (not only lip service) will be rejected in favour of firms who do.

In my opinion, even “influence” can be a slippery slope. In my client work mentoring teams how to build trust through interaction, I show how to interact with people so they feel the team’s/brand’s relevance and care.

Here’s a disruptive idea: Firms can trust people to buy from them, so they don’t have to “influence.” When firms consistently empower people in achieving outcomes that are relevant to people and themselves, it fulfils marketing goals without marketing. Serving people in digital public shows commitment and relevance. People feel care, and trust and business increase. I created the “Trust Business Chain Reaction” to describe how it works.

Thanks again for your thoughts on a defining issue.


rahul upmanyu

28/08/2016, 12.58 am

This is my first read and i am compelled to write.
I think when we first started - It was all about barter- I mean exchange of goods at a common place,so people from one civilization will meet from another and exchange and share.
If I look at my story- till date haven't clicked on a single display ad on Facebook(using it -since 2007-2008).I ,as being,would still buy only branded clothes,which may go well with my so called
caucasian looks(may be because that is how was brought up).Till date - have never bought a mobile phone(phones have always been gifted).
I think it is all about marketing throwing one product and then coming up with other versions to help make money for their companies.
But,with social and customer being aware we need to share and collaborate.
Eventually marketing will need to evolve with 3D printing etc, and as said in Yoga, experience it.

SO,why make money ?
Why so much focus on consumption?
Where is the world going?
Where will all this consumption lead us?


Anonymous User

16/05/2016, 09.38 pm

Marketing must truly be transformed to have a strong social influence as most customers perceive businesses as deceitful. Even in the advertisement market the most popular ones are those which put up a social message forward. Interesting viewpoint will definitely be back for more.

Leave a Comment
Please log in or sign up to comment.