The World Is Becoming A More Addictive Place

The world has become harder to resist. Products are getting better at giving people what they want and – for the most part – that has been good thing. Yet, the historical trend-line shows products are also becoming more habit-forming.

All products alleviate customers’ pain. Even products used to gain pleasure must first generate desire, a unique form of discomfort, which the customer will pay to satiate.

The engine driving the evolution of marketing and advertising for the past 125 years has been the increasing speed with which companies adapt products to better meet customer needs.

The Age of Scarcity (prehistory – 1930s):  For the majority of human history, the basic necessities of life were expensive and rare. Human populations growth was mediated by the limitation of resources. Keynes formulation of Say’s law[1] was that “supply creates its own demand” and in a time of scarcity, goods sold quickly to those who could afford them. Though commercial communication traces back thousands of years, the term “marketing” only made its debut in 1884. Prior to the industrial revolution, products attracted consumers mostly by being available. The limited supply meant high prices and only the well-off had any discretionary spending power.

The Age of Capacity – (1930’s – 2000):  Starting just before the Great Depression, manufacturing production began exceeding demand. This was a massive problem for companies who feared making goods no one would buy. Industry called upon men like Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, to create demand through “public relations,” a term he coined as a substitute for the word propaganda, which had negative connotations after its use by the Germans in WWII.

Bernays spawned the rise of modern Madison Avenue advertising through mass communication channels like radio. Copying Bernays’ successful tactics, companies sought to identify and connect consumer’s hidden psychological needs to commodity goods like tobacco, soap, and cereal. During the golden age of branding, companies found they could create demand and increase consumption by giving their goods unique identities and for the first time, create associations in the consumer’s mind. Though their product remained largely unchanged and indistinguishable from one another, companies found altering their packaging, coupled with repetitious messaging, was enough to influence purchasing behaviours.

During the later half of the 20th century, the falling cost of creating new products in smaller batches meant companies could alter goods slightly to appeal to previously underserved niches. Marketers also learned to segment consumers through various demographic and psychographic characteristics, with various degrees of success and scientific rigour. The focus group helped brands build new offerings to satisfy what consumers could tell them they wanted.

The Age of Contingency – (2000 – present):  Prior to the widespread use of the Internet, marketing had been dominated by products, which changed relatively little. Companies generally repackaged and rebranded products as “line extensions” of the main brand. However, with the explosion of interactive technologies, companies could tailor products to each and every user. For the first time, products could alleviate the customer’s pain in a uniquely personalised way.

Vast amounts of individualized data, transferred at unprecedented speeds to readily accessible, always-on devices, define the age of how we interact with the products that define our lives. Technology products today adapt to the user, constructing themselves in real-time. For example, no one’s Twitter stream or Facebook timeline is like anyone else’s.

But in the Age of Contingency, it is not only the product that adapts to the user. The user also adapts to the product by forming new behavioural and usage habits.

Two parties, the product and the user, change together towards “perfect contingency,” a state of nearly instantaneous adaptation to one another. The more the user habituates to using the product, the more useful and pleasurable the product becomes. This is why the world is becoming a more addictive place.

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