TIME Apple

The Apple Ad That Will Probably Make You Cry

It just won an Emmy

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This post is in partnership with Fortune, which offers the latest business and finance news. Read the article below originally published at Fortune.com.

By Philip Elmer-DeWitt

I never understood the Internet’s hostility to “Misunderstood,” the holiday TV ad from Apple that took home the 2014 Emmy Award for best commercial at the Creative Arts Emmys on Saturday.

“Of course, we’re talking about Apple here,” wrote Ken Segall, the former creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day, shortly after the spot aired.

“So there’s no shortage of critics eager to tell us why the commercial fails. Take your pick: it says little about the product, any smartphone can make a movie, or the spot is a depressing statement about human values.

“Good grief.

“Most of these people mistake their personal opinion, instinct, values and/or taste for actual marketing talent. There are tens of millions of people who will stop in their tracks at this commercial and wipe a tear from their eye. As a result, they will feel slightly more attached to Apple, which is the marketing purpose of this spot.

“Far from depressing, this ad is wonderfully optimistic. In the most human terms, it says that the right technology can bring people closer together. It’s a perfect thought for the holidays.

“If you want to get a read on the ad’s effectiveness, just Google around a bit. The reactions have been almost universally glowing. In the best of times, that would be impressive enough. But these positive reviews come at the end of a year in which the buzz has not been kind to Apple.

“This ad is a holiday card from Cupertino. It lines up perfectly with the values Apple has communicated for years. It’s not about technology — it’s about quality of life.” (From Apple thinks different for Christmas.)

For the rest of the story, please go to Fortune.com.

MONEY Fast Food

The Demise of ‘Satisfries’ and the Sad History of Healthy Fast Food

Burger King's much-hyped low-calorie French fries have failed to resonate with customers, which shouldn't come as a surprise given why diners go to places like BK in the first place.

American fast food customers have spoken, and what they essentially have said is that when they’re hungry for French fries, they’re focused on the fries, not calories. The message comes by way of Burger King’s announcement that after months of lackluster sales, its “Satisfries” — introduced last fall as a regular fry alternative with 30% fewer calories and 40% less fat — would disappear from two-thirds of BK’s North American locations. It didn’t help the Satisfries cause that they cost more than regular fries, $1.89 versus $1.59 for a small order.

What’s particularly interesting is that in the same week that Satisfries have more or less been declared a failure, Burger King reintroduced a style of “fries” back to the menu that no one is pretending is health food: Chicken Fries. In both cases, BK is saying that the decision was ultimately made by customers. Diners didn’t order enough Satisfries to keep them on most menus, so they’re gone. And as a press release explained, the return of the “cult favorite menu item” of breaded chicken strip “fries” was “sparked by an overwhelming number of enthusiastic tweets, Change.org petitions, dedicated Tumblr and Facebook pages, and phone calls from devoted fans.”

In other words, Burger King maintains that it’s simply giving diners what they want. Wendy’s spread the same message this week, announcing that the reason its Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger—the biggest success in fast food last year—would now be on the menu permanently is because that’s what customers have demanded. “You said ‘bring it back.’ So we did,” Wendy’s Tweeted earlier this week of the 680-calorie burger. “Then you said “keep it on the menu.” And so it is.

Over the years, consumer groups and nutrition and anti-obesity advocates have pressed fast food giants to add items and tweak menus with a different purpose in mind—to help people to eat better, rather than just satisfy their cravings for grease and salt. The history of healthy (or “better for you”) fast food extends back decades, but probably hit its stride in 2004, when McDonald’s, under pressure after the documentary “Super Size Me,” dumped the super-size upsell option for fries and drinks. The odd celebrification (not a word, but you get the idea) of Jared Fogle, whose 200-pound weight loss supposedly due to dining exclusively on Subway sandwiches was chronicled in years of TV commercials, has permeated the era of fast food chains at least pretending to make genuine efforts to add healthier fare to menus.

The effort to woo more health-conscious diners—or perhaps just to get the health nuts off their backs—continues today. Earlier this year, Dunkin’ Donuts, for instance, significantly expanded its DDSmart menu, adding whole wheat bagels and sliced turkey breakfast sandwiches as alternatives to mainstays like the glazed or Boston Crème. McDonald’s has tried several healthier sides as non-French fry options in its kids’ Happy Meals: Low-fat Go-Gurt was added recently, and Clementines, bananas, and other fruits are being tested starting this fall.

Overall, however, the biggest players in fast food’s attempts at selling healthier options are riddled with more failures than big sales success stories. For example, before trying fruit, McDonald’s had offered baby carrots with Happy Meals, but very few customers went with that option—not even when the carrots were chopped to resemble cartoon characters.

In addition to Satisfries, here are a few other notable failures in the “healthy” fast food movement:

Dairy Queen Breeze: A healthier version of the Blizzard made with frozen yogurt instead of ice cream, the Breeze was introduced in 1990 and discontinued in 2000. Too bad it didn’t stick around for the yogurt craze that started a decade later.

McDonald’s McLean Deluxe: Introduced as a “revolutionary” 91% fat free burger in 1991, the McLean was foiled almost immediately when it was revealed to include carrageenan (a.k.a. seaweed) as an ingredient. It was dropped from the menu a few years later, and is now considered one of the biggest McDonald’s flops of all time.

Pizza Hut’s The Natural: The all-natural organic pizza made with multigrain crust sweetened with honey debuted in 2008 and was declared “a big opportunity” by Pizza Hut innovators. But The Natural cost about $1 more than a regular pizza, and it quietly disappeared by 2010.

McDonald’s Fruit and Walnut Salad: Health magazine was a fan, naming this mix of apples, grapes, walnuts, and low-fat yogurt to its list of “America’s Healthiest Mall Food,” but McDonald’s pulled the plug in 2013 after “listening to our customers,” a company spokesperson told Reuters.

What’s particularly interesting about salads is that while virtually every fast food brand feels like they must offer them, greens don’t sell. In 2013, McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson told investors that salads only constituted 2% to 3% of U.S. sales, compared to around 14% for dollar menu items.

There are even some who make the argument that McDonald’s shouldn’t waste any energy preparing salads and other healthier options. “McDonald’s is never going to be perceived as healthy, so for them to spend too much time on healthy items doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” one investment analyst explained to the Wall Street Journal last fall.

Sadly, then, the hardcore business advice would be for McDonald’s and the rest of the fast food field to stick with their core business approach by focusing on instantly gratifying greasy fare, calories and fat be damned. Consumers may say they want healthier options, but their actions (and dollars) speak louder than words. Even the addition of calorie counts on menus are shown to not have much impact on what customers order at restaurants. A concept like Satisfries sounds great on paper, but when customers are up at the counter or eyeing the drive-thru menu, the idea of low-calorie anything probably isn’t top of mind. It just doesn’t seem satisfying enough.

MONEY Leisure

Shark Week Turns into a Feeding Frenzy for Consumer Eyeballs—and Cash

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No "Shark Week" party is complete without a dozen of these cupcakes ($34.95 via Discover Channel store). courtesy of Georgetown Cupcakes

When there are shark-themed donuts and cupcakes for sale, it becomes clear that the marketing of "Shark Week" and sharks in general has, well, jumped the shark.

The Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” kicks off on Sunday, August 10, bringing the frenzy of interest in the fascinating creatures of the deep to all new heights. The annual event is a ratings bonanza, and a hot topic on social media, complete with its own prerequisite hashtag #sharkweek.

While there’s nothing stopping “Shark Week” from being fun, entertaining, and informative all at once, some experts in the field—of scientific research, not entertainment or marketing—feel like the circus surrounding sharks is overkill, perhaps even exploitive. “I’m kind of disappointed, and I think most researchers are, too,” George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, told USA Today. “It obviously is a big draw, but I’m afraid that the programs have gone more to entertainment and less to documentary over the years. It’s kind of a shame, because they have the opportunity to teach good stuff in what’s going on with science.”

The Discovery Channel is hardly the only party that’s guilty of playing to the lowest common denominator by focusing on “blood and gore or animals performing tricks,” as Burgess put it. And it’s hardly the only player out there trying to hook consumers’ attention (and dollars) by way of the shark.

Sharks—or more precisely, the fear of sharks—have a long history of helping to sell stuff. Movie tickets, for instance. Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” not only kicked off the summer blockbuster as a phenomenon, but is also widely considered the biggest and best summer blockbuster film of all time. A series of sequels and other shark movies followed, as did the ever-expanding, factually questionable “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. In the so-called “Summer of the Shark,” in 2001 (mere weeks before 9/11, it’s often noted, when very different fears took over the American consciousness), unwarranted hype over shark attacks was used to sell magazines and keep viewers glued to 24/7 news channels, awaiting word of the next deadly aquatic encounter.

We’re still fascinated by sharks, and sharks are still being used to lure us into shops and TV shows and movies that we should probably know better than to watch. Lately, in an age dominated by memes and ironic-air-quotes “entertainment,” the cold-blooded mankiller of the deep has been replaced by an equally fictitious creature—the shark as adorable mascot.

This summer, “Shark Week” has been joined by the straight-to-cable arrival of the gag “movie” “Sharknado 2.” But given how much over-the-top goofball hype goes into “Shark Week” itself—Rob Lowe waterskiing atop two great whites anyone?—the Discovery Channel event seems to be its own best parody.

The merchandising of sharks and “Shark Week” has been, in a word, shark-tastic (the title of a book sold on the Discovery Channel, naturally). Among the roughly 150 items listed on the site as appropriate purchases for “Shark Week” celebration are shark kites, a Shark Week smartphone case, Shark Week bottle openers and coozies, “clever” shark T-shirts that say “Bite Me” and “I’m Hammered,” and Shark Week cupcakes that show Rob Lowe atop his pal sharks again.

Elsewhere in the ocean of summertime shark products, Dunkin’ Donuts is selling a Shark Bite Donut (the frosting resembles a life preserver), and Cold Stone Creamery has shark-themed cupcakes and ice cream sundaes, complete with colorful gummy sharks. Limited-edition “Shark Week”-inspired soap is available at one New York City boutique, while a “Shark Week” search at etsy turns up more than 1,300 hand puppets, pencil holders, custom-designed panties, pieces of jewelry, and other crafts. A whole other list of goods has been devoted to the frenzy around “Sharknado,” including a new perfume called “Shark by Tara,” created by one of the movie’s stars, Tara Reid.

The normally sober tacticians at Consumer Reports even got in on the action, using the Sharknado sequel as an excuse to run a review of chainsaws—the perfect weapon in the battle against sharks falling out of the sky.

Then there’s shark tourism. It might seem odd that any beach community would actively want to associate itself with sharks. Yet the effort to brand Chatham, Mass., the town on the elbow of Cape Cod—near plenty of seals and therefore sharks too—as something along the lines of the Shark Capital of America has been several years in the making. Starting in 2009, news spread that biologists were tagging great white sharks off the coast. Sure, it freaked some swimmers and boaters out, but it also drew the masses to the coast, bearing binoculars with the hope of spotting one of the beasts.

“The great white shark is sexy,” Lisa Franz, Chatham’s chamber of commerce chief, explained to the Boston Globe last summer. “Chatham as a town, I think, has embraced the whole shark concept,” she said. “As long as nobody gets hurt.”

Fast-forward a year, and the shark schlock business is booming. “Truthfully, we’ve probably grown about 500 percent in terms of the sale of our shark apparel,’’ one Chatham tourist shop owner offering “T-shirts, hoodies, hats, belts, dog collars and other accessories” featuring great whites for $10 to $45 told the Associated Press in June.

People seem to love the shark meme so much that local restaurants and shopkeepers understandably have a new fear: They’re scared about what would happen to business if the sharks suddenly went away.

MONEY online shopping

Why Retailers Actually Want You to Unsubscribe From Their Spammy Email Lists

Wooden "SPAM" stamp
Bill Truslow—Getty Images

Gmail made it easier than ever to unsubscribe from unwanted email lists sent by retailers that somehow got hold of your email address. So go on, unsubscribe. Marketers won't mind (much).

This week, a message posted by Google + explained that a change at Gmail makes it quicker and easier to unsubscribe from unwanted email lists. “Sometimes you end up subscribed to lists that are no longer relevant to you, and combing through an entire message looking for a way to unsubscribe is no fun,” the note stated. To simplify things and save users time, Gmail is now automatically putting an “Unsubscribe” button at the top of the email, just to the right of the sender’s email address. Click it and those annoying emails you’re tired of deleting will soon go away (in theory at least).

Google made the case that the “unsubscribe option easy to find is a win for everyone. For email senders, their mail is less likely to be marked as spam and for you, you can now say goodbye to sifting through an entire message for that one pesky link.”

Not everyone is viewing the change in quite the same win-win light, however. Adweek described the Unsubscribe button as potentially “a huge blow to email marketers” because making it easier for people to unsubscribe will naturally result in more people unsubscribing. That means fewer people getting the messages of retailers, activist groups, and others that are constantly seeking ways to bolster their ranks of email list subscribers.

So this is awful for the retailers that rely on such lists to spread the word about new products and deals and thereby boost sales, right? Well, not necessarily. One email marketing expert told InternetRetailer.com that there’s an upside to the change at Gmail. On the one hand, yes, putting the Unsubscribe option in a more prominent position will put the idea into the heads of more subscribers and cause subscriber numbers to shrink. But Chad White, lead research analyst at the email marketing firm ExactTarget, said that the people who will utilize the quick Unsubscribe option are problematic subscribers to begin with. They’re the consumers who are most likely to complain about the emails and/or the company, and they’re more apt to categorize the emails as spam. Reporting an email as spam to Gmail is worse for the sender than unsubscribing, as it damages the sender’s reputation in the eyes of email providers.

“While marketers don’t want people to unsubscribe, that may be a better option than them hitting delete without reading an e-mail or hitting the Spam button,” said White. “This is the least bad option because it doesn’t hurt the sender’s reputation.”

Gmail’s Unsubscribe option has actually been around, but flying under the radar, for a few months. It was only just this week that the company introduced and explained it in a big public way. The development follows the much more significant innovation at Gmail last summer, when the service introduced a system categorizing emails into separate boxes for one’s Social, Promotions, and Primary messages. Retailers and marketers worried (and still worry) that the system segregates Promotions into an easy-to-ignore folder.

Yet as with the Unsubscribe button, some think there is an upside to Gmail’s categorization system. When the Gmail categories were introduced, Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru told us via email, “The segregation could actually be helpful because people can quickly scan in one place things that may/may not be relevant without having to hunt for personal emails in a sea of mixed clutter.” She also argued that the category system could help marketers reach a much more targeted audience, providing “a ‘destination’ for people that’s not unlike getting a pile of Sunday circulars.”

Now that it’s easier to unsubscribe, marketers can assume that the people who remain subscribed are more of a core group that find the messages relevant and appealing. In other words: They’re really great customers. “There are actually people who love marketing emails–that’s the reason they still stay subscribed to email lists in the first place,” said Mulpuru. “It’s very opt-in and self-selected.”

MONEY Food & Drink

Sorry, Dude, You’ve Been Drinking the Wrong Beer for Years

Beer tasting
Daniel Grill—Getty Images

A blind taste test reveals that if you're loyal to a beer brand because of the taste, you just might be fooling yourself.

A new study from the American Association of Wine Economists explores the world of beer rather than wine, and the findings indicate that you could be buying a favorite brand of brew for no good reason whatsoever. While the experiments conducted were limited, the results show that when labels are removed from beer bottles, drinkers can’t tell different brands apart—sometimes even when one of those brands is the taster’s go-to drink of choice.

In the paper, the researchers first point to a classic 1964 study, in which a few hundred volunteer beer testers (probably wasn’t too hard to find folks willing to participate) were sent five different kinds of popular lager brands, each with noticeable taste differences according to the experts. But people who rated their preferred beer brands higher when the labels were on bottles “showed virtually no preferences for certain beers over others” when the labels were removed during tastings:

In the blind tasting condition, no beer was judged by its regular drinkers to be significantly better than the other samples. In fact, regular drinkers of two of the five beers scored other beers significantly higher than the brand that they stated was their favorite.

The new study takes a different, simpler path to judging the quality of beer drinkers’ taste buds. Researchers didn’t even bother with ratings data. Instead, the experiments consisted of blind taste tests with three European lagers—Czechvar (Czech Republic), Heineken (Netherlands), and Stella Artois (Belgium)—in order simply to find out if beer drinkers could tell them apart. The experiments involved a series of “triangle tests,” in which drinkers were given a trio of beers to taste, two of which were the same beer. Tasters were asked to name the “singleton” of the bunch, and generally speaking, they could not do so with any reliable degree of accuracy:

In two of three tastings, participants are no better than random at telling the lagers apart, and in the third tasting, they are only marginally better than random.

What these results tell researchers, then, is that beer drinkers who stick with a certain brand label may be buying the beer for just that reason—the label. As opposed to the taste and quality, which are the reasons that consumers would probably give for why they are brand loyalists.

As the researchers put it in the new study, “marketing and packaging cues may be generating brand loyalty and experiential differences between brands.” In other words, we buy not for taste but because of the beer’s image and reputation that’s been developed via advertising, logos, and other marketing efforts. Similar conclusions have been reached in studies about wine; one, for instance, found that wine drinkers will pay more for bottles with hard-to-pronounce names—because apparently we assume that a fancy name is a sign of better quality. We also buy beer, wine, and a wide range of other products due to force of habit, of course.

Drinkers who are loyal to a particular beer brand may hate to hear this—heck, so are consumers who are loyal to almost any product brand—but the research indicates we are heavily influenced by factors other than those we really should care about, such as quality and superior taste.

All that said, we must point out the study’s shortcomings. The beer tastings were very limited in scope. It’s not like tasters were asked to compare Bud Light and a hoppy craft IPA, and then failed to tell the difference. And just because some volunteers couldn’t differentiate between beers doesn’t mean that you, with your superior palate, would be just as clueless. You may very well buy your favorite beer brand because, to quote an old beer ad, it “tastes great.”

Just to be sure, though, it might be time to take the labels off and do some blind taste testing. Could make for a fun Saturday night.

MONEY

This Summer, Sharks Want to Take a Bite Out of Your Wallet

This summer, there is no escaping from sharks: shark TV shows, movies, merchandise, and even shark tourism have chomped down on America's collective imagination and are thrashing us all about.

Sharks—or more precisely, the fear of sharks—have a long history of helping to sell stuff. Movie tickets, for instance. Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” not only kicked off the summer blockbuster as a phenomenon, but is also widely considered the biggest and best summer blockbuster film of all time. A series of sequels and other shark movies followed, as did the ever-expanding, factually questionable “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel. In the so-called “Summer of the Shark,” in 2001 (mere weeks before 9/11, it’s often noted, when very different fears took over the American consciousness), unwarranted hype over shark attacks was used to sell magazines and keep viewers glued to 24/7 news channels, awaiting word of the next deadly aquatic encounter.

We’re still fascinated by sharks, and sharks are still being used to grab our attention and perhaps a few of our dollars. Lately, though, in an age dominated by memes and ironic-air-quotes “entertainment,” the cold-blooded mankiller of the deep has been replaced by an equally fictitious creature—the shark as adorable mascot.

This summer, “Shark Week” has been joined by the straight-to-cable arrival of the gag “movie” “Sharknado 2.” But given how much over-the-top goofball hype goes into “Shark Week” itself—Rob Lowe waterskiing atop two great whites anyone?—the Discovery Channel event seems to be its own best parody.

This summer, the merchandising of sharks and “Shark Week” has been, in a word, shark-tastic (the title of a book sold on the Discovery Channel, naturally). Among the roughly 150 items listed on the site as appropriate purchases for “Shark Week” celebration are shark kites, a Shark Week smartphone case, Shark Week bottle openers and coozies, “clever” shark T-shirts that say “Bite Me” and “I’m Hammered,” and Shark Week cupcakes that show Rob Lowe atop his pal sharks again.

Elsewhere in the ocean of summertime shark products, Dunkin’ Donuts is selling a Shark Bite Donut (the frosting resembles a life preserver) starting next week, and Cold Stone Creamery has shark-themed cupcakes and ice cream sundaes, complete with colorful gummy sharks. Limited-edition “Shark Week”-inspired soap is available at one New York City boutique, while a “Shark Week” search at etsy turns up more than 1,300 hand puppets, pencil holders, custom-designed panties, pieces of jewelry, and other crafts. A whole other list of goods have been devoted to the frenzy around “Sharknado,” including a new perfume called “Shark by Tara,” created by one of the movie’s stars, Tara Reid.

The normally sober tacticians at Consumer Reports even got in on the action, using the Sharknado sequel as an excuse to run a review of chainsaws—the perfect weapon in the battle against sharks falling out of the sky.

Then there’s shark tourism. It might seem odd that any beach community would actively want to associate itself with sharks. Yet the effort to brand Chatham, Mass., the town on the elbow of Cape Cod—near plenty of seals and therefore sharks too—as something along the lines of the Shark Capital of America has been several years in the making. Starting in 2009, news spread that biologists were tagging great white sharks off the coast. Sure, it freaked some swimmers and boaters out, but it also drew the masses to the coast, bearing binoculars with the hope of spotting one of the beasts.

“The great white shark is sexy,” Lisa Franz, Chatham’s chamber of commerce chief, explained to the Boston Globe last summer. “Chatham as a town, I think, has embraced the whole shark concept,” she said. “As long as nobody gets hurt.”

Fast-forward a year, and the shark schlock business is booming. “Truthfully, we’ve probably grown about 500 percent in terms of the sale of our shark apparel,’’ one Chatham tourist shop owner offering “T-shirts, hoodies, hats, belts, dog collars and other accessories” featuring great whites for $10 to $45 told the Associated Press in June.

People seem to love the shark meme so much that local restaurants and shopkeepers understandably have a new fear: They’re scared about what would happen to business if the sharks suddenly went away.

TIME Television

#DontKillSeanBean Campaign Aims to Save Actor From Yet Another Onscreen Death

Will he survive his latest role in TNT's Legends?

Sean Bean is the actor who’s died a thousand deaths. From Lord of the Rings to Black Death to Game of Thrones, Sean Bean has been shot, drawn and quartered, beheaded, you name it. This FHM infographic counts 16 on-screen deaths for the actor, which has provoked a campaign to save the actor in his latest endeavor, TNT’s Legends.

“I’ve died a lot of different deaths. Maybe it’s the quality of my death people are fascinated by. I liked Lord of the Rings. Big death,” the actor told The Daily Telegraph. So when TNT producers launched a #DontKillSeanBean marketing campaign over the weekend at San Diego Comic-Con, the hashtag quickly went viral.

No word yet on whether Sean Bean will survive his latest role, but here’s a reel of all his deaths for your viewing pleasure:

MONEY freebies

7-Eleven Free Slurpee Day Supersized Into a Freebie Week

As usual, 7-Eleven customers get free Slurpees on 7-Eleven Day (Friday, July 11). What's unusual this year is what comes after 7/11: seven more days of freebies.

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In what has become a wildly popular annual tradition, July 11 is celebrated as 7-Eleven Day by the convenience store giant. The average customer probably refers to the day as something different, though: Free Slurpee Day. On that day, all customers are entitled to a free Slurpee, no coupon or loyalty program membership required.

Last year, when 7-Eleven increased the size of free Slurpees from 7.11 ounces to a regular Small (12 ounces), something like 7 million free Slurpees were slurped by customers. Even more are expected this year, when 7-Eleven has upped its game again, transforming its ordinary one-day giveaway into eight days in a row of freebies.

While 7-Eleven Day works like normal—anyone who shows up from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. gets a free Slurpee—the rest of the freebies require the download of a 7-Eleven app. Do so and show your smartphone screen to a 7-Eleven clerk on the appropriate day for these freebies:

Saturday, July 12: Big Gulp
Sunday, July 13: M&M’s Birthday Cake Flavor Candies
Monday, July 14: Grandma’s Cookies
Tuesday, July 15: Twinkies
Wednesday, July 16: Snickers or Twix Ice Cream Bar
Thursday, July 17: Quaker Chewy Yogurt Snack Bar
Friday, July 18: Pillsbury Cookie
Saturday, July 19: Small Slurpee

That’s a lot of freebies.

Why does 7-Eleven do it? One reason is that giveaways are good for business. When a consumer is handed something for free, it generates good will—and a sense of obligation to want to pay that nicety back in some form. So when a customer gets a free sample at a supermarket, he’s more likely to buy whatever it is he tasted, or at least to buy a little something extra. When the sample is little in size, there’s also a tendency to want a little more.

That’s why, historically, the day that 7-Eleven hands out free Slurpees is also usually a huge day for sales of Slurpees, as well as sales of other items. And what goes well with Slurpees?

As company executives explained to USA Today, stores will be pushing “Big Bite hot dogs for $1 on Friday (usually $1.99) to wash down with the free Slurpees.” The new Doritos Loaded cheese sticks, unleashed on the public in early July, will probably also be big sellers.

The requirement to download an app also makes a lot of sense for 7-Eleven. In today’s noisy, ad-splashed world, brands and retailers love the idea of having such a direct connection—and sales path—to consumers. But it’s gotten harder and harder to convince consumers they should download yet another app, especially one that’s going to spam them with news and promotions they don’t necessarily want. Few are going to download an app for, say, a measly 50¢ discount.

But a whole week of freebies? A lot of folks will say: Sign me up.

MONEY consumer psychology

Why We Always Fall for Products Making Outlandish Claims

140620_EM_Suckers_Skechers_1
Chris Weeks—WireImage

Who would be foolish enough to fall for "shoes" that make it feel like you're running barefoot, or cookies that promise to make women's breasts bigger? Lots and lots of people, apparently.

Even the smartest consumers can be tempted to buy a product based on some marketing claim that, deep down, everyone knows can’t be true. Why?

We live in a time when modern-day snake oil, in the form of not-so-miraculous “miracle” products that are misleading if not worse, is around every corner. For example, based on sales totals, it looks like more than 70 million Americans believed Vibram’s claim that running in “shoes” that brought you a step closer to jogging barefoot would improve their “foot health.” Vibram, creator of the thin-soled FiveFinger running shoes that fit each toe like a glove, was unable to substantiate that claim, and the company settled a $3.75 million lawsuit this spring, entitling buyers to refunds.

Last summer, Skechers began paying out a $40 million class action lawsuit to more than a half million people who believed it when the company (and spokesmodel Kim Kardashian) said the shoes could not only tone muscles but also help them lose weight and improve their cardiovascular health. Reebok and FitFlops have also lost lawsuits on behalf of millions of other consumers who believed similar overstatements about the power of shoes to basically do our workouts for us.

Though consumers apparently have a soft spot for supposedly miracle-performing footwear, we’re not just suckers for hyped-up claims about shoes. Millions have purchased weight-loss potions that promise users they’ll lose fat without changing the exercise and eating habits that piled on the pounds in the first place; or lotions that can sprout new hair on bald heads. (It certainly doesn’t help that medical experts like TV’s Dr. Oz sometimes seem to endorse dubious weight-loss products.) This spring, the FTC announced that Lice Shield, a “lice-prevention” shampoo, deceived customers and exaggerated claims, and ordered the company to pay $500,000 and stop pretending that the product was “scientifically shown to repel head lice.” Another recent FTC settlement will stop the company that makes a supplement called BrainStrong Adult from claiming it has clinical proof the product “improves adult memory.”

Sometimes, the claims are downright laughable, like the F-Cup Cookies sold in Japan that are supposed to make your breasts bigger.

How could anyone fall for such claims? How can people not know better? What’s behind our will to believe when common sense tells us otherwise? There are four particularly strong forces at work: one is human nature, and three are unique to our times.

1. We are hopeful. If we’re lucky, we have a healthy dose of a charming, positive and essential human quality: hope. Add a dash of that particularly American characteristic, optimism, and we have the potential to be led astray. Hope gives us the will to try, while optimism gives us fortitude. Untempered by common sense and logic, though, hope and optimism can devolve to gullibility. The solution is not to decrease hope—it’s to blend in wisdom, and a bit of skepticism.

2. We see miracles in action every day. One marvelous technological advancement after another, from GPS systems to smartphones, has taught us to believe in innovation. “New” has never been better, and we eagerly await the next bit of wizardry. We’re more trusting and less skeptical of innovation, and therefore more likely to believe that the next big thing is really all that—the next big thing. That puts a damper on an age-old adage that’s kept us on the straight and narrow for years: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.” Today’s gadgets and innovations sometimes actually are as good as advertised. Which means consumers have to be craftier in ferreting out potentially false claims and examining the reputation of the source.

3. We have no attention spans. Evaluating products, and product claims, is harder today because of another side effect of technology—saturated with stimulation, we increasingly skim and rely on visual cues such as photos and symbolism to get the gist of what some hot new thing does. Nobody has ever been a fan of “fine print,” but today we’re less tolerant than ever. Nobody has the time or interest to dig deeper. Shorter attention spans have resulted in less patience to temper hope and optimism with thinking things through.

4. We are manipulated by marketers. Lastly, consumers are up against some brilliant marketing minds—professionals who are now armed with reams of data and psychological insights. Marketers increasingly use psychology to understand the deepest motivations of consumers and create the most resonant messaging. Most apply those insights to more fully satisfy consumers and gain an edge in a fiercely competitive marketplace. But some are less honest. Marketers have always been some of the best communicators in the world, and today they’re more aware and arguably better than ever.

Deep down, we want to believe in magic. Human beings always have. Thanks to the spectacular increase in innovation, from smartphones to self-driving cars, there’s proof that products can do seemingly magical, miraculous things. But the existence of amazing gadgets isn’t an excuse to lose grasp with reality. Smart shoppers temper hope, optimism, and awe with critical reasoning. It seems like a downer, but it’s never been more important.
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Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.

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