“Consumers buy products whose advertising promises them value for money, beauty, nutrition, relief from suffering, social status and so on.”
The idea is simple, the underlying message profound, and David Ogilvy built a marketing legacy based on insights like this. Considered the “Father of Advertising,” his teams were behind some of the most effective ad campaigns of the 20th century. If you had something you wanted to sell to the public, this was a man who could get you consistent results.
The keyword in his pithy statement, however, isn’t product or even value. People buy products, sure, and they hope these products will provide value to them in whatever way they consider meaningful or important, but these are surface-level behaviors and assumptions driven by a deeper abstraction. That abstraction is promise. Consumption is about instigating change towards the future, a change that offers something better than the status quo. We don’t buy things — we buy the promise of an improved identity or experience, a version of life that tastes, perhaps, a little sweeter.
But this is all still from the perspective of the marketer. To them, a promise is simply a narrative that will do the job, and that job is sales. Sometimes, their promise is honest. Sometimes, it’s not. Either way, they are trying to fit the puzzle into a small gap that is open in our lives. The really interesting question is: What is that gap? What do we want when we spend money?
Everybody has their own goals, their own value systems, their own motivations, and it’s almost impossible to generalize human behavior at that level because, quite often, we ourselves don’t consciously know what they are. Once that is accounted for, however; once we understand that people have their own blueprint for their own journey in life, the landscape becomes a little more clear. Beneath it all, the promise that we want upheld when we buy things is the promise that whatever it is that we buy will reduce friction in our lives. Money, in a way, is our way of solving a problem, and that problem is generally about the things that make it difficult for us to live life friction-free — a life of unconstrained self-expression.
Steve Jobs once famously called the computer a bicycle for the mind. He had read a study about how efficiently different animals move in space, and that study had come to the conclusion that humans are one of the less efficient movers in the animal kingdom. But, somewhere, someone else had another idea, and they made a small change to that study. Given that humans are tool-makers, they decided to measure the movement of a human on a bicycle. Of course, with the leverage of technology, our efficiency skyrockets, far beyond anything in the natural world. As a bicycle for the mind, the computer reduces the friction in our mind, unleashing unbounded potential.
All products or experiences that we spend money on do the same thing. They promise to make something difficult easy so we can better focus on the things that truly matter to us. What gives money its power isn’t some inherent quality in itself, but rather, it’s the leverage it provides in purchasing things that make our own lives more fluid, more coherent with the things we want to do to become better versions of ourselves.
Marketing, of course, is an essential part of this process, and when done ethically, it is just as much of an art as it is a science. That said, one of the insidious things about how marketing is often done in the age of mass media is that it has been turned into a cold science. Marketers and advertisers have learned all sorts of tricks about how the human mind works, the biases it harbors, and the primal drives that shape our desires, and they have become comfortable targeting our doubts and our insecurities to make us buy things we don’t truly want or need. And this is done at such a deep, unconscious level that we often don’t realize it is happening to us.
The fact that money is an instrument of power and that we are all inherently social creatures who can’t help but compete for that power also doesn’t help. While, yes, the underlying motivation is to buy things to reduce friction in life, much of our consumption choices are confused because the competitive nature of the game we play in society ends up blurring our own preferences with those of others around us. Perhaps it’s true that you bought the latest Louis Vuitton collection because of its superior quality, or because they are currently at the edge of the fashion world and that’s what you value and how you like to express yourself, but the truth is that for many people, these decisions to consume are more about signaling perceived status. They don’t actually reduce friction — they just trick you into thinking they do.
When thought of like this, the idea of money can be decoupled from the idea of living what could be considered a rich, satisfying life. And when the goal becomes to live a rich, satisfying life, then the pull of manipulative marketing campaigns also lose their grip over the mind.
At its core, there are two kinds of friction that stop us from living the kind of life that is meaningful and interesting relative to who we are and where we want to go: psychological friction and environmental friction.
Psychological friction comes from all of the things in our mind that relate to who we are and how we connect to other people. It’s what you worry about. It’s what you desire. When it comes to manipulating marketing tactics, this is the kind of friction that they promise to solve. If only you had a nicer car, you would be satisfied. If only you identified with this label, and paid this group of people, your troubles would melt away. And sometimes, consumption on this level works. But usually, it only works temporarily because the underlying worry and the underlying desire is still there, and once you get used to that car or once you realize that someone else’s concept of identity won’t solve your problem, you’re back to where you started.
Now, of course, if you just happen to love cars or if you deeply know who you are and are simply looking for a collaborative community, then that changes things. Those problems are real enough on a personal level, and they have solutions that can be bought, and once bought, these solutions can make your life notably more interesting. But the distinction here is this: When that psychological friction is downstream from your own individual values and preferences, some money can help you, but if it’s simply a way of running away from your own mind, then no amount of money will do.
The other part of this is external. Environmental friction is about your physical body and the relationship it has to its surroundings. This is where money makes a bigger and more tangible difference. If you can’t put food on the table or if you live in a dangerous neighborhood, then you obviously have a problem, and that problem will also extend inwards and create psychological friction. But less obviously, decorating a personal space that inspires you reduces friction. A bicycle as a mode of transportation reduces friction. A computer becoming a bicycle for your mind does, too. That said, while some level of wealth is obviously needed for your general environment to be friction-less, there are diminishing returns to how much friction you can reduce by throwing money at it. After a certain point, the things that cause friction in your physical environment are less about consumption and more about how you organize your way of being in the world.
When you base your life on self-expression, then money simply becomes an instrument for you to increase the fluidity of your life, reducing friction. With the exponential rate of change we have seen in the world of technology, we have access to power that would have been unfathomable even a few centuries ago. And best of all, most of the really important technology is just as financially available to someone who is living a middle-class lifestyle as it is for someone who is a billionaire. Steve Jobs’ phone was no different from the one I myself can buy, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page send their emails just the way that a regular person does. This is becoming increasingly true across all industries. And in cases where it’s less true, the advantage of more money isn’t as large as it has historically been.
There is a massive difference between experiencing a life of richness and having an abundance of money. Pretty much no one would argue that the former is more important than the latter, and yet, the way we think about these things tends to diverge away from what we know — the way we spend our resources tends to diverge away from what we know.
Things and products aren’t solutions in themselves. They are tools, and they are means. And when they are treated as tools, as the means they are, they allow us to do what we do best: live freely.
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