Steve Jobs and the Subconscious Marketing of Values

Aaron Reid
Ph.D. Chief Behavioral Scientist, Sentient Decision Science

Since the news came out on Wednesday, I’ve been pouring over video of Steve Jobs’ interviews, talks, pitches – anything I’ve been able to find really – to see if I can glean any last insights. It feels like an urgency to learn, an urgency to understand every last morsel of marketing genius I can from one of the greatest marketers in business.

I could pick a hundred clips, but I want to take a moment here to share and comment on just one of my favorite Steve Jobs pitches and how it is relevant to the work we do at Sentient Decision Science and the future of marketing in general. The clip you’ll see below is rich with timeless marketing truths and insights on how to connect your brand with your customer. In this clip, Jobs has returned to Apple and is pitching the release of Apple’s new marketing campaign “Think Different”. In my own presentations, I commonly use Apple as a preeminent example of making an emotional connection to a brand by connecting the brand to the sense of self.

Apple does this through brilliant in-group/out-group manipulations, most notably in their recent “I’m a mac, and I’m a PC” ads. The humor deftly belies the profound implicit impact these ads have on the consumer psychological connection with the Apple brand. The in-group/out-group marketing tactic was critical to the resurgence of Apple as they defined “who they are” in an increasingly commoditized business. You’ll see it here in this clip as Jobs talks about the “crazies”, the “geniuses”, who are Apple’s target audience. As you watch, notice how Jobs begins this clip by talking about how marketing, to him, is about values. I’ll return to that theme of marketing being about values as it provides the industry with a great launching pad for talking about subconscious marketing and the ethics inherent within.

Apple is one of the greatest marketing enterprises in the world, and their ability to connect to consumers isn’t accomplished through rational argument. As you hear Jobs in this clip, it’s not about listing product attributes or detailing the product at all, it’s about connecting to who people are and what Apple is at its core. In Apple’s advertising, and in Jobs’ pitches, this is done largely at the subconscious level.

In fact, at Sentient, we believe that the vast majority of marketing information in the world is having its effect on humans at the subconscious level (note this is not at the subliminal level). And since marketing is largely working at the subconscious level, we have developed methods that tap the subconscious in order to understand and predict the effects of marketing. However, this notion that marketing is largely subconscious is highly controversial, and it immediately sparks discussion of the ethics of subconscious marketing among people who care. It is a critical question for our industry, and Sentient is actively engaged in this debate. We have formed an opinion and detailed our perspective in our white paper “In Defense of Marketing: The Peacock’s Plume and Dancing Birds of Paradise.

In reflecting on Jobs’ comments that Marketing, to him, is about values, I find congruence with the argument in our paper that the debate on the ethics of subconscious marketing should be placed on the ethics of the values being marketed, not whether the marketing itself is having subconscious effects, because marketing by it’s nature is subconscious.

Here is the essence of the argument on the ethics of subconscious marketing in our paper:

a) The inception of marketing began with the advent of sexual selection (the first market), not the first printing press!
b) Marketing tactics in this market for genes were necessarily subconscious (because consciousness had not yet emerged from evolution).
c) Subconscious marketing is part and parcel of who we are as humans and occupies the vast majority of marketing information processed by humans (in marketing products, in marketing ideas, in marketing ourselves).
d) Marketing is actually the force that provides us with the luxury of free will, rather than limiting it.
e) Understanding the subconscious influence on preference is necessary in order to produce goods that are valued by consumers.
f) Therefore, as researchers and marketers we actually have a responsibility to understand the consumer subconscious or else we run the risk of creating profound consumer dissatisfaction.
g) Finally, that since subconscious marketing is universal and necessary for free will, the debate on ethics should be placed on the values being marketed not the ethics of marketing to the subconscious itself.

As I reread our argument and reflected on Jobs marketing pitch above, I noted several overlapping themes including that marketing is about values, that the marketplace is full of noise and good marketing is the only way to get noticed and chosen in this noisy world, and that in order to create products that consumers truly love you need to understand what they value at their core. The irony here is that with the subconscious we don’t necessarily know where the influences on our behavior and thoughts are coming from. So in reflecting on Jobs’ comments on marketing from 2001, I think it is fair to say that Jobs and Apple put a significant dent in the Zeitgeist of the decade and that this thinking likely crept into my subconscious during the formation of our argument on the ethics of marketing. While I don’t know what Jobs’ perspective on the ethics subconscious marketing would have been, I do know that he and Apple were masters of it, and that the subconscious effects of their passion are profound.





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2 Comments

  • Stacy Graiko says:

    Excellent post, Aaron. Thank you for highlighting these really important lessons from Steve Jobs.

    • Aaron Reid PhD Aaron Reid PhD says:

      Thanks Stacy – its amazing to think of the multitude of ways he has influenced the collective unconscious over the course of the last 30 years.

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