Is it ethical for marketers to ‘nudge’?

They almost got me.

As I reached for the gasoline nozzle, I realized at the very last minute that what I thought was regular gasoline was actually ‘plus,’ a grade that I did not want and that I would have paid a premium for. The reason for my near mistake? The way my options were ordered. I expected the grades to be ordered by octane as they almost always are. But in this case, regular 87 was sandwiched between two more premium grades.

The strategy that was employed at the pump at this Shell station in Virginia is an example of ‘nudging.’ It is an example of leveraging preexisting expectations and habits to increase the chances of a particular behavior. There is nothing dishonest about the practice. Information is complete and transparent, and personal freedom to choose is not affected. It is simply that the environment is structured in such a way as to promote one decision instead of others. 

Ethically, I like the position of Thaler and Sunstein when they talk about ‘libertarian paternalism.’ In their view, nudging can be a way to reconcile a strong belief in personal freedom with an equally strong belief that certain decisions are better than others. But not all nudges are created equal. Just as it is possible to promote decisions that are better for individuals, so too is it possible to increase the likelihood of choices that serve other interests, and that even serve to subvert the fullest expression of personal liberty, as in the gasoline example above.

One way to think of marketing is as the use of the principles of behavioral economics to change consumer behavior. Marketers are in the business of nudging. Because nudging has a direct impact in human behavior, it is also a fundamentally ethical enterprise. Marketing carries with it a huge burden of responsibility.

What ethical positions do you take in your marketing efforts? What would marketing look like if we were all libertarian paternalists?

Why You Should NOT Vlog like Casey Neistat

I discovered Casey Neistat in November 2015, following an interview with Tim Ferris, and immediately suggested to Elisa Wallace that she start a vlog.

Elisa Wallace is an elite equestrian athlete, competing internationally at the 4 star level (there is no 5 star level). She is an American mustang trainer, and vocal advocate of mustang adoption through the Heritage Mustang Foundation. She is also my wife.

For years, Elisa and I have worked to create high quality video for YouTube. We have produced a large amount of competition footage, but have also worked to document the journey of each of her mustangs. Our first series was a little rough, but it captured the imagination of a lot of people (for us, anyway), who followed Elisa’s story with ‘Fledge’ through to an incredible freestyle performance what won them first place in the Extreme Mustang Makeover and the distinction of fan favorite.

We were no strangers to story-telling when Tim Ferris ‘introduced me’ to Casey Neistat (neither Tim nor Casey know me from a hole in the ground). Casey’s vlog was instantly inspiring. I showed some videos to my wife, and she was inspired as well. On November 8, we uploaded our first vlog, which was viewed 3,000 times in a single day. Not bad. There was absolutely no way for us to commit to daily film making like Casey, but we figured that a weekly schedule was doable, and so committed ourselves to uploading every Monday. We were very inspired by Casey’s approach to film making, and incorporated many similar elements in our episodes. But there was no way for us to vlog like Casey.

First, we simply don’t have the equipment. Equipment is expensive, and so my philosophy has always been to use the least expensive solution, and only to upgrade when my skill and/or need made upgrading necessary. I used iMovie for years before switching to Final Cut. The bulk of our footage is still shot using the front-facing camera on Elisa’s scratched-up iPhone 5. Second, Elisa would rather not talk about herself. She is becoming more comfortable in front of the camera, but she would far rather tell the stories of her horses than dwell on her personal life. As she has earned more fans and followers, she has let them more and more into what happens ‘behind the scenes,’ but the focus of her screen time is still predominantly oriented toward education and the lives of her horses. Third, we don’t live in New York. A boosted board would be impractical at the barn, and the urban scenery and people-rich tapestry that provide the backdrop for Casey’s videos are at least 70 miles away in Atlanta. We have animals, bugs, lakes, and trees.

It’s okay to vlog like Casey Neistat, as long as you don’t vlog LIKE Casey Neistat.

One shouldn’t imitate an other’s aesthetic as if it was a formula for success. Success is earned, not copied. What our differences from Casey forced us to do is to be inspired by, and emulate, the spirit of his film-making instead of his style. What Casey emphasizes over and over again is that it’s not about the technology. It’s all about story. Through our inability to imitate Casey Neistat, we have imitated him indeed.

Since starting Elisa’s vlog, we have learned a lot about her voice and her audience. We have experimented a lot. What began with imitation, has morphed into something very special. What initially took many hours to produce each week now takes far less time and results in something of much higher quality. Knowing who you are and why you do what you do makes the creative process far easier. A mixture of stories, training techniques, and personal vignettes, Elisa’s vlogs are very much her own, and in a way that also provides significant value to her fans. It has been wonderful to see her audience grow as a result of the regularity of our uploads, because it means bringing that much more attention to the potential of American mustangs, and generating support for Elisa and her dream of representing the USA in international competition.


If you are interested in our vlog series, and in following Elisa’s journey, you can watch every episode, beginning with the most recent one, here: