Marketing is not science

I’ve written about Brian Wansink before, but here you go, a grand summary of the bad science at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. They’ve gone over an archive of emails, and it’s worse than I ever imagined: they’ve just been churning over crappy studies, looking for garbage associations that will go “viral”. It’s embarrassingly awful.

“That’s p-hacking on steroids,” said Kristin Sainani, an associate professor of health research and policy at Stanford University. “They’re running every possible combination of variables, essentially, to see if anything will come up significant.”

In a conversation about another study in August 2015, Wansink mentioned a series of experiments that “were chasing interactions that were hard to find.” He apparently hoped that they would all arrive at the same conclusion, which is “bad science,” said Susan Wei, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Minnesota.

“It does very much seem like this Brian Wansink investigator is a consistent and repeated offender of statistics,” Wei added. “He’s so brazen about it, I can’t tell if he’s just bad at statistical thinking, or he knows that what he’s doing is scientifically unsound but he goes ahead anyway.”

Everything they do in that lab is stuff I was told way back in the beginning of my career was bad. They do “experiments” without a prior hypothesis — they’re just fishing out of pool of lots of meaningless numbers that they generate by collecting observations of shitloads of variables. Then they crunch away at it until they find a correlation that they can build a paper around, and shop the paper around until it finds a journal with low enough standards to publish it.

In the first year biology class I’m teaching right now, I have a lecture or two at the end of the term on bioethics. This is going to be the case study we’ll go over this year. I’m wondering what’s wrong with Wansink’s education that he never learned that you don’t get to do any of this, since he’s oblivious to his sins.

I also have to point out (probably won’t in class, though) that the real problem here is that Wansink hasn’t been doing science — he’s been doing marketing, and marketing is an evil of capitalism. Please keep your capitalism out of our science, OK?

By the way, this was on Buzzfeed, and Buzzfeed gets a bad rap. I know there’s a big pile of capitalism tainting Buzzfeed, too, which has had more of a reputation for click-baity quizzes and pop news, but their news division is actually pretty good — it’s like a circus that opened a serious news outlet and hired real reporters to staff it, unlike some of the news networks that hired clowns to read the news at you. Virginia Hughes is the science editor there, and she’s serious and smart and is part of a good team that has been doing some exemplary reporting.


  1. leerudolph says

    he’s been doing marketing, and marketing is an evil of capitalism.

    Well…in a capitalist society, marketing is an evil of capitalism. In a non-capitalist society, marketing (if it existed; and I would say that in, for instance, the Soviet Union—at most a “state capitalist” society—it certainly did) would be an evil of that society’s social/economic system: it is evil in and of itself.

    Or, rather, “marketing” as the word is now used (only since about the 1950s, if I am reading the Oxford English Dictionary’s example citations correctly), meaning a species of propaganda devoted to modifying behaviors of consumption (not limited to strictly economic consumption), is evil in and of itself. I’m old enough (and stodgy enough) that I think the word ought still to mean what it still chiefly meant when I was a child: “The action of buying or selling, esp. in a market; an instance of this. Now also (U.S.): shopping, esp. for groceries.” (OED, marketing, n. 1.a.). But the language changes whether we like it or not.

  2. Derek Vandivere says

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘marketing is not science.’ Neither is engineering, but my degree is a BS. And surely you’d agree that marketing can involve using the scientific method, right? Especially now that so much marketing and marketing communications is electronic, it’s become pretty easy to do stuff like A/B testing, data mining to discover new customer segments, and so on. Certainly what this schmuck is doing at my alma mater isn’t science, but that’s more because he’s doing it wrong than that the topic can’t be studied scientifically.

  3. says

    I don’t think marketing is inherently evil. Like, if BuzzFeed markets its stuff really well, and also does quality journalism, isn’t that a good thing? It’s the low quality journalism that seems like the thing to complain about.

  4. leerudolph says

    Siggy@4: “I don’t think marketing is inherently evil.”

    Marketing is (when it is not purely cargo-cult science) social engineering. In general, when an act or programs of engineering is undertaken by human actors, it is “evil” or “good” (or neutral) depending on the criteria applied to determine whether those humans are being “evil” (etc.) in doing it. When acts and programs of engineering are undertaken by “corporate beings” (government agencies, voluntary associations, etc., etc., and particularly corporations) it is clear that the moral calculus cannot reasonably be simply reduced to the calculus applied to the individual humans subsumed into the corporate beings. It is much less clear what else can be done (if one wants to make meaningful moral distinctions among such corporate beings). But I do think that it is clear that when a particular type of corporate being is explicitly defined, as (at least publicly traded) corporations are in modern capitalist societies, in such a way that they are obliged to do things in ways that would be derided (or celebrated…) as sociopathically evil if a human actor did them, then those corporate beings should be classified as themselves “inherently evil”, and the acts and programs of engineering that they undertake should be assumed also to be “inherently evil” unless they can be proved otherwise.

  5. consciousness razor says

    Like, if BuzzFeed markets its stuff really well, and also does quality journalism, isn’t that a good thing?

    What “stuff”? Do you mean the portion of its stuff that isn’t the quality journalism, thus why you had to mention that it “also does” quality journalism in addition to that stuff?

    If the stuff in question is the quality journalism itself, then it may be okay (although not what I’d call a moral good) that this kind product is marketed effectively, so that it will be consumed by a larger audience.

    But how are people being induced into consuming this product, such that this is being done “really well” (in the sense of being effective at that task)? What sort of persuasive (or other) techniques are being used? Is it supposed to be anything and everything, so long as “quality journalism” is in some way associated with it, however indirectly? Are they for example injecting us with mind-altering drugs, without our consent, which causes us (inter alia) to read more of their quality journalism? Is the quality journalism accompanied by threats that they will drown kittens if we don’t continue to read more BuzzFeed? Do they manipulate or exploit a portion of the population in any way, in order to get more eyeballs looking at their product (at the expense of other such products, which may also be “quality journalism”)?

    How are they going about this? It’s not obvious that it should be considered good no matter what it may be, so what sorts of things should I be imagining, whenever you say they market stuff really well? What is that supposed to entail, and why would it invariably be good?

  6. says

    CR @7,

    why would [marketing] invariably be good?

    I said that marketing is not inherently evil, i.e. it is not invariably bad, i.e. it is not “an evil of capitalism” as PZ characterized it. You seem to have interpreted my claim as a comment that marketing is invariably good.

    Marketing is a really broad category, it doesn’t make any sense to me to say that it is good or evil or to give it any other adjective really. leerudolph @5 seems to have a specific thing in mind when they refer to marketing, and I don’t know what that is, but whatever it is, it’s obviously too narrow.

  7. consciousness razor says

    You seem to have interpreted my claim as a comment that marketing is invariably good.

    No, that’s not how interpreted it, since you had connected its goodness with the production of quality journalism, which is naturally what I thought you meant…. But I did quote you. I’ll format it to highlight the logical structure:

    [1.] if BuzzFeed markets its stuff really well,
    [2.] and [if BuzzFeed] also does quality journalism,
    [3.] isn’t that [therefore, following from 1. and 2.] a good thing?

    But that simply doesn’t follow. It’s a nice little syllogism, with an invalid conclusion. There aren’t any other premises offered, indicating how the conjunction of marketing-well and quality journalism only sometimes would be a good thing (but not always, or not inherently, or not anything else). It just is a good thing, without qualification, if we agree to your rhetorical question as it was actually formulated. But I don’t think we have a reason to agree with anything like that.

  8. hemidactylus says

    Not sure how scientific most marketing is but diamond-mongers have socially engineered couples into thinking expensive rings are very important aspects of a relationship:

    And Freud’s nephew Bernays did a solid for feminism by making smoking acceptable for women (my mom died of lung cancer), aided in the propaganda effort to stage a coup in Guatemala, and gave us bacon and eggs for breakfast:

    Hill & Knowlton gave us the infamous atrocity story of Iraqi soldiers taking babies out of incubators which helped promote Desert Storm.

    Marketing works wonders. I am not much for diamond trinkets but I am a sucker for bacon.

  9. hemidactylus says

    But marketing can be positive. I recall some well done ads guilting parents into getting their kids vaccinated for HPV. And though weather forecasters are all about the fear of pending doom they do get people to stay more alert when dangerous weather is on the horizon. I fear weather more than terrorism.

  10. Zeppelin says

    hemidactylus: I wouldn’t call those instances (vaccine PSAs, weather warnings) “marketing”. Marketing is when you’re selling something — it’s got “market” right in the name, after all. It’s by nature amoral and intended to persuade, not inform. You don’t want people eating bacon for breakfast or buying diamond rings because it’s in their best interest, or will improve the world somehow, but because it will benefit you. You are using people as mere means. If they also benefit from what you’re selling them, that is at best a pleasant side effect.

    PSAs on the other hand are propaganda. And effective propaganda, despite the negative connotation the word has these days, can definitely be a good thing if the message you’re propagating is worthwhile.

  11. hemidactylus says

    I think good information or knowledge can be persuasive and I buy it all the time in the form of books that are marketed when published and part of a market of ideas.

    Not sure HPV vaccines are free. Maybe not as lucrative as erection dysfunction pills or baldness remedies. I got a flu vaccination late last year and it cost though covered by my insurance. PSAs are ads that cost money to distribute and advertizing is along with PR an aspect of marketing. Even public sector entities market their public good wares.

    Weather mongers are selling stuff in the form of ads on television or on their websites. Weather apps are either purchased or free in which case you are the product sold to the ad-slingers. There is always a market presence…the invisible hand job.

    I do think given my most heinous examples that PZ makes a decent point that marketing can be evil. But it can be positive too. People can make a profit AND benefit others AND reduce negative socially borne externalities. It usually doesn’t work that way, but it can. I won’t hold my breath waiting for moral capitalism to make a dent though.

  12. brucegee1962 says

    Let’s say person A and person B both spend 200 hours writing science fiction novel of identical quality. Both try the traditional methods of sending the novel around to those few agents and publishers who will even read novels from unknown authors, and both get rejected.
    Person A gives up at this point — her time investment is lost. Person B pays to self-print her book, gets her ebook up on Amazon, and uses her marketing savvy to buy ad space on appropriate websites, buy tables at conventions where she can hawk her book, maximizes her use of social media, and generally pushes like hell to get her name out. By the time her second book comes out, she has enough readers to get a regular publisher, but she decides to continue selling her books herself because she gets a bigger cut.
    Please explain what about B’s actions are unethical?

  13. Derek Vandivere says

    #12 / Zeppelin: I think you’re missing the idea that it’s about persuading people that your product or service has a value to them. In fact, you can define marketing as defining a value proposition for your product or service, creating that value proposition in your product or service, and communicating that value proposition.

  14. says

    I have actually worked with this guy in peripheral capacity at Cornell somewhere around 2003-4ish. The bad science revealed to be coming out of his lab does not surprise me. My personal opinion from interacting with him (albeit briefly) is that his motivations were more about gaining media attention/fame over anything else – even selling books. Maybe he’s getting his wish after all…

  15. says

    Oops, got my dates wrong, wish I could edit instead of making a new post. It was actually somewhere around 2009 when I interacted with him – not that it really matters.