Creating The Coffee Break: Marketing and the Manipulation of Demand

Did you know that prior to 1912, deodorant was largely considered to be at best unnecessary and at worst, a hazard to your health? Turn-of-the-century Americans had little use for a product that made them stop sweating, and didn’t particularly care about smelling bad: up until that point, human beings had pretty much just smelled like – well, human beings. Besides, the available product only worked by mixing the active ingredient in an acid suspension that ruined clothing and irritated skin. In general, deodorant wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves.

Enter Edna Murphey, her invention Odorono, and an enterprising Bible salesman-turned-copywriter named James Young.


Needing a way to convince the apathetic public to buy his product, Young concocted a singularly pervasive, dreaded social faux pas: B.O. A copywriter convinced a nation that they smelled bad, and the product began leaping off the shelf.

The Odorono anecdote is a familiar one, but it’s hardly unique to the brand of psychological marketing popularized in the twentieth century. Consider the American custom of a “coffee break”: famously created when John B. Watson used classical conditioning techniques to introduce the concept in Maxwell House ads. In the heyday of the twentieth century, marketers and public relations agents studied, strategized, and manipulated their way into sales. This may seem like a cynical statement, but, in fact, I have to admire the sheer genius of some of these creative minds, and the results they gleaned from their subjects.

Some of the greatest and most successful marketing campaigns came from examples set by marketers like Young, Watson, and Edward Bernays, founder of modern public relations and coiner of the term “public relations” – because he realized people had an adverse reaction to calling it “propaganda.” They became masters of creating demand where there had been none, and created cultural touchpoints right along with it. These marketers were expert storytellers, snakecharmers who worked on generations of people to convince them that they were too fat, too thin, driving the wrong car, smoking the wrong cigarette. They were comforting, familiar presences who promised to put these poor souls on the correct path, to make them up, give them prestige, help them hold together a perfect happy family.

I should despise them. These manipulations bordered on the disgusting, if not the outright unethical. But I can’t help but find a certain artistry in their creations.

Not only that, but recognizable elements of these psychological campaigns echo on down the line, informing wave after wave of marketers, PR associates, copywriters – even business students. While watching a video on creating buyer personas, I realize I’m working from a watered-down (or, more positively, an evolved) template of these same ideas: learn about the customer. Find the problems the customer needs solved. Convince them that your product solves the problem. Launch campaign, assess, analyze, improve, repeat.

Trends have changed, of course, as products diversified and both customers and marketers grew cannier. Unapologetic, blatantly manipulative campaigns still exist, but overall the cultural tide is shifting. InBound marketers study personas and surveys and unique hits. Content is king.

But the narrative remains.

Take a look at the Ford Mustang ads below. Notice anything particular about them? How about the fact that the ultimate muscle car is being marketed to single, fashionable women? How about the image of freedom and self-love they’re promoting? Sure, there’s that line about keeping to a diet, and the wink about how automatic shifting is easy enough for a lady to use, but how about this one:

I will spend the money I save with Mustang on a good cause…myself.

Isn’t that a radical idea, even now? Check out the stories created in these images: the girl waving at a gas station as she sails by, or “quiet, sensible Jean” who falls in love with a car that’s both practical and sexy. These the kind of stories we’re used to seeing now as a commercial, or as product placement in a movie or tv show.

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That’s the kind of marketing that resonates, that creates not only demand, but culture. Marketing, done right, informs not only what we consume, but how we see the world.

This morning, I checked Facebook and was greeted by a slew of delighted posts linking to a TIME magazine article proclaiming the update of an icon: Barbie. Talk about stories: the whole point of Barbie is for girls to tell stories and imagine themselves as the heroes of the narrative, exactly as is shown in this slamdunk of a commercial from last summer:

For years, Mattel has absorbed criticisms about Barbie: that she’s lost her role as a strong and empowered female figure, that she causes body-image issues, that she’s out-of-touch and unrelatable to a new generation.  They have decades of damage control to do, and sinking sales to fix. Their answer? Start telling the stories people want to hear. After too many mCZ1GJcIWAAEIWjFis-steps, the Barbie redesign is a welcome stroke of marketing genius on the part of Mattel, brought about by restructuring, putting creative people in charge, and listening to their customers. Barbie is a cultural force, both of reflection and creation, and her redesign brings her into the modern era without a second to lose.

Consider this campaign in comparison to Odorono’s. Mattel isn’t creating a culture in order to fit Barbie into a demand they’ve engineered; rather, they’re fitting the product to the culture that exists. In a world of cynical consumers convinced their complaints are unheard or ignored, it’s a gesture of enormous relevance.

That’s marketing done right: when the strategies of psychological manipulation meet the stories we crave, and create cultural icons. When those stories are told correctly, the narrative they spin weaves itself into the wholecloth of our reality, until we can’t remember a time when we didn’t take a few minutes in the afternoon to relax with a coffee break, or when a Mustang didn’t equate to independence and youthful joy, or when heading out the door without putting on deodorant was even an option.

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