Neal Whitman's recent column on the language of "choice" in education ("Make good choices!") got me thinking about how choice and choose are used in marketing. From the flight attendant's cheery "We know you have a choice when you fly — thanks for choosing us!" to IKEA's "Choose your own entertainment adventure," we're constantly encouraged to select from an array of options. But what does all that choice mean?
In brand messages, choice is always a good thing, even though much of the time we consumers feel overwhelmed by choices — or don't feel we have one at all. ("A choice when you fly"? When I needed to book a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Minneapolis, I had a single option. My "choice" was a long layover in either of two cities with terrible records for winter travel.) Advertisers want us to believe that choosing is something we do because we're intelligent, rational consumers — not hungry, frazzled shoppers looking for the fastest way out of the store.
Take Smart Choices, a "front-of-pack nutrition labeling program" announced in mid-2009 by the U.S. packaged-food industry. It sounded great: A green checkmark label on a food package to signify that the product meets "a comprehensive set of nutrition criteria based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and other sources of nutrition science and authoritative dietary guidance." On the other hand, among the products deemed eligible for the label were sugary breakfast cereals such as Cocoa Krispies and Froot Loops. "These are horrible choices," Walter C. Willett, chairman of Harvard's nutrition department, told the New York Times last September..
(In late October, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its own plan to develop standards for food labeling, the Smart Choices Program voluntarily postponed active operations.)
Or consider Time Warner Cable's media campaign last November, in the middle of the company's negotiations with various channels that were demanding higher fees. As part of the campaign, TWC put up a website in which it asked its customers to choose: "Let us know if you want us to Roll Over, or Get Tough."
"Is it really a choice?" asked the Los Angeles Times entertainment blog, Company Town. To find out, blog author Joe Flint decided to vote for "Roll Over."
We clicked that option and the first message that greeted us was, "Are you sure you don't want to get tough?" Later in the message Time Warner Cable says, "instead of rolling over, we think it's time to speak out against TV networks that boost their bottom line by squeezing cable TV viewers like you."
When you clicked "Get Tough," you saw a message saying, "Together, we can make a difference in what America pays for TV." (The "ballot" is no longer on the site, which now announces "good news": an agreement with the Fox Channel.)
The technologies may be more sophisticated now, but choice and choose have been around for a long time as a marketing tactic. Students of U.S. political history may remember presidential candidate Barry Goldwater's "a choice, not an echo," which became a slogan and the title of a self-published book by Goldwater supporter Phyllis Schlafly. One can argue that Goldwater really did represent a radically different choice, but as for other marketing "choices" — well, maybe not so much.
For example, "Choosy Moms Choose Jif" — the peanut butter maker's slogan since the 1970s — is catchy but misleading: "Choosiness" implies discernment or refined taste, but Jif is ubiquitous — indeed, it's been the top-selling peanut butter in the United States for 30 years. It's hard not to choose it. (Choosy dads made a brief appearance a few years ago, but seem to have vanished from Jif ads.) ConAgra's Healthy Choice frozen meals, sold since the mid-1980s, are a choice of sorts, but not necessarily a healthy one: The meals have calorie counts averaging 8 percent higher than the numbers on their labels, according to a Tufts University study.
When it isn't signifying "autonomy," choice may be a marketer's code word for "specialness." One of Pepsi Cola's most famous ad campaigns, which ran from 1984 to 1991 and starred Michael Jackson, was "The Choice of a New Generation." (Translation: Hello, young person! Why would someone as hip as you drink a stodgy, old-fashioned soda like the one that rhymes with Shmoka-Shmola?) "Natural" choices bloomed in the 1990s, when unnatural choices fell out of favor: You could choose Natural Choice pet food, funerary urns, disposable diapers, non-dairy creamer, chemical preservatives, coated paper, or cheese.
Choice is most flattering in its adjectival sense — select, superior, elite. That's how we're meant to perceive Ohio-based Choice Brands ("a wholesale appliance distributor for Brands of Choice"), Choice Hotels International (an economy-to-mid-market chain that, naturally, offers a Choice Privileges program), and President's Choice, Canada's largest private-label brand (food and consumer products, mostly, but also financial services). With President's Choice, we get a double whammy of elite-ness: If the president (of the company) chose it, it must be really special! But here's a little secret: All of these Choices are wishful thinking. Truly elite brands never broadcast "elite" in their names.
Choice signifies a world of options, a capitalist Eden. (As the late British actor and writer Peter Ustinov famously said, "In America, through pressure of conformity, there is freedom of choice, but nothing to choose from.") Paradoxically, though, once you choose, you run out of choices. "While you are shopping, you have access to myriad choices," writes cultural anthropologist and marketing expert Clotaire Rapaille in The Culture Code. "When you buy, you narrow your choices down to one."
Which means that, at least for some people, some of the time, the illusion of choice is a better option than a real dilemma. And effective illusion has always been the first choice of successful marketers.