Hidden Persuaders

Everybody knows that advertisements are designed to persuade you to buy the product. It’s also well-known that the ads work better when they appeal to your emotional side, to your subconscious, rather than to your rational side.  The adman will not hesitate to arouse your sexual desire, or feelings of guilt,  or leverage  feelings of low self-esteem,  to sell his product.  Consider the ads that have scantily clad women, or authority figures saying that you must do the best for your children, or when the actor in the ad transforms from a loser to a confident, attractive person by a single application of some substance. In fact, you may rationally reject the message but the ad has still reached your subconscious mind.
I recently realized that getting people to buy that product is just one of the goals. There seems to be another hidden goal, especially with consumable products . Here are some examples, try to spot the hidden goal:

  • Toilet Soap: boy standing under a running shower, rubbing a bar of soap on the skin.  Notice that  a lot of soap is being wasted as it comes in contact with  running water. Further,  vigorous rubbing of the soap bar abrades away a lot more soap than is really used.  Note how this ties into being able to adulterate the soap, the soap is loaded with fillers like sodium silicate which have no cleaning action.
  • Toothpaste: Close-up shot of at least an inch of toothpaste being lovingly applied along the whole length of the toothbrush. Do you know how little toothpaste is really needed?  The manufacturer is also eager to shaft the customer in two remaining dimensions – the diameter of the tube orifice is much larger than needed, so that the maximum amount of toothpaste is consumed (wasted) per application.
  • Deodorant: The 90 pound weakling puts on  this brand of deodorant, then goes out. He is immediately attacked by several attractive girls. Locations differ but the result is the same – a happy, satiated, 90 pound weakling. You may not have noticed consciously that the weakling has sprayed about half the whole bottle of deo on himself and the room. But your subconscious is getting trained that it takes half a bottle of deo per use to attract gorgeous girls.
  • Cologne/Aftershave: Every notice that the handsome man splashes a huge amount of cologne on his face? Some ads show this action several times, to make sure the message sinks in. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aRIyxh_yKk

The second hidden goal should be clear now– it is to get people to consume MORE. More, more, more. More than really needed.

But now that you are aware of this subtle persuasion, you can first of all realize that you cannot trust what is being shown in the ad. And then you can figure out yourself the correct quantities to be applied per use of such consumable products. It may be harder to convince the children, however.
I will try to guess where this trend might go – one might see some “improved” products or packaging with improved “wastage  coefficients”.

  • Toilet soap with sponge-like structure. Dissolves faster under running water. Although it will be marketed as being gentler or with special enzyme action etc.
  • Toothbrushes with increased surface area.
  • Toothpaste tubes with a square orifice (square cross section has higher area than a circular cross-section).
  • Deodorant or cologne bottle with a spring loaded dispenser that always delivers a big squirt.

If you come across more such ads, please do post a link or a description in the comments.

Sitting Can Kill You

Recent research indicates:

Sitting, it would seem, is an independent pathology. Being sedentary for nine hours a day at the office is bad for your health whether you go home and watch television afterward or hit the gym. It is bad whether you are morbidly obese or marathon-runner thin. “Excessive sitting,” Dr. Levine says, “is a lethal activity.”

Everybody (except people working on a farm), and especially all cubicle dwellers, should carefully read the New York Times article “Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?” by James Vlahos: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/magazine/mag-17sitting-t.html?_r=2&src=me&ref=homepage#

Acknowledgments: Thanks to SDR  for link to the article.

Life’s Little Mysteries

We are lucky to be born in this century. The history of Humankind seems to have reached a turning point. Knowledge explosion, population explosion, global warming, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, … Life in the next century promises to be completely different — if any humans survive. Or if they remain human.

At the same time, especially during a quiet walk or the daily shave, one is apt to ponder on life’s little mysteries. Here are my favourites.

1. Why a mirror reverses left-to-right and not top-to-bottom

2. Why a T-shirt reverses front-to-back when turned inside-out

3. Why buses come in pairs or threes at a bus stop

4. Why, sometimes, you get a  call from a person just when you are thinking of them

5. Why a woman of unexceptional looks become the subject of the most famous painting in the world (Mona Lisa). Compare the two pictures below:

Classic Modern
original modern-monalisa

6. Why some pictures fool the eye into seeing motion.

7. Why a safety razor with four blades gives a better shave than one with three blades

8. Why one never sees baby pigeons (pigeon chicks, to use the correct word).

9. All elementary particles are fundamentally identical, yet Hans Dehmelt of the University of Washington has a positron named Priscilla.

10. Why the majority of people throughout history have remained in slavery, ruled over by small elites — including today. I use the wide definition of slavery: economic or mental slavery as well as physical slavery. Hmm … maybe this not a small mystery.
(note: fixed broken link to modern mona lisa)

Cabbages And Kings

Some authors have an insidious effect on the reader – the reader’s thinking patterns change, at least for a while. Here is a very short story. the author has been clearly dazed by The Alchemist. Or maybe Jack Welch. 

“Nothing in the world is ever completely wrong. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.” – Paulo Coelho (Brida)

“People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.”-Paulo Coelho (Veronika Decides to Die)
“My main job was developing talent. I was a gardener providing water and other nourishment to our top 750 people. Of course, I had to pull out some weeds, too.”- Jack Welch

Cats, Dogs, and Bacteria

A software engineer working in a product company was chatting with his son on what the son wants to do after growing up.
“If you are a cat, you can become a consultant. If you are a dog, you can work in a services company.”
Son: “but I want to be like you Daddy, and work in a product company.”
Engineer: “Oh, to work in a product company, you must be a bacterium.”
The engineers wife, listening to this conversation, was getting annoyed.
“What nonsense are you putting into his head now?”
Engineer: “I attended a talk by a great man who told us that we were bacteria. And it must be true, because all the engineers laughed and clapped and greatly appreciated the point.”
Wife: “And who is this great man?”
engineer: He calls himself a gardener.”
“Huh, a gardener.” said his wife. “What do you think a gardener thinks about all day long? He is naturally concerned with small animals, insects, and soil bacteria– what else would one expect from a gardener?”
She paused, and then said thoughtfully, “In fact, I believe he paid you a compliment — he didn’t say you were manure. My grandfather was a gardener you know, and he used to talk manure all the time.” she said, and walked away.
Strangely, the engineer’s heart no longer felt heavy. He was cheerful again.
He went out to play cricket with his son.
“Don’t worry about what you will do when you grow up, son, even if you turn out to be a monkey there will be jobs in several cities for you.”
“Which cities, daddy?”
“Pune and Chennai, most certainly”, said the engineer, “just tell them that monkeys are naturally good at climbing trees.”
“Now mind the ball” he warned, as he bowled a good length to his son.
The son was clean bowled on the first ball.
— by E. Vexedococcus

McDonaldization of Society and Coolification of Professions

George Ritzer coined the term used in the first half of the title of this article in his 1993 book, “McDonaldization of Society”. He used the world-famous fast food franchise as the exemplar of a phenomenon of dehumanization that is sweeping through systems being used by industry.

My simple take-away from the book is that McDonaldization is a strategy to get a customer to provide service to himself and to convince him that this is better for him (but read the book, it has a deeper analysis). Would a rational person want to pay good money to go to a place where he has to stand in line to first pay for the food, then pick up and carry it to the table himself, eat it sitting on uncomfortable benches, and then put the remains in garbage disposal himself? On top of that, the food is always the same taste, and is seriously bad for health – see Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary.  Yet McDonald’s services more than 58 million customers daily.

McDonaldization is not restricted to burgers. This strategy  has spread to many other places:

  • banks (ATM’s),
  • airline check-in counters
  • airline baggage return
  • grocery store self-checkout counters
  • gas stations
  • customer-“care” phone lines of telcos, airlines, etc. who have a computer system, not a human, responding to menu choices on the other end

All of above are examples of self service where all these tasks were formerly done by other people, not the customers themselves. The workplace is also moving to the self-service model. If you are an employee, see what applies to you:

  • Do you type and print your own letters?
  • When you need copies, do you operate the xerox or scanner yourself?
  • When something breaks down at work, do you log a service request into to a computer system?
  • Do you do the paperwork and data entry for claiming expense reimbursements yourself?
  • who books a conference room when you are setting up a meeting?

Once society accepts self service as the norm for comparatively mundane tasks, it would be a natural progression for the McDonaldization phenomenon to spread out into more technical or specialized areas. I call this extension the coolification of professions.

coolie n. – An unskilled laborer (Hindi)

Just as the work of stenos, secretaries, data entry operators is being done by the common employee (and these particular jobs are becoming obsolete), the coolification of professions results in some of the work done previously by professionals now being done by the customer as self-service. Let’s look at some examples:


The physician or family doctor: almost a God-like figure 50 years ago. When common killer diseases were being conquered, and penicillin was king. The patient was cured by the doctor, else it was God’s will. Today the patient is well-informed about procedures, risks, and treatments, and expects the doctor to explain all the details. The patient will also go for a second or third opinion. Minor ailments are completely self-serviced using the internet, how-to books, and over-the-counter medications or treatments from alternative medicine. So today the tables have turned – the patient was cured by the medical system, else it may be a malpractice suit.


These days many people draft and print legal documents themselves, such as sale deeds, gift deeds, and wills, without involving a lawyer at all.


Most in-house documentation in companies and institutions is produced by non-specialists. There may be a separate publications department, but it typically produces brochures, flyers, and user manuals for the end customers. And it is not just enterprises – churches, clubs, home owners, schoolchildren – all can manage their own publishing using DTP software. Authors can now bypass publishers all together, since authors can themselves compose and format their books and directly place them on the internet marketplace as pdf, epub, or kindle format (this major shift needs to be expanded as a different post).


Ordinary users can compute and file taxes online using easy-to-use software. This used to be done by tax consultants who would compute taxes and file the returns on behalf of their clients.

Information Technology

Programming used to be done by software professionals is now being by people from other walks of life. People solve their programming problems themselves using spreadsheets for financial analysis, accounting, even engineering calculations such as beam design. A mathematician will conduct research by programming Mathcad or Mathematica herself. The trend in IT is to create general purpose tools which the end users can themselves program and customize to their needs.

Coolification of IT Professionals

There was a time when building a car was an art. Skilled craftsmen would build a car one at a time. Henry Ford changed that into the assembly line. Now cars were cheaper, but the assembly line worker had little sense of worth – his job got coolified. Something similar is happening in the IT industry too. There was a time when programming was a black art and computer equipment was extremely expensive; a few talented individuals were programmers; their ability to squeeze the last bit of performance with ingeneous tricks was a highly regarded skill. But today, programming cost is a major cost factor and now today millions of people are employed in IT – coolification is inevitable. Evolution of higher level languages, frameworks, ready-to-use software components has led to a shift in skill sets need for the usual IT professional.
What today’s IT professional needs to know is how to translate business logic into a composition of high-level building blocks. The quality assurance team equals the size of the development team; QA needs to know how to write test cases that fits into existing testing frameworks.

No doubt there are still people writing the tools, frameworks and components. But how many automobile engineers are employed today compared to the number of cars produced?

The other shift is I guess the maturation from art to engineering. Now there are standards, processes, and some level of control and predictability is in place. The IT professional too is morphing from craftsman to assembly line worker.

I am not passing judgment here, nor bemoaning the passing away of a golden age, but rather just noting that the cheese has red-shifted. A lot of IT is now run-of-mill – consider that many non-CS graduates also end up working in IT. The day may not be far off when a high school pass or high school fail who took up low-paying jobs like gas station attendant will be able to take up low-paying jobs like IT executive.

Of course, there will always be some teams that are building the core systems, frameworks, and components. That is the place to be in. But it will get harder and harder to get in.

End Notes

Somewhat out of context, but I must refer you to a hilarious spoof on Agile Methodology.