Data harvesting on social media as seduction

In an ideal world, customers would flock to our doors, buy our products over and over again, and happily tell others about their experiences with our brands. But, in the real world, that doesn’t usually happen. In the real world, marketers need to use various techniques to convince customers to use their product. For instance, my dentist persuades me to have an unpleasant dental treatment, by helping me visualise the pain and expense that I am avoiding in the long-term. The benefit of doing the treatment becomes obvious to me. Other times, the benefit is very difficult to visualise, like vaccinations, pension funds, or eating your vegetables. Or, the benefit might be there, but it is not worth what the customer is giving up. For instance, lottery wins. The possibility of winning the lottery is there, but the cost of a lottery ticket vastly exceeds the probability of winning the lottery multiplied by the prize value. In those cases, marketers resort to ‘seduction’ techniques.


Marketing scholars John Deighton and Kent Grayson characterise seduction as a particular type of marketing relationship. In their classic paper on the topic, entitled “Marketing and Seduction: Building Exchange Relationships by Managing Social Consensus” (published here, and available free here), Deighton and Grayson explain how seduction differs from other marketing activities, and how it develops along a series of steps.


First, the marketer entices the customer, by presenting a very desirable outcome, and hinting that the customer can achieve that through consumption of the product – for instance, buy the house of one’s dreams, if they buy the lottery ticket.


Then, the marketer enrols the customer in the seduction though the exchange of information. The information provided by the firm creates a feeling of trust in the customer, while the information gained form the customer is used to create a role for the customer in the exchange. For instance, every week the lottery organisers reveal the numbers selected. They can also use information gained from customers to change their advertising message or choice of media, to reflect evolving customer preferences.


Subsequently, the marketer entraps the customer, by making it costly for the customer to leave the relationship. For instance, the lottery organisers can emphasise how long a customer has been playing, creating the perception that s/he is getting closer to winning the lottery.


Finally, the marketer confirms the seductive relationship through small acts or rewards that fall short of the initial promise, but which signal to the customers that they are ‘on track’. For instance, reporting when other lottery players make a big win, or giving out small cash prizes.


Seduction leads customers to change their taste, and to enjoy things that they did not intend to enjoy. As Deighton and Grayson say, seduction “transform(s) the consumer’s initial resistance to a course of action into willing, even avid, compliance” (page 660).


Image source: Deighton and Grayson (1995)


While re-reading the Deighton and Grayson (1995) paper, it occurred to me that data harvesting on social media could be seen as an instance of seduction. As with the lottery ticket, in many cases, the benefits for consumers of giving their data to social media platforms are either non-existent, or are much smaller than the cost of giving up all of those data. For instance, social media users may be discriminated against, via the adverts that they are exposed to, or the offers that they are excluded from.


Sure, social media users may derive some benefits from sharing their activity and photos online. For instance, it is a convenient way of letting family know that the baby is doing well, or of sharing a photo album with friends who want to hear all about the latest holiday. Yet, users often end up sharing a lot more information than they planned on sharing, initially, even going against their own principles and values, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the privacy paradox.


How does a social media platform like, say, Facebook, use seduction to get users to share as much data as possible?


First, customers are enticed to join Facebook with the promise of enhancing communication with their friends and family, having fun, or even winning some sort of tangible benefit (for instance, being able to follow a brand’s page and get freebies). Once on the platform, they are enticed to share more and more data, by prompts to update their profile information, or through products such as the friendship anniversaries, the Facebook memories or the year in review.


Then, users are enrolled in the seduction via the opportunity to connect with former classmate that they have not seen in years; the pressure to accept a colleague’s friend request; or the invitation to join memes like the 10 year challenge.


Next, there is the entrapment. Users may be disenchanted with the Facebook experience, or even disgusted at news of Facebook’s shady activities. However, leaving the platform would mean losing their carefully curated albums, missing out on all the information and entertainment that they get from friends’ updates, or having to create new username and passwords for a variety of services that use Facebook log in.


Lastly, Facebook’s seduction is confirmed via the endorphin releases that they get when their photos are liked, or when they are showered in happy birthday messages from their friends because of the automated reminder, for instance. So, users continue to update their feeds, while continuously being discouraged from revising their privacy setting.


Deighton and Grayson (1995)’s work also shows how difficult it is for seductive relationships to come to an end. The seducing party (in this case, Facebook) will stop only when they ‘cash in’ or, in other words, when they have nothing else to gain from the relationship. The seduced part (i.e., Facebook users) needs to feel that they have been deceived before terminating the relationship – however, human beings generally resist that, as nobody likes to admit to themselves or to others that they have been fooled.


The remaining and most successful option, then, is to forcibly stop the seduction. One example of this is the use of regulation to force cigarette companies to drop their seductive advertising (e.g., remember the Marlboro man?). We are starting to see signs of this, particularly in Europe, with GDPR.


But what else can we do, to help Facebook users see widespread data harvesting for what it is – an act of seduction – and resist it?

One thought on “Data harvesting on social media as seduction

  1. The Deighton and Grayson paper is hugely entertaining: it is well written and has a fascinating dataset, using as it does the transcript of a fraud trial in the US. Their point is that in marketing, strategies that can seem to be deceptive and fraudulent are often more nuanced, and that often as consumers we are complicit in our own deception. Many advertising campaigns for off-road cars like Land Rover or Jeep, for example, allow us to buy into the idea of an outdoor lifestyle we don’t have. We like the idea and although we don’t get the lifestyle we dream about, the gains are maintained because we wanted the car anyway. We just needed the advertiser to give an attractive narrative we could relate to.

    I’ve made this paper the centre of MSc assignments in consumer behaviour in the past and had students explore their own decision making processes. I also found the Deighton and Grayson framework incredibly useful for examining the experiences of people who had been involved in pyramid selling schemes: these are a lot like lotteries, where a very small number of participants make large amounts of money, although most spend slightly more than they earn and then get disillusioned. A significant proportion of respondents in our study admitted that the venture didn’t deliver on the wealth, but noted how the ‘system’ of setting goals in life and following a plan of actions to achieve these, was a useful gain that was sustained when the consensus failed – in other words there were other collateral benefits and many went on to start other businesses.

    Seduction as a concept deserves to be talked about much more than it is, because life’s decisions are often more complex than simple black-and-white, true or false. It is easy to patronise people who are religious, for example, investing time, emotion and money in something that there is no empirical evidence for. These people, though, are happily complicit in their own ‘deception’ and in any case often gain in other real ways such as companionship, self-belief and a feeling that one can have some influence over events that impact on their lives.

    Thank you for reminding me of this piece, Ana. I had forgotten how much fun it was.

    Chadderton, Chloe and Robin Croft (2006), Who is kidding whom? A study of complicity, seduction and deception in the marketplace, Social Responsibility Journal, 2:2 , pp: 207-215,
    Croft, Robin and Dianne Dean and Graham Spickett Jones (1997), Seducing the consumer,
    Proceedings of Academy of Marketing conference, Manchester Metropolitan University, ISBN 0 905304 15 2, pp. 227-243.


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