I’m not here to be a whistleblower. I’m not going to tell you how bad pre-order and hype culture is for us, the consumers. There are plenty of people more articulate than I who have said as much at length and I have no desire to beat that horse any further, regardless of how lively it continues to whinny.
Instead, I’m simply going to provide you with the facts. We all know marketing schemes are playing us like puppets. I’m just going to walk you through the machine and let you come to your own conclusions.
You’re probably familiar with the natural desire to want what you can’t have. While I’d love to provide scientific evidence of this phenomenon, there isn’t any. I don’t know if that’s because the idea is so generally accepted or because Pepsi paid more to beat Coke this time, but I think we’re all familiar with the natural humanistic need to want for things that are just outside our grasp.
This is where the machine starts.
Have you ever asked yourself why a video game company or movie studio announces projects years before they’re made? Why they hold conferences and conventions focused solely on telling you about new products that aren’t going to be available for months or sometimes years?
There are a few reasons doing this plays in a company’s favor.
- It allows them to judge a product’s potential market value before dumping a ton of money into a risky proposition.
- It shares information with and reassures stock holders that the company’s future is bright.
- It primes customers.
In psychological terms, priming is when the implicit memory of one stimulus influences the response of a later stimulus.
Let’s say you’re a fan of the Halo gaming franchise.
While watching or attending E3, one of the biggest gaming conventions on the planet, the company behind Halo announces they’re making a brand new game that’s a lot like Halo – we’ll call it ‘Destiny’.
The announcement isn’t just some schmuck saying, “We’re making a game called Destiny.” It’s a spectacle of flashing lights and fast paced music where the developers talk about their vision of the game, how it’s going to be bigger and better than Halo ever was. They essentially say all the things you want to hear, describing the greatest gaming experience you could ever think of.
No gameplay footage is shown. They may provide a few screens of concept art but the game isn’t set to come out for another 18 months. They haven’t really given you anything other than nice description but that’s all they needed to do.
You’ve just made a memory, pairing the feeling of excitement with a video game called Destiny that doesn’t remotely exist. It’s a meaningless theoretical construct but now every time you hear about Destiny you’re going to remember that feeling and get excited.
Congratulations! The hype train just left the station.
The Simplicity of Hype
Now you want something that doesn’t exist and the scenario is going to play out one of two ways.
- You slowly forget about the game.
- You become obsessed with it.
It doesn’t really matter whether you become an obsessive fan or not. Sure it’s better for the company, but you’ve already been primed regardless. Now they just have to reinforce that stimulus and build on what the initial announcement created.
This is the “hype train” in a nutshell. It’s meant to make you want something that’s unattainable and to constantly keep it in the back of your mind.
The primary purpose of hype culture is prepare a large group of consumers for consumption. It’s preparing audiences to buy as soon as the product hit shelves.
The bigger the budget, the longer the hype train. More expensive products are announced earlier than those with smaller budgets because they have to sell more to recoup their production costs and turn a profit. These products also have larger marketing budgets, meaning they can naturally afford to hype consumers more than their competitors.
That’s all there is to it. Announce, prime, wait a bit and repeat. It’s all meant to prepare you for the next part of the machine, pre-ordering.
The Sinister Complexity of Pre-Orders
Hype culture really isn’t that bad. It keeps fans excited for the future, let’s them know there’s even going to be a future, and gives them talking points to discuss during dry spells when new product releases are few and far between.
The reason many of us have grown to despise hype culture is because of how it ties into its older brother – pre-orders.
The core concept of pre-orders is inherently a good idea. It comes down to a simple solution of supply and demand. Companies don’t want to produce an excessive supply of a new product and end up with millions of dollars of stock left over that no one’s willing to buy, but they also don’t want to sell out severely and upset customers by forcing them to wait. Pre-orders let a company know just how much supply they need to have in order to meet demand at launch.
For a while pre-orders served their purpose and were largely just an option die-hard fans could take advantage of to ensure future gratification. Then marketing specialists started to see a pattern. The more they hyped a product, the more pre-orders they received. The market took a turn for the worst when these specialists realized they could use this formula to make an entire product’s budget back at launch, before word-of-mouth ever became a factor in whether a product failed or succeeded.
Thus pre-orders stopped being a nicety and became a marketing tool.
Getting a Foot in the Door
Pre-orders largely work by using the foot-in-the-door phenomenon to their advantage. They ask you to pay a little money up-front to reserve an upcoming product, which doesn’t seem like a strange request. You’re just being asked to show that you actually intend to purchase the product. However, this is actually using a common, well-known psychological phenomenon and sales tactic..
Anyone who’s worked in sales for any length of time can tell you how the foot-in-the-door technique works. I was using it to sell newspaper subscriptions door-to-door when I was 13 years-old. I didn’t knock on a door as say, “Hey, do you want the newspaper?” I asked smaller questions first, like “It’s pretty hot out today isn’t it?” Or whenever I saw sports flags and decorations I’d say, “You’re a _______ fan too?!”
The point is to get a small positive response first, even if it’s a yes to something as simple as “Can I ask you a question?” You get the customer to agree to small request in order to better your chances of them agreeing to a larger request.
In sales we called this yessing your way through a no.
In 1966, Stanford researchers Johnathan Freedman and Scott Fraser published a study called “Compliance Without Pressure: The Foot-in-the-Door Technique”. Based around the idea of the foot-in-the-door technique, the researchers conducted two separate experiments.
The first experiment consisted of four groups of women, three of which were called and asked to provide information over the phone about their household products. Three days later the researchers called all four groups, the three previously contacted and the fourth that hadn’t yet been spoken to, and asked if they could send a group of men to their homes to physically catalogue their household products.
52.8% of the women who answered the questions over the phone also agreed to allow the men to stop by. Only 22.2% of the women who were only asked the large request accepted. The study essentially showed that people were twice as likely to agree to a larger request after being asked and complying with a smaller request.
Testing the technique again, Freedman and Fraser randomly selected four new groups of men and women and decided to take their experiment door-to-door. They knocked on the door of the first three groups and asked each person if they’d place a small sign on their home or in their car. Two weeks later they went to the homes of all four groups, the last of which hadn’t received any sort of previous contact, and asked them to place a large, obtrusive billboard in their yards that was similar to the small sign. Again people were twice as likely to agree to the larger request if they previously accepted the smaller request.
The five or ten dollars you put down on a pre-order is a small request that readies you for the larger request of buying the entire game at launch. Does it ensure every person who pre-orders will also buy the game? No, but it makes the possibility much more likely and drives launch day sales.
Once you put down that $5 the question isn’t “Why should I buy ______?” Instead you find yourself asking “Why Not?” And it’s much easier to say yes to the latter.
Putting It All Together
It starts with the hype train making you want what you can’t have while associating positive thoughts with their product, like the totally “hypothetical” Destiny video game we talked about earlier. Then, before the game is even complete, and well before anyone gets to see the final product, the publisher says, “Remember that game you want? You can guarantee receiving your copy at launch for only $5!”
Triggering the response stimulus they started building back when the game was first announced, you think, “Oh yea! That game sounds awesome. I definitely want to get it.” So you put down a little bit of money and accept the company’s small request.
You’re on the hook now. They don’t have to sell you anymore. The company in question just has to not fuck up before launch to get the rest of the money.
Keep in mind, we haven’t even touched on the pre-order bonuses and incentives that push even more people towards pre-orders and compound the issue even further. Remember, you’re twice as likely to make the purchase if they can get a little money early. Do I really have to explain how much more manipulative the system is with bonuses?
One of the biggest crimes committed by hype and pre-order culture is the confirmation bias it breeds.
People hate to have their beliefs challenged or proven wrong. They hate it so much in fact that it’s one of the most common reasons for war and genocide.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret and prefer information that confirms your own personally held beliefs while ignoring information that contradicts them.
While not as radically held as religious beliefs, we all like to think that our purchase decisions are warranted – that we’re right to spend money the way we do.
To continue using our “hypothetical” Destiny example, instead of searching for “Destiny reviews” someone experiencing confirmation bias will search “Is Destiny Good?” Seems harmless enough, but look a little closer at the search terms being used. Which is more likely to find positive or “good” reviews?
These same people will often defend their purchase to their dying breath, constantly citing the few positives of the product while brushing off negative aspects as “not that bad” or saying they’ve “seen worse”.
The innate desire for confirmation bias only gets stronger as the hype train gains longevity and the amount of biased people grows as pre-order numbers rise. These people point to one-another to prove their views, creating a group of people who point at each other saying, “I’m not the only one who likes it. He likes it too.”
In the end, consumers get duped into buying a product at launch that they’re naturally more inclined to like regardless of the product’s overall quality. The publishing company turns a profit on day one of launch and laughs their way to the bank despite how good or bad the product actually turned out.
This means quality isn’t a priority. All a company has to do is meagerly apologize if consumers aren’t happy with the end result and focus on pre-selling them the next product coming down the pipeline. They’re already ensured there’s going to be a sect of mindless zombies with confirmation bias who will defend their product anyway, which diminishes the blowback they might feel if the product (*cough* Destiny *cough*) turns out to be less than they originally promised.
That’s how it works from start to finish. Announce, hype, repeat. Is this blatant anti-consumer system something you really want to support? The decision, as always, is ultimately up to you.