Location, Location, Location — The Influence of the Digital Marketing Context

Toilet Humor

I have a confession to make. I love toilet-humour. From Richard Prior to South Park, Sarah Silverman to Sacha Baron Cohen, and anything in between, I am a big fan. The raunchier the better, as far as I am concerned. I suppose that growing up listening to standup comedy recordings of Eddie Murphy—at far too young an age, admittedly—had a large effect on my current comedic palette. And from time to time, I feel licensed to infuse friendly dialogue with some off- color jokes...I know that my friends are also fond of the same kind of humor, and that they will appreciate the reference (N.B. I am no Eddie Murphy, but I can practically recite his show, Raw, line by line. Just sayin’.). These ‘vulgarities’ take place in the everyday—at a foot- ball game, walking down the street to Subway, or at the photocopier. But I would never stoop to the profane—even with the same people— during a conversation at church, with my child’s paediatrician, or in the classroom. Why is that?

I certainly do not believe that I am pretending to be someone else at church, that my child’s physician is humor-less, or that the classroom is some sort of sacred space. But the answer is obvious—there are social expectations which dictate which behaviors are acceptable in which contexts, and consciously (and perhaps even subconsciously), people adhere to these expectations by behaving accordingly. That is to say, my proclivity to behave in a certain manner is influenced not only by my personal disposition, but also by the hid- den sways of the situation. In short, context matters!

This idea that context matters is not new to marketers. Research in the social sciences has for decades illuminated the influence which other people have on the things which we think, feel, and ultimately, do. Consequently, marketers invested huge resources to exploit this influence, in service of achieving their marketing objectives.

For example, the internet has democratized creativity, and in turn birthed a cadre of amateur content creators (Youtube and Instagram stars, for example) who have amassed large populations of followers. In many instances, these creators have attracted and, perhaps more importantly, influenced millions of people. Marketers court these creators with big pay-cheques, hoping to benefit from the influence which they have over their followers. The outcome is the new sub- genre of ‘influencer marketing’, replete with its own conferences, agencies, and business models. For marketers, influence is hot.

With all this enthusiasm for and investment in influence, there- fore, it is surprising to us that marketers have paid such little heed to the influence of the context. Indeed, channelling our inner Marshall McLuhan who coined the phrase “The medium is the message.”, we wonder why more marketers have not considered the influence which the marketing context has on people. The marketing context, like that of a church, physician’s office, or classroom, undoubtedly has its own communicative powers and hidden forces which guide our cognitions, affects, and behaviors. Psychologist and author of Situations Matter, Sam Sommers, summed it up well: “Just like the museum visitor pays little heed to the painting’s frame, we fail to notice the impact of outside influences on our innermost thoughts and instincts.” In turns out that the frame means a lot.

This a-ha creates a great opportunity for marketers to not only engage influencers who deliver messages on behalf of the brand mark, but also engineer the marketing context in ways which influence customer cognitions, affects, and behaviors. Consider the inherent wisdom in the old real-estate chestnut of fresh-baked cookies in show houses. And what about the effect which clean toilets have on customers’ evaluation of restaurant quality.

Life is not constrained to the physical world, however; people also live in a ‘digital world’. Indeed, more and more time is spent searching the internet, pouring over blogs, and updating social media sites. Here we will explore the digital marketing context. It begins by discussing defaults—the pre-established factors in a digital space. It then investigates the semiotics (the meanings) of digital ‘signs and symbols’. This continues by examining the placement, or spacial arrangement, in a digital space. Finally, it underlines the importance of cultural nuances in the digital marketing context.

Defaults: The Condition Set by Pre-Established Factors

You have waited and waited, with Monk-like patience, and now it is finally here...the new iPhone with all the latest bells and whistles! After wading through the seemingly endless queue at the Apple Store, you finish the transaction with the sales representative, and the phone is now yours. Oh, happy day! You arrive home, unwrap the meticulously designed packaging, walk through the user-friendly activation, and turn your new iPhone on for the first time. The device illuminates, and you find yourself on the home screen with 22 mobile apps, beautifully laid out, just waiting to be explored. Which apps do you see? Or, better put, whose apps do you see?

Of course, the 22 apps which you see first are all products of Apple, the maker of the iPhone. It is no wonder that Apple would de- sign your first home screen experience to be made up of Apple apps exclusively. Because the apps to which you are introduced first are the apps which you are more likely to use first, and also most often. Sure, iPhone users can go to the App Store (another Apple product) to obtain other (non-Apple) apps, but that takes effort. Like most things, people tend to take the path of least resistance. Thus, the pre-established factors which we experience in a digital space—the defaults— can have a tremendous impact on our behavior.

Designers have been leveraging the influence of defaults for ages, and marketers can stand to benefit from similar thinking. This influence can be seen in both offline and online experiences. Consider the differences between a traditional, paper-filled diary and Facebook. On the surface there are plenty of similarities between the two con- texts. People commit their feelings, experiences, and happenings in a form of syntax which documents their life and the people around them. Obvious medium differences aside, the defaults play a large role in how users behave when engaging with these outlets. In its default condition, the diary is literally kept under lock and key, signaling that its contents are meant to be kept private and only shared with discriminating bias. Surely, a diary is not meant for everyone, and if its owner decides to disclose its secrets, unquestionably this is a special occasion, and consequently ought to be treated as such.

Facebook’s default, on the other contrary, has a public setting which signals that its contents are meant for everybody. Of course, this is desirable to Facebook. The more people share, the more compelling the platform becomes. Inactivity makes a ‘social’ environment less attractive. Who likes a party when no one is dancing? Same thing here. The more active the platform—that is to say, the more people share—the more attractive Facebook becomes. Facebook’s defaults, therefore, are set to encourage this behavior. While users do have the ability to set their profile to private, or to restrict access to their con- tent for selected individuals, the majority of users do not go through the hassle. Defaults prevail.

The inconvenient steps which are necessary to keep Facebook content private create the perfect barrier to doing so, and consequently influence behavior toward Facebook’s desired outcome to share publicly. This is especially critical for marketers, because the core function of the discipline is to influence behavior. Drink this, not that. Buy these shoes, not those shoes. Vote for this candidate, not that candidate. Marketers, therefore, ought to pay more attention to designing defaults, especially because the more complex it is for people to alter the defaults, the more influential the defaults become. Indeed, the more hoops though which people must jump, the more they rely on the status quo...on the defaults.

This notion was illuminated vividly in research by Eric Johnson and Daniel Goldstein (2003) who explored variation in organ donation decisions. The researchers collected data from driver’s license renewal offices in a number of European countries, in order to quantify the participation rate of citizens in their national organ donation pro- grammes. The results were startling.

The group of countries on the left had very low donation participation. In the case of Denmark, for example, less than 5% of citizens were willing to donate their organs in the event of a deadly accident. Contrast that with the group of countries on the right, which saw organ donation consent rates approaching 100%. What explains the sharp contrast?

One might hypothesis that this contrast was due to cultural differences. Perhaps the countries on the right are more altruistic than the countries on the left. This hypothesis, however, was immediately challenged when considering the cultural similarities between Germany and Austria, for example, or between Sweden and Denmark.

The explanation for the contrast, however, was such simpler. Johnson and Goldstein found that the reason for country differences in proclivity to donate organs had nothing to do with altruism, and every- thing to do with the form at the driver’s license renewal office. In- deed, those countries which had low organ donation consent rates had renewal forms which required residents to ‘opt-in’. Citizens did not check the box, and, by default, consent was not given. Those countries which had high organ consent rates, on the contrary, had ‘opt-out’ renewal forms. Citizens did not check the box and, by default, consent was given. The defaults, it appears, are highly influential!

With an understanding of the influence of defaults, therefore, marketers can design marketing contexts whose defaults influence behavior toward a desired outcome. One of our favorite examples of this in practice was seen in Panama City, whose city officials needed some ‘persuasion’ to repair the pervasive and pesky potholes through- out the city. We live in Michigan which, despite its self-proclaimed title of automotive capital of the world, is notorious for its potholes. And like many Michiganders, the residents of Panama City had fallen victim to the ramifications of driving over these structural flaws in the streets: shredded tires, broken wheels, and a host of other vehicular and corporal damage. But rather than report the potholes to their city officials in an effort to get the streets repaired, the residents of Panama City took no action...other than complain incessantly to their friends and families.

In stepped a Panamanian advertising agency and a local news show, Telemetro Reporta, which together decided to change the de- fault of driving in Panama City by creating El Hueco Twitero (The Tweeting Pothole). Targeting the busiest streets of Panama City, the agency and Telemetro installed devices inside a number of potholes which tweeted a complaint automatically to the Twitter account of the Department of Public Works, when a driver traversed the pothole. This new contextual default allowed drivers to continue with their current behavior, but with a secondary outcome. Not surprisingly, after more and more tweets began to accumulate—and the news show covered the on-going frustration of Panama City drivers—potholes started dis- appearing. It demonstrates the power which marketers wield to effectuate behavioral change by manipulating the marketing context—in this case, by resetting the defaults, which in turn re-set human agency.

Semiotics: The Condition Set by Implicit Meaning

Signs are everywhere: that “Do not disturb” announcement on an office door, cloudy skies in the late Spring, or police tape surrounding a grassy knoll. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Peirce, and other semioticians, social meaning is conveyed through signs...linguistic or otherwise. That is to say, the human condition is largely symbolic.

Formally, semiotics is the study of semiosis, or the production of meaning through signs. In his seminal 1966 work Course on General Linguistics, Swiss linguist de Saussure suggested that any sign is comprised of three inter-linked elements: 1. the ‘referent’ (the object to which the signifier refers), 2. the ‘signifier’ (the word, symbol, or other communicative device which refers to the object), and 3. the ‘signified’ (the conceptual meaning or sense made of the signifier). Consider a red rose, for example. The referent is the rose itself. The signifier is the image of a red rose or the words ‘red rose’. The signified is love or passion.

Signs are ubiquitous, and people often fail to realize that social meaning is symbolic nature. Moreover, they rarely — if ever — consider the effortlessness with which these meanings are interpreted. For example, imagine that you passed a person in uniform whose left jacket breast was adorned with a plethora of colored ribbons and metals. Without thinking, you would presume that the person is from the military, is a decorated hero, and is probably someone of high stature who deserves your respect. And as such, you would act accordingly, despite any affiliation with the armed services. It is this mean- ing-making which is the core of semiotics.

Signs, however, also have a cognative effect. Indeed, humans interpret meaning from signs, but they are also triggered to act in response to the signs. Imagine that you are in the swankiest part of the city, treating yourself to a night on the town with a visit to the newest dance club which is all the rage. As you approach the club, you can hear the bass of the dance music thumping. There are two bouncers standing at the entrance of the club, granting and denying access, thereby providing the perfect tension of popularity and exclusivity. Two queues have formed, one to the left of the bouncers and another to the right of the bouncers. The two queues look identical, except one queue is corralled by red, velvet ropes which are suspended by shiny, metallic stanchions. Which queue would you join? Our bet is that you would not join the roped-off queue, because the red, velvet ropes communicate exclusivity (unless, of course, you think that those two bouncers will vouch for you as VIP). Signs have meaning; but they also induce behavior.

We also see semiotics at play in marketing. Consider the quick service restaurant (QSR) Subway, for example. Before Subway entered the sandwich business, the status quo for most QSR restaurants was for customers to place their orders at the register, and then wait for pick-up while cooks prepared the food in the hidden-away ‘back- stage’. That the food preparation happened out of sight raised doubt and speculation around the order accuracy, the cleanliness of the prep area, and the integrity of the food.

Juxtapose this to Subway, however, in which customers’ orders are both placed and prepared in front of their eyes, behind a glass counter. And that glass counter conveys transparency, leaving no doubt about the veracity of the sandwich or its production value— what you see is what you get! The glass counter also gives Subway a ‘license’ to boast a healthy alternative to fast food. And thanks to the help of a spokesman’s radical weight loss story, the people came in droves. The semiotics of the Subway environment changed people’s expectation of QSR restaurants, and have since ignited the rise of other competitors which have emulated a similar physical (and semiotic) design.

Semiotics are not limited to the physical world, of course. Au contraire, signs also materialize in digital space. On Facebook, for example, brand marks are constantly serving up (commercial) messages which disrupt the stories and photos from our friends and families. I once received a message which claimed “Someone you know and possibly others like this brand.” The semiotics of this message connote that my friends like this, so I also ought to like it. But it is not just any friend, but Damon Williams who likes it, and who, in my mind, is a snazzy dresser. Consequently, I check it out. This sign serves as a stamp of approval. Indeed, when friends like something, it lowers resistance it, and, consequently, we are more inclined to adopt it. The signs sway behavior!

Marketing-engineered signs like this can also have power, even if the signs are communicated by strangers. Recall a recent search for a video on Youtube, the top two results of which had identical descriptors and thumbnails. The only difference is that one video has 700 views and the other has 8,000,000 views. Which do you click? Of course, you choose to watch the video with 8,000,000 views. Why? Because 8,000,000 people cannot be incorrect. The view count on Youtube acts as a public progress bar, conveying the message that this video is the one which everyone is watching. Again, this is the potential of semiotics in marketing.

Armed with this understanding of semiotics, therefore, marketers can design marketing contexts in order to influence people to take action. One of our favorite examples of semiotics in practice took place at the Oldenplan subway station in Stockholm, Sweden. Like most subway stops, the escalator to exit the station is over-used, because for most passengers an escalator is more compelling than the stairs. Re- member, people tend to take the path of least resistance. How might a marketer shift the environment using semiotics to encourage people to take the stairs instead? At the time, Volkswagen was in the midst of its Fun Theory campaign which hinges on the notion that if something is fun, people will be inclined to do it. Unbeknownst to Stockholm commuters, Volkswagen outfitted the stairs of the Oldenplan subway station with piano keys which emitted sound when stepped on (Think Tom Hanks in the movie Big.); each stair tread activated a piano key. Come the next morning, commuters faced a choice — take the boring escalator, as they normally did, or take the newly-minted piano stairs. It ought not to be surprising that most people took the stairs...66% more than usual, in fact. The semiotics of the piano stairs signaled to subway passengers that the stairs were fun, despite— even because of —the effort it took to climb them.

Placement: The Condition Set by Spacial Arrangement

There are no certainties in life, except death and taxes. So goes the old saying. But here in the United States, there is seemingly one other bankable fact — that in a grocery store, the milk will always be at the back of the grocery store. Nope, not in the middle, and certainly not in the front...always in the back. And grocers have made this design choice for one simple reason—that milk is among the most frequently-purchased items in grocery stores. Grocers, therefore, place milk in the back of the grocery store so that shoppers must wander through aisles of other (often higher profit margin) products in order to collect their dairy staple. And consequently, instead of only buying milk, shoppers often leave with a basket brimming with unplanned purchases. The placement of things in the marketing context has the ability to shape human behavior...many times with them being un- aware.

Consider this other more extreme example. It is 1952, and Carnegie Hall is jam-packed. Everyone is waiting with bated breath to see and hear the famed experimental composer John Cage debut his newest piece. People are dressed to the nines and expectations are high. Cage walks on stage, sits at the piano, and begins to play 4’33”. It is his most daring work yet. But as you read this, if you listen very carefully, you can also hear Cage’s composition. How so? Because 4’33” is actually 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence...total, absolute silence. If you were reading the sheet music to the piece, you would see measure after measure of notational rests.

Perhaps the shocking thing about 4’33” is that people not only dressed up and paid top dollar to hear silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, they loved it! Indeed, it became John Cage’s most significant work. It has since been performed by a variety of musicians, from gui- tarist Frank Zappa to the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And 4’33” is now for sale on iTunes as a digital download...with a 4 out of 5 stars rating. 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence!

The key to understanding the example is in its placement. That 4’33” was performed at Carnegie Hall means that it must be art. That it was catalogued and archived on musical notation paper means that it must be real. That it is available on iTunes means that it must be mu- sic. The placement of this ‘musical’ piece influences how people per- ceive it, and, ultimately, how they behave with respect to it.

And as before, placement applies to both the physical and digital worlds—in both offline and online marketing contexts. Consider email, for example. If your name is in the ‘To’ line, it most definitely means “This is for you.”. And as such, you behave accordingly...by responding to the email, for example. If your name is in the ‘Cc’ line, however, it means “Heads up, or FYI.”. After you read the email, you might chime in with a response, or not at all. Either option is accept- able. But if your name is in the ‘Bcc’ line, then the message is clear — “Ooh, watch this! It is gonna be good.” This email is not really for you, but I the sender letting you know that something is going on. You definitely will not respond to the email, because you would be disclosing a secret. The placement changes everything.

Marketers can exploit this notion of placement, therefore, with purposeful design of the placement of marketing vehicles within the marketing context. Think billboard advertisements, those ubiquitous marketing communications which appear in high traffic areas of many major cities which, and which for many people are irksome and, more often, completely ignored...and consequently ineffective in terms of marketing spend. IBM’s recent campaign to make ‘smarter cities’, however, leveraged the placement of its billboards in order to catch the attention of passersby, to reduce their negative sentiment, and ultimately to reinforce the core marketing message that IBM technology can help make smarter cities. So, that which was once a flat billboard on the side of a building can become a shelter from the rain or a seat for the weary. Placement matters.

Nuances: The Condition Set by the Cultural Backdrop

In January 1964, Bobby Vinton’s rendition of There! I’ve Said It Again reached #1 on the Billboard 100, remaining at the top spot for four weeks. Vinton’s velvety voice captured the sonic silhouette of contemporary American society at the time...at least until four lads from Liverpool disrupted it with their raw energy, cheekiness, and, well, hair. Indeed, that February, The Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand rocketed to #1, usurping Vinton, and changing society forever.

The shock which was The Beatles’, however, was for many, er, shocking. The Chicago Tribune quipped that “The Beatles must be a huge joke, a wacky gag, a gigantic put-on.” Ditto The Boston Globe: “The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful.“ Even Elvis chimed in, lamenting that “The Beatles laid the groundwork for many of the problems we are having with you people today by their filthy unkempt appearances and suggestive music.” How could they have missed something which would become so salient in society at that time—and in decades to come? The answer is obvious to us—that predicting societal change requires an intimate understanding of culture. Indeed, the marketing context also serves as a cultural backdrop whose nuances influence behavior.

Culture is one of those words which is bandied about, but which is seldom understood. This is not surprising, considering both the in- tangible nature of culture and its relatively loose quotidian use in colloquial language. Indeed, people talk about culture all the time, drop- ping the term alongside media, pop, and celebrity. Or consider the way in which recruiters tout their fun or familial office culture...which usually means very simply having a foosball table in the kitchen, or offering summer Friday gatherings. Despite the prevalence of culture, and the conversations thereof, there is a broad deficiency in our ability to talk about culture in a sophisticated manner.

More concretely, therefore, anthropologists define culture as the amalgam of four elements of a society: beliefs (values and principles), artifacts (tools, clothing, music, poetry, etc.), behaviors (norms and rituals), and language (lexicon, dialect, vernacular). This makes sense intuitively, when you think of culture as it pertains to a nation. But perhaps less intuitively, culture also applies to societal sub-groups— micro-cultures. Consider yoga enthusiasts, for example, who share a common set of beliefs about yoga, yogis, and other derivative terms; who have similar artifacts like yoga mats and yoga pants; whose behaviors (dietary routines) overlap; and who use the same language (namaste and the downward dog).

These four elements have a normative effect on people; they serve as unspoken rules which keep members of a society in lockstep. That is to say, in order to remain as members in good standing in society, people adopt the societal beliefs, don the artifacts, adhere to the behaviors, and use the language, the ultimate purpose (and outcome) of which is to be ‘normal’.

And of course, these cultural elements and their normalizing effects manifest themselves in both the physical and digital worlds — in both offline and online marketing contexts. In Facebook, for example, it is perfectly acceptable for people to post anything and everything under the sun: yesterday’s evening snack, the movie which they are currently watching, or the horrible rash which suddenly appeared. Any of these posts, however, would be unacceptable in LinkedIn, whose beliefs, artifacts, behaviors, and language are ‘controlled’ by different societal norms. Notably, although in many cases the same people who post on Facebook also ‘reside’ on LinkedIn, they are able to code switch in order to abide by the cultural norms of the different online societies.

It ought to be obvious, therefore, that understanding a society, and subsequently predicting changes in it, requires a sensitivity to the nuances of these four elements. This sensitivity, however, implies intimacy...something which is natural if you are a member of the society, but which is limited or altogether lacking when you are an out- sider, a stranger, an alien. Herein lays the challenge but also the opportunity for marketers — with an understanding of the cultural nuances of a society, marketers can design marketing vehicles in subtle ways which align and resonate with societal norms.

A good example of this in practice centers on the notion of ‘First- World Problems’, the term which is given to things about which people in wealthier countries complain, but which only people of privilege would see as an annoyance or inconvenience. You know, when your phone charger will not reach your bed, for example, or when you ask for no pickles but your hamburger still comes with pickles. Twitter, which is to some degree a measure or mirror of the cultural zeit- geist, is replete with these absurdities, many of which are punctuated with the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems.

As benign as these grumblings might be on the surface, they be- come increasingly uncomfortable for the privileged people when they are juxtaposed with the disparity of wealth across the globe. The WATERisLIFE organization, a non-profit entity whose mission is to pro- vide clean drinking water to under-privileged communities, leveraged this cultural nuance in a campaign which enlisted victims of the horrific 2010 Haitian earthquake to recite some of the most ridiculous #FirstWorldProblem tweets. Imagine a young man, for example, standing in front of a dilapidated, tin-roofed shack saying, “I hate it when my house is so big I need two wireless routers”. The contrast between the cultural lexicon which is used in the advertisement, and the young man’s living conditions, is so striking that viewers cannot help but question the degree to which they take things for granted. The WATERisLife advertisement was viewed more than 8 million times.

Jerome McCarthy

In his now 1960 classic Basic Marketing: A Managerial Approach, Jerome McCarthy introduced the now famous 4 Ps frame- work: product, price, place, and promotion. The idea was simple—that marketers, when going to market, must mange these four elements. Over time, the 4 Ps became known as the marketing mix, intimating that marketers, like cooks, have four ingredients to mix together in their commercial (culinary) concoction. Some marketers also use the term ‘controllables’, referring to the 4 Ps as the levers which marketers can pull when going to market. We have come to think of the 4 Ps as a company’s performance on the (front) stage, which demarcates marketing very clearly from the other functions of the company (ac- counting, finance, and human resources, for example) which occur in the company’s backstage, away from the customer’s eyes.

The secondary benefit of treating the 4 Ps as the performance on the (front) stage, is that it also points to the stage itself as a controllable feature of marketing. That is to say, this theatrical metaphor emphasis that marketers can control both the 4 Ps and the marketing context. In this chapter we have argued that this marketing context is comprised of four conditions: 1. defaults—the pre-established factors in a digital space; 2. semiotics (the meanings) of digital ‘signs and symbols’; 3. placement, or spacial arrangement, in a digital space; and 4. cultural nuances in the digital marketing context. Understanding these conditions enables marketers to design marketing contexts in order to influence people toward desired cognitive, affective, and behavioral outcomes.



  • de Saussure, F. Course in General Linguistics. Translated by: Baskin, W. New York, USA: McGraw Hill Book, 1966.
  • Johnson, E., & D. Goldstein. “Defaults and Donation Decisions.” Transplantation, Vol. 78, 2004, pp. 1713-1716.