WILLFUL IGNORANCE – Power, A Marketer Can’t Ignore (Part -2)

“The Power of Willful Ignorance Cannot be Overstated” – Kate Miles.

In the previous article (Willful Ignorance – Part 1) we barely scratched the surface of what ‘Willful Ignorance’ is – The behavior of people to intentionally turn their attention away from ethical problems for several reasons. A problem could be so disturbing for people that it would dominate their thoughts or solving it might require extensive efforts. This piece is the 2nd & the final one in which we will be digging a little deeper for its applications in markets.

Food Industry

Without wasting time, let’s fast forward to our first example – food industry marketing. Kate Miles talked about the importance of willful ignorance and its usage to reach the end; if you are not thinking about means.

She started with, “I’m going to give you some of the secrets about how we make you buy; what we want you to buy. So as a marketer, when I’m first given a project, what’s my job? Well, my job is to make you want it, to crave it, to need it, to think that it is the best innovation in food since sliced bread.” It gets creepy from there.

I know! I know! It seems like someone from the darker side of marketing finally listened to her inner voice and decided to tell people what’s actually happening and how is this science of creativity and psychology is being used. Well, there is just one small problem here. The speaker (Kate Miles) in this video is not a marketing consultant but an actress and it was all an act. The film (Secrets of Food Marketing ) was made by Catsnake. Even the audience was acting. But the facts presented are real and the video got more than 8.4 million views up-till now(12th Dec 2017). She said there are three techniques that marketers use:-

  1. Everyone believes what’s on the label
  2. Focus on progress (avoid the truth and make it look like progress is being made)
  3. You (the power of willful ignorance! – everyone is prepared to look the other way)

Think about the last part “Everyone is prepared to look the other way” and keep asking – “Is it so?” Do people consciously remain willfully ignorant when it comes to buying something important? Could it be that sometimes they fall in love with it and knowing things like production history, supply chain, and ethics take the back seat so that they could protect their feelings?

Let’s move on to our second case.


Have you ever heard of ‘Conflict Diamonds’ or as some say ‘Blood Diamonds‘? The term was given by the UN to those diamonds which were mined in the areas controlled by rebels and were sold for funding their evil schemes. But people were still buying them. The trick was, the traders were smart enough to hide the ugly side of it. It worked very well even after the people were told upfront about it (whether they choose to ask or not) through various awareness programs and the diamond certification system. Therefore, the same lesson can be observed here as well – Willful Ignorance is exploitable and practically make sense. Marketers know that once an activity becomes a habit, it could turn into a society’s convention very easily. At that point in time, only an extreme external force could change the changed scenario. In this case, sales hit the wall only when the central government was able to take control of such mines from rebels.

Fashion Industry

Finally, the fashion industry!  You are gonna love this one. In 2015 John Oliver from “Last Week Tonight” show, presented that a single American on an average bought 64 items of clothing in 2013 alone. That’s happened because trending clothes are so cheaper that nobody questions why. Here is the 17 minutes watch which explains how companies like GAP, H&M, ZARA, Forever 21, Walmart etc. do this. Apparently, the concept (Willful Ignorance) can be used perfectly in tandem with the clause of plausible deniability. They would say, “Oh! I am so sorry! I didn’t know it was happening behind my back” and then with the help of ad campaigns they can make people forget all about it.


Still, these companies must have spent millions of dollars in settling lawsuits. Take the criminal case of United States of America v. Charles Demore Jewell‘ for example. Mr.Jewell was asked to buy marijuana in a bar along the border of Mexico & United States. After declining, he was asked if he would drive a car across the border for $100. He noticed that there was a concealed compartment in the car but choose not to inspect it. He was later caught by customs for carrying marijuana. On Feb 27, 1976, the court decided – “knowledge is established if a person is aware of a high probability of its existence”. In other words, he couldn’t allege he was ‘deliberately ignorant’.

Psychology Behind It – Market Segment & How to approach them

According to Natural Lefty (Personality Psychologist, Thom Hartmann Program); close-minded, cognitive simple and a fundamentally religious bunch are more likely to engage in the acts of willful ignorance. These would be stupid people but not necessarily lacking the ability to be smart. Take a quick peek for the reasons of willful ignorance:-

  • Religion – Blind Faith!! Eg:- There is no need to think about climate, God will take care of everything.
  • Cognitive Misers – Inherent characteristics of humans of not putting enough intellectual effort if they don’t have to.
  • Conformity – accepting the beliefs of those around you because questioning them would lead to conflict and rejection
  • The pain of Cognitive Dissonance – Admitting one’s mistake and go through the mental discomfort of correcting oneself is not simple.

The above list may not be exhaustive but present the prominent ones.

Julie Irwin (professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin) in a research found out the concept of Cognitive Misers to be actually true and its resultant consequence. She said consumers consider ethical information if it is readily available (such as on the product packaging) but won’t go through the trouble of asking salesman or go looking on the website.

In hers another study, along with Rebecca Walker Reczek (associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business) and Daniel Zane (graduate student at Ohio State’s Fisher College), she also evaluated consequences (or in words, chain reaction) of this willful ignorance. They asked 147 undergraduates to evaluate 4 brands based on 4 attributes – style, wash, price & an ethical issue (whether the company used child labor). They were asked to choose 2 attributes due to time constraints and hence, they had the option to remain willfully ignorant of the 4th attribute. Then to judge the consequence of willful ignorance they asked those who ignored child labor attribute to provide opinions on consumers (purportedly for market segmentation purposes) who use this attribute for the purchase decision. The result is, they judged these ethical consumers more on negative traits and most of them unfairly criticized as odd, boring and less fashionable. This could be due to 2 reasons:- 1st) Cognitive Dissonance & 2nd) they felt threatened for not doing right in the first place and striking back at ethical consumers makes them feel better.

There are many situations where one can see and exploit (by producer or supplier) willful ignorance like sex trade, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy, electricity & water overuse, food wastage, people wearing animal products and buying products having human slavery in the supply chain etc. It could be because of normal behavior or could be due to some extreme emotions on which one may not have any control. Or maybe one would do (ignoring or exploiting) it willingly. Its chain reaction certainly makes things worse for a society but favors marketers exponentially. Some might even say that ignorance is bliss. But it can never be for a society as a whole.

However, we are not here to study the social or cultural change in terms of good or bad.  We are marketing enthusiasts, and remember the first rule of marketing is to satisfy your customers (especially emotionally) better than competitors. From that perspective, I think it’s a power which can’t be ignored. And by looking at so many successful cases I can finally say that it works. So, even if you are marketing a product which can arouse feelings of sadness, anger or guilt into consumers; you don’t have to add any sort of ethical attributes in it. The only thing you need is to sugarcoat it enough so that people can look at it your way. The rest will be taken care of by ignorance.

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