Placebos and Advertising

It isn’t just that expensive wine is more enjoyable, but actually paying more for wine makes it more enjoyable. Researchers from CalTech and Stanford found that the brain’s pleasure centre has more activity when tasting $90 wine compared with $10 wine, even when it is exactly the same wine.

I find it amazing that the brain has such sway over the body, but it’s something that the advertising industry has known for ages.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, I first read about the work of Louis Cheskin, whose work in advertising since the 1930s was revolutionary. His theory of sensation transference was used to design product packaging that would change the way people felt about, and even experienced the product. In one example with underarm deodorants, Cheskin sent the same identical formulation to testers in three different packs with unique colour schemes. The testers consistently reported differences in fragrance and effectiveness, and one colour scheme even resulted in rashes. Cheskin’s consultancy group was named the Color Research Institute, for obvious reasons.

So, given this background, I shouldn’t have been surprised by a recent article in Wired Magazine on placebos. It reported that the “placebo effect” is not a single effect at all, and using different colours or shapes of a pill can make that pill more or less effective in its treatment, even if that pill is just a sugar pill. In other words, the packaging of drugs, whether it is the form of the pills, or the design of the box, or how the medical practitioner gives it to a patient, can change how well a drug works.

While the placebo effect is associated with snake oil, it is considered to operate equally on legitimate drugs. That’s why in clinical trials, the main hurdle is to achieve levels of effectiveness higher than a placebo. But since the placebo effect itself can be made stronger or weaker, or achieve particular effects, you could imagine a trial where the placebo is chosen to have a weak effect so the drug stands a better chance of succeeding at trial. In fact, the Wired article claims that the placebo effect has become stronger recently, making it harder for drug trials to succeed. I can see a more worthwhile application of the placebo effect being to tailor packaging so that not only does it add to the drug’s effectiveness, but may even offset side-effects.

Perhaps in the future, the list of active ingredients on a drug’s packaging will also need to include aspects of the packaging like colour or shape. I may choose to avoid my paracetamol tablets if they are blue because it upsets my stomach. However, there’s one piece of information that’s already on the packaging that may yet be proven to work for other drugs (as it works for alcohol): the price.

And I will leave you with the thought that if more expensive drugs turn out to be more effective (purely on that basis), then may heavy subsidies of certain drugs be causing more harm than good?

Google AdSense update

It has been a few months since I last wrote about the Google ads on this blog. After a couple of false starts, I’ve been tracking the main pages that have ads people click on. The idea is to see if the most popular pages are also the most profitable pages.

The most popular pages since 1st June have been, in order:

This is very similar to last time, with the investment book reviews replaced with a recipe. Apparently there are more cooks reading, than books cooking. They don’t come here for the puns, that’s for sure.

The analysis of top search terms (courtesy of Google Analytics) is also similar to last time. The top four terms are:

  • “best man speech”
  • “cheesecake recipe”
  • “baklava recipe”
  • “positive gearing”

Variants of these are repeated until position 12 which is “auction strategy”, and it is position 27 before we get to “hreview”. Unfortunately, microformats are still not particularly popular.

But the list you’ve all been waiting for is the most profitable pages (i.e. those where people click on the ads the most). These are:

So, it’s still the popular pages (and, oddly, my About page), and the four most-searched for topics are also profitable, but the order is different. It seems that the message from my advertisers is that I should write more about real estate and baking.

Be careful what you wish for.

Google sends me cheques

GoogleOkay, they’re not very big cheques, but the ads on this site apparently get clicked on by enough people that Google sends me cheques. Okay, only one cheque so far. It was for $120.47 – that’s enough to pay for my hosting fees.

Although, I hear you asking, how can an obscure personal blog get enough visits – let alone clicks – for Google ads to work? This is an obvious question, with a pretty interesting answer, that if I have it right, suggests that web ads are a special case of search ads.

A quick tutorial. Google has two advertising programs: AdSense and AdWords. AdWords enables advertisers to submit ads that are displayed against particular words or search terms (e.g. “negative gearing”). AdSense enables web page authors/publishers to give-up space on their pages for ads to shown. Google matches the AdWords advertisers with AdSense publishers in order to maximise the chance of visitors clicking on the ads.

I am a member of the AdSense program, but it’s really token involvement. You’ll see only a single text-based ad block, capable of showing two ads, on any page. I’m not exactly running an advertising honey-pot, here.

However, apparently certain pages on this site are popular enough to attract a significant amount of traffic. The top pages are (in order):

Now, I haven’t run the stats (yet), but of the above, the only pages with ads that seem likely to generate clicks are the Best Man Speech, Cheesecake Recipe, Positive Gearing Analysis and Investment Book Reviews. These aren’t pages that change at all often, so it’s not my regular readers (!) who are clicking on those ads. I think this is the norm for blogs – it’s not the regular readers generating advertising revenue.

The ad revenue comes from those who arrive on the site via web searches. Near 80% of all visits come from search engines. The top search terms of visitors are:

  • “best man speech”, “best man speeches”, and “bestman speeches”
  • “cheesecake recipe” and “cheesecake recipes”
  • “positive gearing”

Those terms account for a third of all search visitors, and there are several other variants of those. What it strongly suggests is that there are people searching for particular terms, and instead of clicking on the paid ads in the search results they click on a link to one of my pages. And then, once they’ve arrived on one of my pages, they click on a paid ad.

One explanation is that the pages on my blog provide a type of advertising filter. Perhaps the search engine , say Google, is not able to fine-tune the paid ads when all it has to go on is the term “best man speech”, but when Google can utilise all of the words in one of my pages, it does much better. So much so that people click first on a real page, not as a way of getting everything they want, but as a way of giving Google more information on what they’re after.

And a diversity of topics on a blog lends itself to being used by Google in this way. Typically a blog will focus on a single topic and build up a readership that is strongly interested in that topic. But those readers aren’t likely to be clicking on ads anyway. So my atypical approach of rambling wildly about many things doesn’t build up much of a readership, but it does enable Google to use my content to optimise its ads and hence pay me a small commission when people click on them.