Journal of Marketing Behavior > Vol 1 > Issue 3-4

Fifty Shades of Manipulation

Cass R. Sunstein, Harvard University, USA,
Suggested Citation
Cass R. Sunstein (2016), "Fifty Shades of Manipulation", Journal of Marketing Behavior: Vol. 1: No. 3-4, pp 213-244.

Publication Date: 24 Feb 2016
© 2015 C. R. Sunstein
Behavioral Decision Making
ManipulationNudgeSocial influencesBehavioral economics


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In this article:
1. Introduction 
2. What Manipulation Is 
3. What is Wrong with Manipulation, So Understood? 
4. Consent, Transparency, Democracy 
5. Manipulation, Freedom of Speech, and Consumer Protection 
6. Conclusion 


Both marketers and politicians are often accused of “manipulation”, but the term is far from self-defining. A statement or action can be said to be manipulative if it does not sufficiently engage or appeal to people’s capacity for reflective and deliberative choice. One problem with manipulation, thus understood, is that it fails to respect people’s autonomy and is an affront to their dignity. Another problem is that if they are products of manipulation, people’s choices might fail to promote their own welfare, and might instead promote the welfare of the manipulator. To that extent, the central objection to manipulation is rooted in a version of John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle: People know what is in their best interests and should have a (manipulationfree) opportunity to make that decision. On welfarist grounds, the norm against manipulation can be seen as a kind of heuristic, one that generally works well, but that can also lead to serious errors, at least when the manipulator is both informed and genuinely interested in the welfare of the chooser. For politics and law, a pervasive puzzle is why manipulation is rarely policed. The simplest answer is that manipulation has so many shades, and in a social order that values-free markets and consumer sovereignty, it is exceptionally difficult to regulate manipulation as such. Those who sell products are often engaged in at least arguable forms of manipulation. But as the manipulator’s motives become more self-interested or venal, and as efforts to bypass people’s deliberative capacities become more successful, the ethical objections to manipulation may be very forceful, and the argument for a legal response is fortified. The analysis of manipulation bears on emerging free speech issues raised by compelled disclosure, especially in the context of graphic health warnings. It can also help orient the regulation of financial products, where manipulation of consumer choices is an evident but rarely explicit concern.