The carefully evasive proposal included intriguing tidbits: Jeff Bezos laughed when Mr. Kamen assembled an It for him [. . .] The proposal also included proclamations from tech-world celebrities like Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, that the device might change urban life and could be as significant as the development of the personal computer.
Dean Kamen’s code name for the project was “Ginger.” That was all most people knew. But few could wait to learn more. Deprived of source material, journalists wrote articles about articles. Finally, in December 2001, came the big reveal: Ginger was the Segway.
The rest of the story is familiar. The buzz turned out to be mostly that—buzz. A similar disappointment has plagued many mysterious campaigns of decades past (like those billowing sheets that teased new cars—a bold choice given 1990s designs).
Secrets deliberately withhold information—briefly or indefinitely—for company benefit at consumer expense. Misused, they are P. T. Barnum–style gimmicks.
Deployed well, they capture attention, stoke curiosity, and dig an economic moat—real or imagined—in consumer minds. “Torment your customers,” Stephen Brown advocates, tongue only partially in cheek. “They’ll love it.”
Why secrets are powerful
Brown’s argument challenges conventional wisdom about consumers:
They do not want us to prostrate ourselves in front of them and promise to love them, till death us do part. They’d much rather be teased, tantalized, and tormented by deliciously insatiable desire.
Brown punched up his argument, no doubt, for attention. But psychology supports his take, especially when it comes to secrets.
The “secrecy heuristic”
Does a “CLASSIFIED” stamp make information more persuasive? Mark Travers, Leaf Van Boven, and Charles Judd argue it does. In a series of studies, they identified the “secrecy heuristic”:
This ‘secrecy heuristic’ can increase the perceived value and decision weight of information that happens to be secret, independent of any genuine differences in informational quality.
The authors assessed three ways that secrecy might impact perception. In every instance, information that was believed to be secret carried more weight:
- Experiment 1. “People weighed secret information more heavily than public information when making recommendations about foreign political candidates.”
- Experiment 2. “People judged information presented in documents ostensibly produced by the Department of State and the National Security Council as being of relatively higher quality when those documents were secret rather than public.”
- Experiment 3. “People judged a National Security Council document as being of higher quality when presented as a secret document rather than a public document and evaluated others’ decisions more favorably when those decisions were based on secret information.”
Why do we assume that secret information has more value? Throughout our lives, we learn that withheld information is often vital information: insider trading is lucrative; knowing someone’s limit in a negotiation is advantageous; we deem the information we keep secret to be important.
That primes us, write the authors, to associate secrecy with value:
people who believe information is secret may interpret that information differently—with greater credulity, for example—than do people who …read more
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