Marketing as Behavior Change (Live Syllabus)

Instructor: Broderick Turner

Why take this course?

With the rise of Surveillance Capitalism , firms now have more information about you than you do about yourself. And they have the information at an unfathomable scale. Theories from social and cognitive psychology have provided firms with the tools to transform that information into behavior change.

So not only can firms predict what you will do, they can change what you will do.

The goal of this “course” is to consider Marketing as Behavior Change, i.e., how can marketing make people do things (other than just buying stuff) that they did not plan on doing.

Take Facebook for example, they can manipulate the newsfeed to get you to click on an ad, but also they can induce you to vote, or make you both happier or sadder. And that is just the published research they are willing to share.

Or do you use Tinder, Bumble or other dating apps? As a PhD student at Stanford, Professor Jessica Yu ran a field experiment with one mobile-dating firm where they changed the information that was presented to daters to make the dating pool in their area seem larger or smaller, and they found that they could make daters more or less selective. When I was early in my PhD I ran my own experiments where I found that simple changes to a the stream of images that a dater swipes can change how often they choose the target I wanted them to choose. Considering that about 40% of heterosexual couples and 65% of same-sex couples met online in 2017, marketing may be able to determine who you date and who you partner with.

If lowly PhD students with small budgets can change your behavior, imagine what a firm with real resources can do.

In many ways, the individual consumer is powerless to stop this. If you use the internet (and you’re reading this, so YOU use the internet), it is nearly impossible to avoid being tracked, and aggregated. For instance, Medium (and almost any other website) knows where you are right now, what device you’re one, and what services you’re logged into. You can see some of this data for yourself. Open up the Webkay site and scroll down. If the Webkay site can read this information, any other webpage can as well. Moniker, an Amsterdam based interactive design studio, put together a “game” that shows you just how much data you put out while browsing a webpage (to play click here: Creepy, huh?

Who is this class for course?

This class is designed for undergraduate and graduate level business students. I expect that you have completed an introductory marketing class before taking this one. This class will also cover some topics in social and cognitive psychology, as well as some topics in computer science and statitistics. You do not need to be an expert on any of these topics.


This course on Marketing as Behavior Change has four learning objectives:

1. We* will learn about the Marketing as Behavior Change environment. Even if we can’t stop the train, we should know what train you’re on. This will cover a (very) brief history of firms and individuals who use marketing to change behavior. We will cover some really old persuasion research, and some really hightech stuff that will be out of date by the time we read it.

2. We will learn the underlying social and cognitive psychology of Marketing as Behavior Change. Many consumer behavior classes cover a great deal of this now. But this “course” seeks to understand how these theories will work at scale. For a good example, see this recent paper by Professor Daphna Oyserman and her student Andrew Dawson on how social psychology can explain fake news, disinformation and Brexit.

3. We will learn how to create behavior change (at scale). We will cover a bunch of experiments that have changed behavior. We will consider what could have made these experiments better or worse. We will learn how, when and why to design these experiments. We will design experiments that might change behavior.

4. We will consider the ethics of Marketing as Behavior Change. This can’t simply be a one-off class or a slapdash lecture at the end of a semester. As marketing students of today, we could very well reshape the world how we see fit. We need to be good stewards of this power.

Class Schedule

Class 1 — History of Marketing as Behavior Change

This class covers a brief history of the use of social and cognitive psychology to change a person’s behavior. We will cover Skinner to Zuckerburg.

Read: The Stanford Prison Experiment-

Write: Based on the findings of this study, examine how the assigned status or the position of “prisoner” affected the personality and behavior of the research participants assigned as prisoners.In addition, examine how the assigned status or position of “guard” affected the personality and behavior of the research participants assigned to be a guard.Substantiate your findings with reasons.

Read: Johnson, E. J., & Goldstein, D. (2003). Science, Policy. Do defaults save lives?.

Write: What other defaults do you accept in your life. Think broadly. Think Deeply

Class 2 — The basics of persuasionand the persuasion knowledge model

This class covers the six building blocks of persuasion: Reciprocity, Scarcity, Authority, Consistency, Liking and Consensus. It also covers what happens when people know they are being persuaded.

Read: Six Principles of Persuasion

Friestad, Marian, and Peter Wright. “The persuasion knowledge model: How people cope with persuasion attempts.” Journal of consumer research 21, no. 1 (1994): 1–31.

Write: Give one example of each type of persuasion that a company has used recently.

What are specific ways that a company may signal they are trying to persuade you?

Is it unethical to NOT tell consumers they are being persuaded?

Class 3 — The Basics of Nudging, Marketing Under the Radar

What is nudging? When does it work? When does it backfire?

Read: What is nudging?

Write: a. Find one example of a nudge that improved lives.

b. Find one example of a nudge that made lives worse.

c. Is there any difference in the design of these nudges?

d. Is there any difference in the ethics of these nudges?

Class 4 — Nudging at scale

You know what’s cool? Nudging one person. You know what scary? Nudging a billion. You know what keeps me up at night? Someone in this class could decide who was president in 2024.

Read: Your Fake News, Our Facts.

Write: What are these authors’ theories about why Brexit worked? If one political party uses these tactics, should all political parties?

Class 5 — Designing a Marketing as Behavior Change Campaign

How do you pick a problem to solve? Is it feasibly solvable? Can you measure the change? What tools will you use/

Write: 10 “problems” you want to change. Put them in order from unsolvable ever, to solvable today.

Class 6 — The Ethics of Marketing as Behavior Change

Guardrails. You need guardrails. We need to do better than “don’t be evil.” We need some rules. In this class, we decide the rules of the game.

Read: A short primer on ethical theory.

Write: Which ethical school do you abide by and why? Consider your design from last week, how does it violate each of these ethical schools?

Final Project- You can pick one of these two options

1. Share your design for a behavior change campaign. Justify that decision to the stakeholders, and your grandmother.

2. Find an example of a behavior change campaign that you believe has not yet been reported. Bonus points if we can’t google the answer, but you can “prove” it exist.

Class 7- Present and Grade Final Projects

You will see three to four other projects. You will present your project to three or four people. You will grade each other based on the provided rubric

My Expectations

I expect you to:

1. View/ attend all lectures and workshops.

2. Participate in the class discussion, whether that is in person or online.

3. Respect your fellow learners. Learning is hard enough, no need to be rude.

4. Turn in all writing assignments the day before class (so you have time to read them and think about them).

5. You will put effort and creativity into your final project.


Life is flexible. So is this class. I choose what I grade on, you choose how much this is worth (within my guardrails). The final grade for each term will be determined by a formula chosen at the beginning of class by each student subject to the following constraints.

Class Participation 15% — 50%

Writing 15% — 50%

Final Project 15% — 50%

All weights must add up to 100%.

  • Notice the use of “we” instead of “you”. Learning is collaborative. I have some knowledge. You have some knowledge. Together, we will learn. It will be difficult. But it will be fun, because it is difficult.

*On January, 17th, 2020, I presented this live syllabus to Galen Bodenhausen and Sylvia Perry’s Social Cognition Lab at Northwestern University. The lab provided valuable feedback. This syllabus will be updated to reflect the contributions from this lab.

What’s Missing from this Class:

Legal Environment of Marketing-as-Behavior-Change

History of Regulations around this data-exhaust information

Remedies and Inoculations

  • Is there any resistance?
  • Can we scale-back, and how can we scale-back?
  • Front-load the ethical piece
  • What are the open/ good/ non-profit motive tools?
  • AirBnB vs. CouchSurfing (would make a good case study)

Consider the differences in co-horts. What are the perceptions of sharing and privacy of my students? Are my assumptions different than my student’s assumptions?

Go online and find one or two of the student’s stuff///Embarrass myself

Scare a little bit…then scare a lot.

Show that they can be manipulated by the people who have the information.

Researchers who use transition videos…and there was a massive backlash.



The lit on how social media effects well-being…

Adam Alter’s book.

People need to feel the manipulation.

Social Snacking…get a little bit, but don’t get full.

Add policies to this…look this up on the VT website.

Add accessibility resources and maybe honor code info.

Wording: Firms are very successful at scale. Teach how to understand scale, effect sizes, and prediction.

The structure of the market

Can you monetize private information as a private individual?

Information Clearinghouse?

Do I give people social media breaks/ or add in social media into the class.

Split the class into comp users vs. non-users.

1. As a reader, I wish I knew more about who this class is aimed for (NU undergraduates, Kellogg MBA students, executives, others?). This would provide needed insight toward the appropriateness of the rest of the syllabus. Why just 7 class meetings?

2. Ethical mentions or questions look to be given for each class in addition to a class devoted solely to ethics. Do you want students to make personal judgments of the ethics throughout the class and then learn the more formal ethics near the end? An alternative approach could be to learn the formal ethical reasoning early and apply to the topics as the course progresses. It just depends on the learning goal you have.

3. I feel like students will want much more instructional details on the regular “Writing” assignments and the final project. Further, how is class participation graded? This doesn’t need to include step-by-step directions but rather a more clear sense of the general undertaking the assignments (does writing style, format, and clarity matter; what is the general length and sophistication expectations; how you will approach grading; when are the assignments due and are their late penalties).

4. How does your flexible grading policy align with your course objectives? Can they change their weights later in the course? What happens if an unsatisfied student complains that the lack standard weights are unfair?

5. As you list out your expectations for them, students like it when the instructors outline what they can expect of them.



Assistant Professor of Marketing @ The Pamplin College of Business, Virginia Tech

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Broderick Turner

Assistant Professor of Marketing @ The Pamplin College of Business, Virginia Tech