Adam Smith, famed 18th century economist and author of The Wealth of Nations, asserted that the practice of exchanging goods and services for money was an exclusively human thing to do. ”Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog,” Smith wrote. Then about five years ago, long after Smith’s death, Yale researchers, including a psychologist Laurie Santos, working with capuchin monkeys proved the venerable Mr. Smith wrong. Without too much provocation, Yale researchers were able to teach the capuchin monkeys a most basic system of economics and soon the monkeys were using a fake form of currency to buy things like marshmallows, Jell-O and grapes. The capuchin monkeys become so adept at the particulars of a closed economic system that they, being primates obsessed with food and sex, soon found a way to electively pay one another for sexual favors as well.
Now a few years later, psychologist Laurie Santos has teemed up with two advertising executives, Keith Olwell and Elizabeth Kiehner from the company Proton, to find out whether capuchin monkeys, with their ceaseless appetite for sex and Jell-O, would respond to a directed advertising campaign touting one brand of Jell-O over another. The idea is that with the sway of advertising in effect, monkeys will change their behavior. The advertising, you may ask, will not be via television, or iPad, but will be via a billboard campaign that hangs outside the monkeys’ enclosure. According to an article in The New Scientist, “The foods will be novel to them and are equally delicious,” Olwell says of the two colors of Jell-O being marketed to the monkeys. Brand A will be advertised and brand B will not. After a period of exposure to the campaign, the monkeys will be offered a choice of both brands. So what is going to sell the monkeys on brand A over brand B? What else? Sex and power! One billboard is going to depict a graphic shot of a female monkey with her genitals exposed, alongside the brand A logo. The other shows the alpha male of the capuchin troop associated with brand A. Olwell states, “Monkeys have been shown in previous studies to really love photographs of alpha males and shots of genitals, and we think this will drive their purchasing habits.”
Now some of you may be amused by this story, whereas others may be scratching their heads (not unlike their simian cousins) as to why anyone would need to market Jell-O, or anything for that matter, to primates? What does this prove – sex and power sell to all sentient beings? It is obvious that monkeys don’t need a bunch of lab technicians to tell them that Jell-O and sex are two desirable components to life (me personally, I could do without the Jell-O) but what, if anything, does this reveal about the nature of allure and suggestion? Considering the measure of the appeal and the probable result, is it safe to say that people, when confronted with images of sex and power, can be suckered into eating all manner of monkey Jell-O?