(some of the content of this post, outside the introduction and conclusion, regarding advertising techniques and solutions is adapted from a you tube video by Edward J Harshman, but passages expressing opinions and giving comments on the bigger picture outside advertising are my own.)
Advertising in its infancy was simply designed to make people aware of a product’s good points. Without advertising, consumers are unaware of any product’s existence unless they happen to come across it by chance, something which is true of a particular new type of soap or the greatest album ever produced. It is wrong to say therefore that all advertising is bad and harmful. Balloons and signs strategically placed to indicate a local birthday party aren’t bad or misleading. However, through the 20th century and into the 21st, advertising has introduced, adapted and expanded greatly its concept of linking products to aspects of a person’s life.
It seems natural now to see television adverts of people with beautiful big smiles using this product, usually amongst lots of friends, giving the consumer the impression, or more accurately planting it in their mind, that this product will make them happy and popular. Both men and women can, for different reasons, enjoy watching an attractive woman applying shampoo to her silky-smooth hair with a look of ecstasy on here face in an exotic tropical setting, perhaps with the cleanest of clean water cascading down a waterfall in the background. However, the sophistication of this strategy has been enhanced by the fact that the target emotions and instincts that the advertiser is attempting to tap into have moved from the conscious to the subconscious and then into the unconscious mind. Adult consumers are given credit for not being gullible enough to immediately buy a product simply upon seeing a poster for it. But planting a seed of awareness of the product in the part of the mind that most people generally disregard but which is the majority and most powerful part of it is hugely effective. There’s pride involved in people not wanting to admit to being malleable, but if they are following desires that they are not even aware of at the time of pursuing the product, they don’t have to and won’t feel ashamed at being led by something other than total free will.
The most significant individual in terms of these developments was Edward Bernays, a man generally lauded in the mainstream for his cleverness and success in his field. He is popularly known as ‘The father of P.R’ (public relations), the latter term conceived as a replacement for the word ‘Propaganda’, whose meaning had morphed into something negative and exploitative. As Sigmund Freud’s nephew, he took his famous uncle’s ideas of subconscious and unconscious desires and applied them to advertising, some of his breakthroughs being the rise in women smokers, the mass acceptance of bacon and eggs as a breakfast staple and, rather more sinister, the successful overthrow of a democratically-elected leader in a CIA-engineered coup in Guatemala in 1954. Bernais’ work is very effectively detailed in the first part of Adam Curtis’s documentary ‘The Century of The Self’ and in an audio series by Guy Evans of the Smells Like Human Spirit Podcast anaysing Bernays’ 1928 book ‘Propaganda’ and skillfully linking it to the present. Both of these offerings are free to view online.
Another frightening and cynical development is the targeting of children as a mass market, hardly new but now more and more unscrupulous and again growing in sophistication. This particular aspect, including the idea of babies as young as 6 months old being consideredand targeted as ‘consumers’, is well dealt with in the film ‘Consuming Kids’
Many trace the success of advertising to the fall of home economics, or home management. Not taking care of our own home and affairs has left us vulnerable and malleable, and the idea of money-saving skills as a good thing handed down the generations has changed to being a symbol of being ‘tight-fisted’ and too ‘careful’. Advertising and general influence of the masses extends out to TV shows and films. Marketing invents needs, especially needs which are unlimited, elusive, with no endpoint and ultimately unreachable, such as a perfect body or total happiness and/or popularity.
T.V. programme makers clearly have to recoup their costs, and they do this either through license payments or advertising. It might be useful to consider that both newspapers and television stations get more revenue from selling advertising space than from the price of a newspaper or television licence, so who are they more interested in pleasing? An important case in point:
In 2003 Michael Meacher MP, a former member of the Blair administration who resigned in protest against the illegal invasion of Iraq, wrote an article in the London Guardian called ‘The war on terrorism is bogus’, containing facts that would be popularly considered to be ‘subversive’. It is reckoned that the newspaper lost up to a million pounds in advertising revenue due to publishing said article, and an advertising boycott was threatened, the thing that newspapers and T.V. producers most fear. The stakes are high!
The genius of television in promoting products and attitudes is to catch us unawares, in a docile state, and open to (mis)direction. The relationship between the advertiser and programme makers isn’t limited to the sponsorship of shows. The content of the shows caters to the advertiser; for example, if Coca-Cola sponsor a show, no one in the show will be fat or diabetic. You won’t see a sewing machine in a programme broken up by ads for clothes. Ads for new cars won’t be shown during a programme which includes scenes of people fixing cars and giving good advice as to how to do that. People don’t act normally on TV shows. Their tone and behaviour are generally conservative, and any who seem different or have anti-establishment views are portrayed, sometimes subtly, as weird and quirky. These ‘weirdos’ and ‘eccentrics’ are, interestingly, the kind of people who do engage in critical thinking and are less likely to fall for consumerism and manipulation. Free, out-of-the-box thinkers may have noticed that T.V. shows and mainstream media promote and depict a tame world where it doesn’t take much for a view to be controversial. The Daily Mail newspaper in England has traditionally sensationalised events which actually are fairly commonplace to those paying attention – celebrities who appear wholesome actually indulging in cocaine use and excessive drinking behind the scenes – and this serves to shelter citizens and heighten the disruptive effect of ugly truths about important people who citizens tend to want to believe are on their side. Thus, truth becomes subversive and something to be feared and mistrusted, and you never really find characters in the more popular prime-time shows saying anything in particular substance.
The popular stereotype of hypnotism involves a man swinging a watch from side-to-side in front of your eyes as you slowly drift off into unconsciousness, and he will then either do something horrible to you or more likely make you appear stupid, as in hypnotist stage shows. What is never addressed in the media is the mildly hypnotic state in which most of us live our lives, unable to give attention to ‘the big picture’ and acutely vulnerable to anything subliminal. Comparison of TV shows from the past with those of the present day show obvious differences, one of the most striking being that the previous steady camera and longer scenes have been replaced by quick edits between shots and a moving camera constantly panning and zooming, which leaves the viewer disorientated as we have to change awareness and constantly readjust our focus. Quite often, a scene will start with a close-up, and in our minds we will immediately try to guess the surroundings. We are usually wrong, and this has the effect of putting us on the back foot as we have to change awareness. Studies have shown that if you take a ritual such as a handshake between business people and change it somehow, for example suddenly moving your hand up their arm, at that moment, the other person is disorientated and vulnerable, and if you wanted to plant an image in their mind or influence their behaviour, that would be the time. The producer of a programme is in effect leading you, like our friend the stage hypnotist entertaining his audience, who are actually enjoying being led and vulnerable by a master. As well as fast edits, multiple voices being heard simultaneously is also confusing, as well as the mix of truth and lies used in advertising. The images go by so fast that when a few known truths are heard, we may believe the whole to be true. If we can turn off our preconceived ideas about what’s coming next and be passive in the best sense of the word, we may avoid being led into unwanted purchases.
Peer Pressure & Associations
As children, we desperately want to be accepted and to belong to groups. As adults, we still have the same yearning but are less direct and more inhibited in our pursuit of it. As the human condition therefore seems to involve regular bouts of loneliness, we are vulnerable to those ‘pretend friends’ we see in TV ads. They seem so happy and so genuinely on our side that they give us a relaxed feeling, all too rare in modern life, and we are subconsciously ready to submit to their genial persuasion. Anyone in the advert resisting will be made fun of or gently chastised and alienated. Associations are made between warm friendship and the product being hawked. Sex, celebrities and music are very effective weapons of advertising, either on their own or together, and there is also a general emphasis on being modern and ‘moving with the times’. Older people are mocked, leading us away from a time when people had more of an attention span and were more rooted in core values and respect for the elderly.
As mentioned earlier, the goals that ads lead us to aspire to are unattainable, and this links to the idea of partial satisfaction. You can get to a point but can never reach the ultimate, so you come back for more. We buy a hamburger, the MSG and other chemicals do their job to give us a high, then the low eventually comes and we realise that we only got halfway to satisfaction, almost like wearing the left shoe without the right. We can either ride it out or have another to try to reach the unreachable. The realisation that junk food and material goods actually bring sadness in the end paradoxically helps to ensure that most people go back for more rather than reach the logical conclusion that they should look elsewhere for fulfillment.
Thankfully, there are some quite simple steps to take if you want to stop or at least control this outside influence and start making your own choices.
–Create an association of your own. Put a 20 dollar/pound/euro note in your hand and close your eyes. Imagine you saw or watched an advert and it made you buy something, so now you’ve bought something but it doesn’t do exactly what it said on the box. Imagine that you really want to be compensated so you go back to the shop and no one wants to or can help. You call a helpline number and get redirected to lots of different people and departments with no result. You decide you actually want to take the product makers to court and so you have to spend time, money and energy on a process which is constantly being delayed with no guarantee of a positive outcome. You now don’t want or like the product you bought and you desperately wish you could go back to the beginning, to before you spent the money. Now open your eyes and look in your hand. Create the association in your mind of spending money on consumer items with potential stress, sadness and disappointment.
-Make a list of things you really need/want, and do it at a time when you’re both alert and relaxed, and not watching television. Watch an advert after this and see how many times your brain is alerted to the prospect of buying something that’s not on your list. Chuckle to yourself at the fact that the messages are not getting through to you anymore.
-Dissect advertisements. Now you’ve got the upper hand, watch ads carefully, as well as TV programmes and films, and try to see what kind of subliminal messages and suggestions are contained within. You might lose count very quickly. Realise that the people in the ads are actors, simply paid to pretend and experts at doing so. This seems like an obvious and simplistic point, but in the hypnotic state we forget this and suspend disbelief, just like we’re doing in the film/programme that the advertisers are sponsoring. Listen to the words carefully as well. Cereals and drinks are described as ‘part of a nutritious meal’, which doesn’t mean that they are necessarily the nutritious part. If i sprinkle sawdust on a wonderfully organic and healthy meal, then the sawdust is technically ‘part of a nutritious meal’. You can achieve wonderful deception with a few subtle turns of language that mostly pass by unnoticed, so notice them!
-Beware of Disclaimers (statements placed in advertisments to protect against liability). It is basically saying that there is or might be something wrong with the product. It will usually be rushed through by the announcer to keep you from understanding it.
-Ask questions about products. If you see a new drug advertised by a large pharmaceutical company, ask your doctor what’s wrong with the old one; he’s unlikely to have an answer for you. If you really want to get his goat, ask him about dietary changes as a substitute for drugs. He will display, without telling you, the fact that doctors get minimal training about nutrition and are never told how crucial it is.
Limit T.V. use (or better still throw it out!) and try to develop a general questioning attitude, without becoming too paranoid. You may well find that as well as some inevitable negative feelings about the ugliness of the truth, you will also find some direction and will lose the constant disorientation that a t.v. lifestyle gives you. The feeling of liberation when you realise that you are suddenly living your life without the suggestions and opinions of people who aren’t your friends and have agendas and sponsors to satisfy is hard to describe, but is rather like truly being born again.
If I tell you that love is everything and that you should get back to the old, forgotten values of community, seek out and nurture real friendships, get out and enjoy nature, perhaps stand still in awe in front of a tree and consider its incredible longevity and the miracles of the earth, does it flash through your mind that i’m an old hippy? If it does, then you have proved my point because that’s a stereotype constantly reinforced by advertising and the T.V., and mass media culture in general. There is another path.