ADVERTISING - THE WORST OF THE WORST
By Roland Watson
In advertising, both the ends and the means are unethical.
The premise of advertising is that you have to persuade people, if necessary you must manipulate them, to buy what you have to sell. This is because in many cases they won't want or need your products. Therefore, they must be reshaped into the type of people who will. In this regard, advertisers demonstrate that they care only about sales, not about the truth. If need be, they will say anything, even make up the most outrageous lies, to further this end. You should assume that all advertising statements are lies. They are not trying to give you information; an objective and altruistic accounting of a product's strengths and weaknesses. Their only purpose is persuasion, hence they cannot, and should not, be trusted.
One of the best examples of this is the prevalence of bait and switch. Great deals are advertised, to attract our interest, but when we inquire about them they are no longer available, and we are encouraged to purchase a more expensive item. But in many cases the great deals never were available. They were just a lie constructed to hook us, to get us on the line so the salespeople could reel us in.
The most important technique that advertisers use is repetition. They are complete supporters of what is known as Pavlovian conditioning, or the creation of a conditioned response. They have learned that if they give us a particular stimulus, this will lead to a given response. If they show us their products, say their names, and lie about them, over and over again, we will buy them. (Pavlov demonstrated this with dogs, but advertisers apply it to people. It is yet another blow to our chauvinism.) The advertising industry must surely have the largest staff of behavioral psychologists in the world, and they are all Pavlovian true believers.
Advertisers have lost all sense of self-restraint. They now engage in the most blatant behavioral manipulation, through fear-mongering, subliminal techniques, and the vastly increased number and aggressiveness of their ads. Put together, their impact on us is nothing short of culpable abuse.
As to the subliminal content in ads, specifically, in television ads, while such ads no longer contain hidden, written messages, this is not, as one might suspect, because it is against the law. Rather, it is because it is not necessary. Advertisers have learned that they can have a greater effect by showing persuasive images up-front, but very quickly, and then repeating the ad again and again. Your conscious mind might not see the image, but your unconscious does.
One of the best examples of subliminal advertising that I have seen was an ad for baby products. It began with a photo of a naked baby, and then cut to a quick shot of its smiling mother. This inevitably led me to feel, "Ahh. Isn't that sweet." It wasn't until I saw the ad a couple of times that I realized there was a small tear under one of the mother's eyes. She was so happy, she cried tears of joy, and this is what led to the response. This ad (and others like it) is guaranteed (designed!) to make any childless woman feel inadequate; less that whole. (It is no wonder, with ads like this as prevalent as they are, that it is so difficult to reduce population pressures.)
Indeed, the ads get much worse than this. Another one that I saw, in Thailand, had two young Thai women with a Caucasian baby, as if it were the child of one of them. The baby was one hundred percent Caucasian, and its use as a prop was a direct appeal to Asian racist tendencies (light skin color is viewed as far preferable to dark). Of course, you can find hundreds, even thousands, of examples like these. (And the appeals get much more direct as well. The big beauty product companies, including Unilever and P&G, not only profit from Asian racism, they encourage it. In such countries these companies are big advertisers of "skin whitening products," something no dark-skinned Asian woman should be without!)
A similar effect on our mental well-being can result from the fact that the families in advertisements seem to have perfect lives, and only the smallest of concerns. This may lead some viewers to feel inadequate and guilty since, if you are normal, you will also inevitably have normal, real life problems. The implicit question is, why don't you shape up and do better? Why are you such a failure?
Of course, you could argue that this is good, that it serves as a motivational stimulus. But the problem is that the ideals presented by the media are unachievable. You will never be a success if you are judged by them.
Another technique that is frequently used is product placement, where companies pay to get their products used as props, or their names as backdrops, in television programming and films. But while this technique is usually subtle in Western markets, in other areas it has been taken to the extreme. In some countries, the stars of sitcoms and soap operas wear t-shirts with company names, and the logo changes from show-to-show. For game shows, the entire stage backdrop is a maze of company signs.
What this also reflects is that modern advertising, and its behavioral manipulation, is being applied globally. The big ad agencies have offices or affiliates in almost every country. They are in fact the strongest force of all behind increasing worldwide sameness. For example, many advertisements, after being dubbed into local languages, are shown in multiple national markets. We are all being subjected to the same persuasion. Furthermore, in developing countries, where truth in advertising laws and other curbs are non-existent, the agencies utilize the most aggressive and unethical techniques.
But, of course, not all advertising is so blunt. Techniques have been modified and enhanced, and are increasingly sophisticated. For instance, there has been a shift from direct plays on sex, fear and guilt, to attempts at cleverness. The most modern and expensive ads seek to entertain, and deceive us. They make extensive use of the magician's standard tricks of change of pace and misdirection. And, while such ads may be fun to watch - they may make you laugh - it is important to remember, the joke's on you.
One version of this is what can be termed a "progressive," or sequential, ad. The first ad in such a series will be lengthy, and tell some clever or funny story. And in a "big ad" such as this, there will usually be at least one image per second. Then, the subsequent ads in the series will either extend the initial story, or present a variation on it. But these subsequent ads are usually much shorter. They trigger your memory of the earlier, longer ad, and of its product, but for a fraction of the cost. (Progressive ads make use of the "overlap" stream of consciousness mechanism that I described in another section.)
And, what all of these ads are trying to do is brainwash you, which we now know at its most fundamental level means a rewiring of the neurons and synapses in your brain. Through constant repetition they seek to emphasize a particular thought, and make it pronounced by increasing the strength and size of its associated neural network. And, it works. If you watch an ad enough times, your mind will be reconfigured: you will be brainwashed. The conditioning is not just of a behavioral response, it is of your thought, of the actual physical structure and processes of your brain.
The other major contributor to this is volume. Advertisements are loud. And loud voices in general are almost always form. The persuasion is accomplished via aural appearance - the sound level - not the content. This, along with repetition, is why it is so difficult to get an advertising jingle, or a song, out of your mind. And this is also why advertising is among the most despicable of our influences, not only because it has, and knows it has, this effect, but because in knowing this it applies it to us without restraint, and when we have no defenses and are most easily brainwashed.
For the last I am referring, of course, to children, to the advertising that is directed at them. The reason the conditioning of a child is so durable is that it is hard-wired into the brain during its most rapid period of development. The patterns of neurons are encoded for good, as is the predisposition to recall them on a regular basis.
Advertisers understand this completely. When they see a society where parents are diverted by work and children are regularly left unattended for hours in front of the TV, they recognize this for the huge opportunity that it is. This represents tremendous, unfettered access to these children, at their most impressionable stage, and they - the advertisers - can feed them any and all ideas, such that happiness depends on consumption, that they want. And later in life, when the children develop increased self-awareness, it doesn't matter. As we have seen with child abuse and bigotry, ideas and behaviors imprinted on children are almost impossible to erase, even when they grow up to be adults and when they know they have been so conditioned, and desire with all their heart and will to escape it.
The patterns are there for good. You can never eliminate them. The question is, can you eliminate the predisposition to repeat them: can you change the point of reference to new patterns and ideas? The answer is, yes, with difficulty, and a whole industry - of psychologists and psychiatrists (and their drugs) - exists to help us try. And insofar as advertising practices continue unabated, their future supply of customers is assured. (There is an amazing synergy between the ad agencies' behavioral psychologists, and the clinical psychologists who seek to reverse their damage.)
This, then, is the world of media and advertising, and for all the "beauty" that it shows us, it is not a pretty sight. It consists of unbelievably aggressive programming and advertising - on the television up to fifteen loud, obnoxious commercials in a row; child and adult brainwashing; the encouragement of feelings of personal failure and despair; the support of war and terrorism; and the direct contribution to hitherto unimagined levels, and types, of crime, violence and discord. Such are its consequences.
Everyone knows that violence on television engenders more violence. And everyone knows that media coverage, salacious coverage, of crime, encourages more crime. For example, consider murder: when people in stressful circumstances see the coverage of a particular murder, and when their personal situations subsequently push them to the brink, they use the coverage, their memory of it, as a model, and act the same way. (It's called learning.)
But no one does anything about this. We are complacent (until it happens to us), but this is not surprising. Another media message, or byproduct, is that individuals feel powerless to change the way things are. We believe we cannot change things, so why should we even try?
And let's not forget the most direct costs of all: the huge sums that are added for Madison Avenue. Every penny of advertising, and the entire framework that supports it - the media, and company sales and marketing departments - is passed onto you, the consumer. You pay for your own brainwashing.
Well, like Japan and Pearl Harbor, it has gone too far. It has to be stopped. We will have to find a way to discipline the corporations, the media and the advertising industry, while at the same time preserving real freedom of the press. Our basic solution, our basic activism, will once again be focused on affecting their ability to earn profits. As will be discussed in the next series of articles, by voluntarily changing our consumption patterns, by tuning out, by refusing to buy, we will make the corporations, media and advertising agencies feel the depth of our discontent. And through smaller sales, fees, ratings and circulations, they will be forced to change.
In closing, it is arguable that people get the media that they deserve. We deserve better, and the time has certainly come - now - to demand it.
© Roland Watson 2016