Advertising as mind control. (Not!)

There are a number of people, from Aldous Huxley to modern politicians, from nutritionists and health advocates to psychologists who labor under the belief that advertising is a form of very effective mind control–especially when it comes to voting against their own interests, eating food that is killing their children, or otherwise engaging in destructive consumerism.

The public, we’re being told, is being manipulated into a number of destructive habits via advertising by a small cadre of puppet masters, a “ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of … thought-manufactureres and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.”

The corollary of this idea, however, is that individuals do not free agency, but only the illusion of agency. We are, in this world view where a well-timed jingo can make you overspend on junk food that kills you or vote for a politicians who will destroy your way of life, mindless automatons who only think we’re self-aware and have “free will.”

Excuse me, but bullshit.

If humans had so little agency that a well-placed ad can manipulate us into doing things that are against our own free will, then content advertising (that is, ads placed on web sites) wouldn’t be a relative disaster as compared to search advertising (that is, ads placed on search results which align with things you’re searching for).

Search advertising works–but that’s because if your toaster breaks, and you go online to Google and enter the word “toaster” because you’re interested in buying a new toaster, and one of the links that shows up is an ad for a new type of toaster with DTT, you may very well click on the ad and buy the toaster–because you started the day needing a new one.

But honestly, when was the last time you clicked on an ad placed on a web site? When was the last time you clicked on an ad on the bottom of a “free” iPhone app? Or when was the last time you saw a popup window on a web site or an interstitial ad or a pre-roll ad on YouTube, and you thought “oh, this is pretty interesting”?

Probably if you are like most people, the answer is “never” or at least “not for a very long time.”

This, despite the promise of Internet ad network sites who promise huge returns on their investment to advertisers who advertise on them.

It’s not to say some ad networks don’t work for their advertisers. Clearly better targeted advertising on specialty web sites (such as ads from Sportys Pilot Shop advertising gear for pilots on web sites that target pilots) do work fairly well, though a pilot needing a new headset may well search Google anyway. But by and large content advertising is a dismal failure: click-through rates are low and conversion rates are even lower, though advertisers continue to try and pour billions into it.

Billions on the promise that someday, somehow, the right combination of animation and images and being “in your face” will convince you to buy, buy, BUY! despite your lack of desire at the moment to buy something.

See, the mistake both pessimists who fear advertisers are brain-washing people, advertisers who are trying harder to be better brain washers, and politicians who hope to “nudge” us into a brave new world is that they’ve confused “apathy” for lack of agency.

Meaning if I’m hungry at lunchtime but not sure what I want to eat, and I see an ad for McDonald’s–is this “mind control?” Or is this me giving into apathy, allowing a sign to make a decision that I personally didn’t care that much about?

If I’m sick of my brand of shampoo (for some reason I’m not getting the body and lift that I used to get) and I see an ad for a different shampoo, is it “mind control” when I think “sure, I’ll give that one a go; can’t hurt beyond what I’m already using”?

If I don’t follow politics and I see an ad for someone telling me just before election day to “think of the children”, is it mind control when I think “sure, why not; I like the cut of that man’s jib”? Or is it rational to believe that since chances are my vote doesn’t really count (individually, despite tales of votes decided by one voter), that I may as well toss it to the person who looks best on television?

In fact, as advertisers dive deeply into what motivates us in order to become better at “mind control” what they are finding is that the only way you can change our minds to get us to do something else is when we are either apathetic, or at the cross roads or cusp of a major life change which requires us to make a whole host of different purchase decisions. (For example, a mother having a first baby who is overwhelmed with the idea that now she must buy diapers, formula, a crib, new furniture, toys, clothing and a whole host of other things that just nine months ago wasn’t even on her radar.)

But if we are not apathetic, if we don’t have an immediate need (because our toaster still works) or if we’re not undergoing a major life change (like having a baby or getting married), advertising is basically useless background noise which we ignore, annoying us as we try to read the next article, rather than a powerful means of mind control.

Because unlike the pessimists and the politicians, in fact we do have free agency.

It is interesting to me how quickly, by the way, we come to believe that while individually we may believe we have free will, and our friends have free will, that the larger mass of people do not have free will. It’s as if we believe we and our closest friends are the exception rather than the rule.

Read any article on politics, political ignorance and voting for the other party, and the underlying theme is always the lack of free agency by those other people. You and your “tribe” are smart and well informed, while those outside your tribe are stupid, brainwashed morons marching towards a cliff.

But really, even that can be easily explained by Dunbar’s number: we are only able to mentally track around 150 people, give or take. Beyond that number and we are mentally incapable of tracking those people as “real”.

Dunbar’s number, however, is not a limit on free agency but on mental capacity; just as we cannot see in the infrared without aid, we cannot comprehend beyond our immediate circle without the aid of stories.

And sadly, most of those stories that I’ve linked above involve secret oligarchs and people without free agency being programmed by their masters: while you may choose to eat at McDonald’s because the fish sandwich there is your secret vice, indulged in on occasion, other people who are there are there because McDonald’s is a master mind manipulating machine.

What you forget, of course, is the person behind you in line thinks you’re one of “those people” who have been mind-manipulated; he’s only there because he needed something quick before his next business meeting, and McDonald’s was more convenient than going to the restaurant down the street.