Advertising In Its Various Revisions

Let’s start with Freud

Freud believed that within all of us were impulses that had to be controlled by something or someone external to the individual. As is so often the case, if language is manipulated then the groundwork is in place to manipulate behavior. If the inner workings of our minds could be characterized as dangerous and in need of curtailment, then dominating others could be justified. Apparently those that choose to be in charge of others are somehow presumed to be immune from the dangerous inner working of their own minds.

Freud thought that the masses could be dangerous and worked on ways to control others. In my opinion, this reduces to intimidation whether it be from a therapist to a patient or from any other party (or group) assuming authority over others. I’m not talking about legitimate authority here. If a firefighter assumes a degree of authority in order to keep people safe that is far different from the arbitrary authority that is becoming so common in all walks of life. It strikes me that as authority becomes more arbitrary it also develops a penchant for grandiosity. When I was a child, police officers tended to be polite and friendly. That doesn’t seem to be as common these days. But I digress.

Nepotism; It’s Not Just About Government Jobs

Freud had a nephew, Edward Bernays, and he essentially invented public relations along with many of the principles used in advertising to this day. Bernays realized that Freud’s principles had applications that ranged far beyond therapists and patients. Freud’s theories and techniques could be used to influence consumers and shape opinions about products.

It is vital to note that focus groups, and other forms of consumer feedback were used in this effort. It isn’t necessary to probe the details of these consumer feedback channels, but it is essential to note that communications with consumers became truly bidirectional at this time.

Consumers of the twentieth century and beyond have lived in a world of illusion and much of that illusion came about because of Bernays’ work. My behavior as a consumer has been shaped by Bernays and I think it’s safe to say that I am far from alone in this. I would venture that Bernays’ influence can be felt throughout the developed world.

Advertising 1.x

Suppose, for a moment, that a physician wanted to setup a practice in a growing town on the frontier. If the town was small enough the physician could mount a very effective advertising campaign by having a modest sign that had a name followed by the letters “M.D.” People would see the sign an realize that there was a doctor in town, which would have been a very positive development if the town had lacked the services of a physician up to that point.

Advertising 1.x reduces to announcing availability or hanging your shingle and waiting for business to come to you. It could be seen as a service to the consumer in cases where products and/or services had not been readily available in the past. If you lived in a frontier town and had done without the conveniences available in more established cities the sight of advertising might truly be a sight for sore eyes; especially if you had eye pain and were looking for a physician to treat your sore eyes. But even if the sign meant that tools, supplies and commodities were becoming more easily available it would be good news in a frontier town.

Advertising 2.x

So, in our mythical frontier town, advertising mutually benefits the advertiser and the consumer. Citizens need to have a doctor in case they got sick and the doctor needed patients in order to make a living. All is well and advertising has been a force for good.

But then, one fine day, a second doctor comes to town and hangs their shingle with their name followed by the letters “M.D.” How does Dr. One retain patients and not lose them to Dr. Two? Dr. One modifies the sign, and thus is born advertising 2.x. The sign now reads as follows:

Dr. One M.D.
Experienced Physician

Dr. Two is fresh from training and can’t advertise on the basis of experience so the sign at that office is modified to read.

Dr. Two M.D.
Schooled in the Most Recent Discoveries and Techniques

Both signs are true and both are accurate. One thing has changed, however; both signs not only highlight the strengths of the advertising physician, but both also point out a possible problem with the competing physician. Both of these signs utilize at least a little bit of the power of suggestion. Townspeople might opine that they wouldn’t take a horse to someone as inexperienced as Dr. Two or they might credit the fact that Dr. One failed to diagnose their particular complaint (whether legitimate or not) to the fact that Dr. One has been away from medical school for a while and that Dr. Two may have been the better choice for their particular malady.

The most important thing about the transition from advertising 1.x to advertising 2.x is that perception has been introduced. There is no question that either Dr. One or Dr. Two are in fact doctors; both have legitimate medical degrees. That is the reality. But which should one choose? Well, that depends upon what the consumer perceives to be more important, experience or up-to-date training.

Reality and perception begin to slowly diverge at the point where advertising 2.x begins because, while it is true that Dr. One has more experience and Dr. Two has a more recent education, neither of these factors are likely to make a difference for the sort of problems that most patients have. If someone simply needed a prescription for cough syrup either doctor would be more than adequate.

Advertising 3.x: Perception Trumps Reality

Bernays endeavored to apply Freud’s techniques to the world of advertising. By the twentieth century, much had changed in the U.S. and advertising had to be redefined. In the frontier town of Dr. One, advertising was a public service. If the general store got it a shipment of shovels and spread the word that shovels were in stock they were doing a favor to all of the people that needed a shovel or were anticipating that their current shovel was becoming worn out. By the 1900s, at least in some market areas, the public service nature of advertising 1.x and the competitive one-upmanship of advertising 2.x were not necessarily enough to do the trick. Advertising 3.0 was a matter of stimulating demand, and that requires manipulation of reality, or at least the perception thereof.

I use the shovel as an example, because shovels tend to not be particularly emotion-laden products. However, with the application of the principles of advertising 3.x even the lowly shovel can speak to the deepest roots of our self image and thereby become emotionally charged. It might also be good to mention that advertising 2.x shares much in common with advertising 3.x. Both 2.x and 3.x involve the manipulation of reality to at least some degree. For the purposes of this discussion, I will set the line between them as being the point where advertising seeks to generate sales among consumers based, not upon the need to buy something, but upon appealing to our sense of self fulfillment as a reason to buy.

The hierarchy of needs

If you were in danger of drowning the only need you would be aware of is the need to draw breath. If you were rescued, or made it to safety on your own, your immediate need might be to become warm and dry. Once this was accomplished you might take note of the need to empty your bladder and soon thereafter notice that you are thirsty. After a fulfilling the need for a hot cup of coffee you might feel the need to shower and change into fresh clothing followed by the need to eat.

At the restaurant you order a suitable meal, but just as the waiter walks out of earshot you realize that the fork on you table is dirty and you need a new fork. You might later need some one dollar bills for a tip and then you need to call a tow truck because your car won’t start. Perhaps you need a battery, but maybe you actually need a new car. However, before  making such a purchase you need to do some research about which is the best choice and you need to decide which color best suits your tastes. This example could unfold in less than two hours, yet the definition of need went from a life or death emergency to choosing between Argent Mist and Sunset Orange as a paint color. Of course, if you need to be close to the beach maybe you need to move from Beverly Hills over to Malibu. (That last sentence was an example of humor; I needed to crack a joke.)

Distracted by the smoke and mirrors

Advertising 3.x takes advantage of the hierarchy of needs to convince consumers to look past their immediate needs, rooted in reality; “I need a breath of air” and shifting their focus to the merits of various paint colors. If you are thinking about paint colors, you are unlikely to be thinking about the fact that your current car simply needs to have its battery terminals cleaned in order to be serviceable once again. A dizzying array of choices distracts from the central issue, which is whether you actually need to buy a new car. The consumer is so busy sorting through choices that they tend to skip over the most salient decision with nary a thought.

In advertising 3.x the shovel is sold on the basis of how it makes you feel, not how well it shovels dirt. Advertising 1.x exclaims “shovels for sale”, while advertising 2.x tells us that the shovels at the advertiser’s store are of high quality or low price. In advertising 3.x the consumer will be invited to feel smug because they were smart enough to buy the best shovel ever designed, or to congratulate themselves on recognizing a bargain when they see it. In fact, advertising 3.x could actually convince people that they were smarter, because they chose to pay more for their shovel and they are now of the shovel cognoscenti.

Permission to fantasize

In 1923 there was an advertisement for the Jordan Playboy, a stylish roadster. At that time, car buyers tended to be male but the advertisement in Saturday Evening Post featured a young woman, a ’20s flapper, racing her Jordan Playboy against a cowboy on a fiercely galloping horse with the caption: Somewhere West of Laramie. The text below the drawing talks about an idealized woman that understands the narrator of the text and hints at the admiration she will heap upon the narrator. It states that the car is built for her, even though they are more likely to sell to male customers. The text offers virtually no useful information about the car, but seems to suggest a Jordan Playboy as the ideal vehicle in which to effect one’s escape to Wyoming, where the perfect woman awaits.

Never mind the fact that buying a Jordan Playboy did nothing to break you out of your rut, your job, etc, it allowed you to dream about breaking free and traveling to a world that never actually existed. As brilliant as the ad was, it was a distraction away from reality. In fact, in the world of advertising 3.x, its lack of substance and its power to distract were its best qualities.

It’s not what the product does, it’s how it makes you feel about yourself

And that’s the crux of advertising 3.x. It’s about giving people permission to feel good about themselves, but only if they buy the product. While hedonism seems to be the point of the Jordan Playboy ad, there are other feelings that can be accessed. Products can make you feel smart, practical, conscientious, even humble. The most interesting thing is that the product can function 180 degrees away from that feeling it offers, but clever advertising is about giving permission to the ego to feel a certain way. Substance is not even part of the mix as the Jordon Playboy ad proves.

Items promising energy savings frequently do not actually improve efficiency if we consider the energy embedded in creating the product. The “zero emissions” car I see occasionally on my way to work has simply moved the emissions from the vehicle to the electrical power plant, but the driver has zero emissions badges in plain sight which grants permission to feel good about oneself.

When the fat content of food was a common concern, one major company released  a line of foods that were low-fat, but were still very high in calories, not to mention fat substitutes that may have been worse for you than the fat they displaced. Sugar, a surefire ingredient when it comes to stimulating sales and consumption, has been renamed to all sorts of pseudonyms but remains essentially the same product that spikes blood sugar levels. But the wording on the package gives consumers permission to feel good about using the product and that’s what boosts sales and, while you were warned not to over-indulge sugar, you probably were not warned against overindulging agave, or any of the other pseudonyms for sugar.

Where does it all lead?

This is by no means an exhaustive discussion of advertising, persuasion, or related subjects. It’s hardly more than a tiny scratch in the surface, but it leads us to some potentially frightening places. If you’ve ever wondered why common sense has become a rarity, why uninformed people seem to be so convinced of the rightness of their opinions and why people seem ever more ready to verbally attack and demonize those that disagree with them, then you are seeing the fruitage of advertising 3.x. While I make no effort to conceal my admiration for the cleverness of Somewhere West of Laramie, I see the aggregate effect of the deluge of such advertising to be harmful and dangerous to the function of society.

I believe that people whom have purposely manipulated others to their own ends are a new kind of criminal; one that could only thrive when there were modes of mass communications at their disposal. My respect for the abilities of such people exists only on an academic plane. I believe that advertising 3.x is the reason for the obesity epidemic, much economic strife, and untold human misery. Despots have used advertising 3.x to lure populations into their thrall and then using this influence to manipulate and control those populations.

As in any war, truth is the first casualty

Misdirection, distraction and other surreptitious techniques involve manipulating, even assaulting the perception of reality, something which almost always requires either bold-faced lies, or a telling of matters that while technically true, leaves out so much information and conceals context to the degree that the meaning derived works against truth.

None of this is new. It was written about by Samuel Clemens in the humorous anecdotes of Tom Sawyer, but the practices go back to the beginning of human history. What has changed is the ability to publicize widely and quickly, coupled with the ability to communicate bidirectionally. The Internet itself can be data mined to function as a huge focus group.

Tom Sawyer’s pranks on his aunt Polly were very limited in their ability to cause harm. In the Internet era a simple prank can destroy the hard-earned reputation of a business, destroy the reputation of an individual and has nearly unlimited potential to cause harm. A connected civilization has to be a scrupulously truthful civilization or it will disintegrate.

If you think that I’m exaggerating just compare the world of today with the world of 25 years ago, when the Internet was the province of a relative few in the defense-research and academic fields. Stability has only decreased and it’s because of two convergent factors; the human propensity for untruth coupled with the power of instant mass communication. That is the true story of advertising 3.x.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s