I was a teenager when I first heard the notion that advertising was a subtle form of manipulation that lures us into believing we need products to be happy and fulfilled. I thought the notion was preposterous. After all, said I, the only benefit of commercials is letting us know about new products, right? I thought the people promoting this idea of advertising as manipulation were paranoid conspiracy theorists.
What I didn’t understand, and what most people still fail to appreciate, is that our brains operate on numerous levels, most of which are subconscious or unconscious. We are animals, and our behaviour is driven more by urges, desires, and biological instinct than any amount of conscious deliberation and choice. Science has known this for several decades now and at this point has amassed so much information towards this that Francis Crick’s Astonishing Hypothesis is really no longer all that astonishing.
The science of human psychology has been the foundation of advertising for at least a generation now. When you understand the thinking processes that underlie our behaviours you gain the power to manipulate. And that is what advertising companies do. Think I’m being paranoid? Read on:
“In spite of the individuals who deplore the restlessness and the dissatisfaction in the wake of those new wants created by advertising and who actually therefore propose to restrict the process, it must be clear that the well-being of our entire system depends on how much motivation is supplied the consumer to make him continue wanting”
“…our economy is geared to the faster and faster tempo of [the average individual’s] buying, based on wants which are created by advertising in large degree.”
– both quotes by Pierre Martineau, marketing director for the Chicage Tribune, 1957
Even back in the fifties they recognized the importance of advertising in creating the “urge to splurge” and maintaining consumer demand for products. Advertisements are not, as I so naively assumed, benign public service announcements informing us of the latest consumer product. They are, instead, superbly designed to generate a level of want in us that is not consciously recognizable, but alters our spending behaviour nevertheless.
The potential power of advertising was known as far back as the turn of the last century:
“There is no reason for believing that more leisure would ever increase the desire for goods. It is quite possible that the leisure would be spent in the cultivation of the arts and graces of life; in visiting museums, libraries and art galleries, or hikes, games and inexpensive amusements. It would decrease the desire for material goods. If it should result in more gardening, more work around the home in making or repairing furniture, painting and repairing the house and other useful avocations, it would cut down the demand for the products of our wage paying industries.”
– Harvard economist Thomas Nixon Carter (1865 – 1961)
“Sell them their dreams, sell them what they longed for and hoped for and almost despaired of having. Sell them hats by splashing sun across them. Sell them dreams – dreams of country clubs and proms and visions of what might happen if only. After all, people don’t buy things to have things. They buy hope – hope of what your merchandise will do for them. Sell them this hope and you won’t have to worry about selling them goods.”
– Philadelphia business promotor 1923
In the immortal words of the Crocodile Hunter, “‘Crikey! It’s worse than I thought!”