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Master manipulators

Feb 11 2013 07:30 * Mandi Smallhorne

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IT ALWAYS amazes me how little we think, really think, about the full impact of the vast advertising landscape in which we now live.

Ads are EVERYWHERE.  They’ve become such a big part of our lives that they shape some of the things we think and feel.

People discussing advertising – whether on radio, online or in impassioned letters to various media – make it clear that ads can profoundly move them.

Of course they can – that’s what they’re designed to do. But we should never forget that they are not designed for our greater good. Ads manipulate us for one purpose: to sell more product.

“... advertisements share one basic value system. Advertisements may be individually innocent, collectively they are the propaganda wing of a consumerist ideology.

"The moral of the thousands of different stories they tell is that the only way to secure pleasure, popularity, security, happiness or fulfilment is through buying more; more consumption - regardless of how much we already have.” (Justin Lewis in 2011).

And in order to do that, they must be really, really good at manipulating us. Yes, I know you think you’re a grown-up and you exercise your critical faculties and make conscious choices, but a fair bit of research suggests that we don’t comprehend the under-the-radar effects of advertising.

“...we showed a group of adults a short television documentary that incidentally included either snack-food ads, nutritious-food ads, or no food ads.  After the programme, they took part in what they thought was a separate study in which they taste-tested a range of healthy (e g, fruits) and unhealthy snack foods. 

"We found that the adults who had been exposed to the snack food ads ate more of all types of food during the taste test compared to the other conditions.” (Researcher Dr John A Bargh, writing in Psychology Today, June 21 2009.)

Dr Bargh says that the participants "strongly resisted" the idea that the ads had influenced them – as would I. Who wants to feel she’s a zombie with no free will?

But talk about the power of advertising to people in the industry – and to lots of outsiders – and they’ll diss the very idea. “No, no,” says the advertising expert in a beautiful Oxbridge accent, “advertising simply provides you with information about products, so you can make your own choices.”

Whenever I hear someone pooh-pooh the impact of ads like this, I remember that the world spends about $500bn a year on advertising; why spend that much if it does nothing but inform?

All part of business. But if advertising is so powerful, should we be concerned about the social messages it conveys? Since advertising now occupies just about every space possible, from Facebook pages to the handrails alongside airport walkways, I think we should.

Here’s an example of what I mean by social messages: the Lotto ad where the guy hires a band to take a dig at the girl he once fancied: “Don’t you wish you’d said Yes to my matric dance?

"We’d be in the money now, and we’d be making plans.” Ha ha, sure, I know. But is it really cool to "model" to viewers that the appropriate reaction to rejection is to nurse a grudge until you can get your own back and really, really rub the poor chick’s nose in it? This “Hey, I’m smarter/cooler than the other idiot” theme is quite common.

A plethora of ads work on the premise that all people lapa side of, say, 35 are deeply, deeply unsussed about tech stuff, and hence life too, since techiness today is life itself (by the way, my go-to person for tech wisdom is a woman of nearly 70 who happens to be oh-so-geeky).

Think of the radio ad where the patient 12-year-old guides her father, who is "noodling" paint products, to a site full of the right stuff. First off, I don’t know anyone under the age of 50 who doesn’t know Google – and use it (which this dad must surely be, unless he’s a dad like Hugh Hefner or Rod Stewart).

But secondly, should we be fostering an attitude that adults are dumb and rather laughable creatures? How does that help parents and teachers to exercise influence and control over their kids? And how will young people raised on such messages respond to authority in the workplace?

Then there are the ads which make us feel as though life isn’t worth living – indeed, that you aren’t worth anything – if you don’t have/use the product in question. Today, I saw an overseas ad campaign for a slimmer’s breakfast cereal.

The message is:  when you lose weight, you gain “Strength, Pride, Possibilities, Confidence, Contentment, Zeal, Self-Belief, Pizzazz, Peace and Conviction”. Oh, and “Delight”.

Good grief. So if you’re overweight, you’re doomed to lack pizzazz and delight and all other good things? I don’t think so – but this messaging might make thousands of young women battling to shed a few kilos believe even more firmly that they should postpone living “till I’m thin”.

Of course, there’s not much we can do about all of this – except to ask advertisers and their agencies to be more thoughtful about the messaging they use to sell their products.

And to boycott their products – loudly – if they convey messages that we don’t like.

- Fin24

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.


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