In 1957 Vance Packard published a book called The Hidden Persuaders. Written at a time when consumerism and brand marketing were taking off, at the early age of Mad Men, he decried the use of advertising and brand marketing to persuade and manipulate consumers through subtle, psychological practices. His premise was that marketers used research to identify human weakness, and then manipulate them into buying things they don’t need.
“At one of the largest advertising agencies in America, psychologists on the staff are probing sample humans in an attempt to find out how to identify, and beam messages to people of high anxiety, body consciousness, hostility, passiveness, and so on.”
This was the era of mass marketing, when TV ads were broadcast into our homes, with their jingles and funny characters. These ads were omnipresent and became part of our culture in ways that seemed innocent, but were always designed to sell. A lot of those ads were annoying, some were highly entertaining, and we accepted them as part of the contract – to get television programming for free, we would be OK watching the ads.
It was so simple back then.
Funny thing is that I actually met Vance Packard when he came to speak at my college. He was shy and quiet, hardly a doomsayer for the evils of advertising. And I went on to enjoy a long career in advertising. I did think a bit about his book, but I never quite believed his premise. As I practiced advertising for many years, I learned a few things that persuaded me that his premise was a bit too alarmist. First, it wasn’t as easy to manipulate people as he suggested – we weren’t that good. Second, if we used research the right way to understand and address consumer concerns, we could actually serve their needs better. Third, some marketers do try to manipulate or hard sell, but that usually only works one time – because if you don’t address a true need, you won’t get repeat business. Fourth, there were plenty of lawyers and regulators who established guardrails for what we could and could not do. And lastly, most of the people I met in advertising were good, funny, regular people who were simply trying to get a message out in an entertaining way that would help to sell a product. We didn’t sit in a room trying to figure out how to persuade people to buy something they didn’t want. So I became comfortable that while advertising is selling, it wasn’t really manipulating. Certainly no more than purveyors of magic elixirs and tonics in the 1800’s. As long as everyone understood caveat emptor, it would turn out alright.
Now we are watching what is happening with Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and political marketing. Is it the same time – just another way of selling, albeit more sophisticated? I think it is more of the same, but now it has tipped into dangerous territory.
What is different is the lack of transparency in the tools which are tracking our actual behavior. By using “big data”, behavioral tracking and algorithms, companies can see what are interested in and serve you ads tailored to your interest. In some ways that’s a good thing – you are mostly seeing ads that are relevant to you. That’s fine when you search for a pair a shoes, and ads follow you for a week to entice you to buy. You can choose to act or ignore those ads, and it’s not that big a deal.
But what happens when those same tracking tools are used for something not so obvious? Let’s say that you search for an article or YouTube video on a political topic. To keep you on their site, they will serve you more information on that topic, and over time you can go deeper and deeper. Again, that may be fine if you’re interested in organic gardening, but what if you explore topics like gun control, sexual harassment, white supremacy? Chances are that you will be served information that further reinforces your existing views, and which in fact deepens your existing beliefs. And it’s not so obvious that you’re getting planned messages. It can be served up as interesting information and content, and the sender is disguised.
So, rather than opening us up to a social network of diverse views, the targeting tools are being used in ways that create walled gardens around tribes. Instead of dialogue, we get dogma. Instead of open conversations, we get closed propaganda. And when these tools, which were built for selling consumer products, are used by politicians, they are even more dangerous. Because politicians will use them differently, and the game is different. Unlike selling consumer products, politicians are usually up against one opponent – so they win just by being the lessor of two evils. Also, they just worry about getting elected the first time, not about the long term impact on their “brand”. Sotheyknow that going negative works. They can churn up fear, anxiety, insecurities. They appeal to their base. They deepen divisions. And this relatively new tool of behavioral targeting through social and digital media is perfect for this political strategy.
For years we have had this bargain with media – you give us free programming and content, and we’ll watch your ads. But now that bargain is different. Now the expectation is that to get free content, you need to let us watch and track your behavior, which we can sell to somebody else. That’s a different game. And now that the costs to privacy are coming to light, I think we are going to see some changes. I for one have gone in and changed my privacy settings on social media.
It’s one thing when a company tries to sell me something and I can see them coming. I understand the bargain, and I can make a choice to ignore your advertising. But when they are invisible and tracking my behavior, and when they serve up messaging disguised as interesting content, that’s when I think we’re in the space of “hidden persuaders”. While that phrase felt a bit too alarmist in the era of mass marketing, now it feels more appropriate.
The good news is that people are becoming more aware of how this system works, and they can do some things to protect themselves. Yes, it’s more complicated than it was before, but isn’t that true with everything?