Hidden Persuaders: More of the Same, or is it Different This Time?

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.2014_under_infograpihc

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?


Minimalism and Memories

What does a memory weigh?

We are seeing a movement towards minimalism, which I think is the result of many things. At least a couple of generations have lived through the meteoric rise in consumerism, which really took off in the fifties after WWII. We were coming out of a depression and a devastating war, and our industrial might was turned from military to consumer production. For people who had been relatively deprived and living off rationed commodities, the opportunity to acquire goods and services was exciting. We began to see a shift from a “needs” economy to a “wants” economy. As basic needs were met, we went up Maslow’s hierarchy to things which (we thought) would bring higher self-actualization.

We have now lived with this unprecedented rise in consumerism for over 60 years, and while we have achieved what most agree is a higher standard of living, there have been costs and unintended consequences. In our rush to acquire more stuff, to get the latest new toy, to wear the right clothes, we have learned that “more” isn’t necessarily better. We probably knew it all along, but we still went along with the game.

When I got out of school, my worldly possessions could fit in the trunk of a car (and I didn’t even own a car). So, like everyone I knew, I began to acquire stuff. Much of it was necessary and practical – clothes, appliances – but not all of it was. When I saved money, it was to be able to buy more stuff. I actually wasn’t good on spending money on experiences – trips, eating out – because that was ephemeral and kept me from buying more stuff. But I see that today that equation has shifted – I think for the better.

fullsizeoutput_b04cWhat I see now is that people are tiring of things, and they valuing experiences. And I think that is a good thing. People understand that all of that stuff comes with a cost. Cost to store, to maintain, to organize, to move. Some of that cost is hard dollars, some is physical, but a lot is emotional. It weighs on us to figure out what to do with all of the stuff we have, and all of the stuff we inherit from parents and family.

Most Millennials I know have no interest in keeping their parents’ stuff – especially their china, silver and old heavy furniture.  They want to travel light. At the same time “seniors” are worried that their kids will throw out everything, and with it will go all of the memories they collected over their lifetime, and across generations.

Have you ever thought – what does a memory weigh? Well, I think it depends on how you define it and what you do with with it. If a memory is wrapped up in an object, a thing, it can get pretty heavy.  It can also get lost in the sheer volume of stuff when it gets stored in boxes, and put away for the next generation.

So what are the memories that matter, and what do you do about it? I like to think of memories as stories. Stories that we tell ourselves as reminders of past experiences, stories we tell and share so they can live on with others. Stories are how humans have evolved civilizations across millennia.

And here’s the beauty of it. Stories, which are what really matter, don’t weigh a thing. But they mean the most.

Calling BS on Boomers

I am a Boomer, and I’m sad to admit that my generation is failing in our leadership responsibility. This is our time to lead, and we simply are not up to the task. Which is a real shame because in our youth we questioned authority, had dreams of creating a utopian society and were given advantages not available to previous generations. But we blew it.

  • Our leaders are dividing, not uniting us (it’s not just Trump).
  • Our leaders are seeking personal wealth and are OK leaving others behind.
  • Our leaders are all about winning, even if that means someone else is losing.
  • Our leaders take care of themselves first, because after all, they are the “me generation”.

Well, I’m not OK with that. And I am glad to see that the youth are calling BS on this generation of “do-nothing, what’s-in-it-for-me” political leaders. Maybe that’s what it’s going to take to change the debate and generate action on gun control and mental health.   Maybe the Florida school shooting is a tipping point.  Maybe we’ve gotten so numb to another school shooting, and that alone is scaring the hell out of us. It should.

quoteleadWe Boomers changed the world when we were in our teens. We did it when we called BS on Viet Nam, on Nixon, on the establishment. We were the ones who said “don’t trust anyone over 30”. So c’mon Boomers. I thought we were better than this. There’s still some life in us (I hope), but if not, it’s time to turn over the reins.  Can we remember the days when we wanted to change the world for the better, when we marched for just cases, when we fought for freedom from discrimination and for equal opportunity? If not – if we can’t return to those ideals of our youth – well then it’s time to get out of the way for a new generation of leaders. Today’s youth is having to grow up way too fast for all of the wrong reasons.  Shame on us.

Why Stop with Thoughts and Prayers?

Not so long enough, when tragedy struck on a personal or global level, it was comforting and appreciated to send thoughts and prayers for those in distress.  Now “thoughts and prayers” seems to be a signal of helplessness.  We have become numb to violence and tragedy, and this has become an automatic response. And when it becomes automatic, is it really meaningful?

Yesterday, as a nation we suffered the eighth school shooting of 2018 – just seven weeks into the new year. Something is desperately wrong, and we lack the political will to solve it. There is plenty of outrage and sorrow, and you would think that would have an impact. But our politicians throw up their hands and just send thoughts and prayers.

When the planes hit the twin towers on 9-11, almost 3,000 people were killed. And our way of life was changed forever. We engaged in a costly war that we are still fighting, and we made air travel incredibly inconvenient for the sake of security. As a frequent traveller myself for several years, I was perfectly happy to suffer the inconvenience of added security.

Those against gun control argue that guns don’t kill people; people kill people.  If we apply that logic to 9-11, why did we do so much to change air travel? Why did we make it so much harder to fly? Yes, there is some gun control now, just like there was some airport security before 9-11.  But 9-11 was a game changer and we tightened security dramatically – and it seems to have made a difference. So why do we do NOTHING about improving gun control laws after repeated instances of lone shooters inflicting massive casualties with assault weapons? It seems pretty obvious to me that no-one should have access to assault weapons, except perhaps in a highly controlled environment. And even then, it’s questionable.

And if it’s a mental health issue, why we are we undermining our health care system so those who need help will find it even harder to get it. Yes, mental health is a very complex issue, and we’re not dealing with it well at all.

We sent thoughts and prayers after 9-11, and then we acted at great cost to our society and people’s lives. Why stop with thoughts and prayers now?

So are thoughts and prayers worthless? I don’t think so. For many they are heartfelt, genuine and the only available option. For those suffering a heartbreaking loss, there is no immediate solution or answer. Being held up by the compassion of others has worth. But for our politicians, they are simply not enough. Certainly not any longer. You can no longer stop with thoughts and prayers. I want to see what you say, and what you do next.

Building character in an instant gratification world.

We all want to be happy, and these days it seems that we all want it now. We have plenty of tools and commercial enterprises who are more than willing to feed our desire for instant gratification. I can’t blame them, but isn’t it up to us to control those urges and maintain some discipline? I would say yes, but I would also say that it’s harder than ever to do it. And as a society we send strong messages every day that rewarding self is what matters.  It didn’t used to be this way.

9780812993257_p0_v2_s550x406I’m reading what I think is a wonderful book – The Road to Character, by David Brooks. I’m still early in the book, but it is hitting on an important topic today, and I highly recommend it.  That building character is important and admirable, that it takes us out of self, and that it takes work and sacrifice. In a society that focuses on achievement and performance and winning, we need to remember how to practice humility and good deeds.  You may or may not know David Brooks is a conversation columnist and political reporter, and he has been a strong critic of how the GOP has lost its way in its desire to regain power. How it has gotten on the populist bandwagon because that’s where the mob seems to be going right now. Interestingly, this book was written in 2015, before the current political craziness. But I find it more relevant now than ever.

In his book, he tells stories of Americans who were raised in a time when building character was important and intentional.  When people made personal sacrifices because they believed in higher causes than self advancement. An important point is that character is a learned behavior – it is not something we are just born with.  It is taught and expected by parents, by teachers, and by society. And it is learned by practice, by making mistakes, by a willingness to make sacrifices.  The easiest example is to think about The Greatest Generation.  Raised during the Depression, fighting in World War II, they made enormous sacrifices for this country in the world.

It is good to see that we still honor those who make sacrifices today to protect and serve – our military, police officers, fire fighters. We lost that practice of honoring self-sacrifice in the Vietnam, Me Generation era, and I’m glad to see it back. But do we carry that to our own lives, or let others do the sacrificing for us? Well, that’s the easy way out, and it’s part of the problem. Do we have the patience and discipline to build character in today’s distracted, ADD, sound bite, selfie, Instagram, social media world. Have we lost the ability to delay gratification? Are we chasing happiness so much that we aren’t willing to make sacrifices?

The unexamined life is not worth living " Socrates quot?

As we lead our busy lives, it is harder than ever to reflect and learn.  We react and do.  But that is not how we build character. We have to be thoughtful, we have to be willing, we have to be intentional, and we have to get out of ourselves. Building takes time – one step at a time, and you don’t get there overnight. As David Brooks says, it is a “road”.  It’s a journey that you take one step at a time, and truthfully you never arrive at a final destination, because there is no perfection. But it’s journey worth taking, and we need it more than ever. Wouldn’t you agree?

Let’s work FOR, not against

Life is difficult.  Those are the opening words of The Road Less Travelled by Scott Peck. I believe that is true, and that we learn through struggle, by learning from failure, and by rising above our circumstances. But I also believe that we grow when we are supported and encouraged by people who are on our side, who want us to succeed, who work FOR us.

My daughter plays tennis and basketball in Special Olympics, and it is a wonderful experience for her and all of the athletes.  In a life full of challenges, it is a safe place where they are welcomed and cheered and play with friends.  Coaches, parents, family and fellow athletes work FOR each other, and I’ve seen more good sportsmanship in a Special Olympics event than anyplace else. And yes, awards and medals are passed out freely.  But if you think that is coddling because everyone gets a “participation trophy”, let me assure you that those athletes are competitive and want to win.  But the wonderful thing is that when they don’t when, they handle it so much better than NT’s (neurotypicals).  The Special Olympics motto is “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.” Truly, the athletes live up to this.


I wish that more people would attend a Special Olympics event.  If they did they would see smiles and joy and laughter and celebration, and how it helps them overcome the negatives in their life.  Because those positive emotions coexist with struggle, challenge and pain.  Many of these special athletes face everyday challenges – like getting and keeping a job, transportation when they can’t drive.  They live in a world where everyone is struggling to get by and pushes against them because they don’t understand their challenges.

I have seen the power of working FOR rather than pushing against.  When you tap into what truly motivates someone, and support them on their journey, you are helping them succeed.  That does not mean that you make it easy on them.  You have to provide appropriate challenges for them to overcome so they can learn by doing.  The challenge is in getting the balance right. But the motivation is always clear – you are working FOR that person. And from that position, you both grow.