And now, a word from our sponsors…

I always get slightly (or more than slightly) annoyed when people rant about how they aren’t affected by television commercials. For one, you have to look around and realize that we are a culture of consumers; our identities and choices are very much impacted by “brand loyalty”, and we devote tremendous energy to cultivate it. For another, you really can’t judge the effectiveness of a given commercial based on whether or not it persuades you to buy a specific product. Simply making you aware of a given brand has a value to the company that paid for the ad. The subject can get a lot deeper from there (there is a level of intelligence and research that goes into advertising that equals or exceeds pretty much every other human endeavor, even war).

But the real trick is simply to learn to cope with living in a softly-deterministic universe. The notion that we’re not completely in control of our own choices is rightly threatening, but it’s also the reality we live with. Brain chemistry, cognitive bias, misinformation and outright deceit all have tremendous impact and our own bias’ and predispositions are formed long before we become consciously aware that there’s anything like an actual process behind it — worse, many never figure this out at all.

My favorite, ham-fisted example is Stanley Milgram’s notorious “experiment 18”, in which 37 of 40 test subjects administered what they believed were near-fatal electric shocks to actors based on the urging of “authority figures”. Trying to explain the experiment to someone who is unfamiliar with it or similar endeavors frequently comes across to the listener as though they’re being told they’d electrocute someone if a cop told them to do it — and it really isn’t too far off, except that such studies are necessarily a lousy predictor of individual behavior and portraying them that way reinforces bias rather than combating it.

In reality, what someone should ideally take away from such an example is just to be aware of the fact that we can be influenced by perceived authority figures to behave in ways we might regard as unethical or undesirable under different circumstances. But as a species, we have an unfortunate tendency to turn everything into an all or nothing proposition, so unfortunately, the “followers” — the people most likely to be influenced by this kind of scenario, are also the least likely to be willing to consider that their choices are anything but their own.

Subsequently, I can’t help but notice that the folks most likely to gripe about commercials are also the people that take the most enjoyment from shopping. Myself, if I expose myself to too much television, I worry that it will cloud my concept of normal behavior. Last thing I want to do is wind up feeling inadequate because my life doesn’t resemble what I see on TV — and of course, this happens all the time anyway.

But the idea is not to try to eliminate the influence altogether — if it isn’t outright impossible, true success would be a massive effort and take a long time to accomplish. What you’d want to do is just cultivate a modest awareness of how that influence works and then make note of it when you found it actually occurring.

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  • Comments (3)
    • Jane Wheeler
    • April 27th, 2011

    we are so lucky to have 3 or 4 tv channels with no advertising in the uk. i watch very little on the other channels! i find that the suggestiveness of emails advertising new products from companies i have already bought from is very difficult to resist ….

    • Max Bell
    • April 27th, 2011

    Having read so much about the impact of social networking on product sales, I’ve actually been very deliberate about endorsing a few things I found worked especially well for me. I’m also very cynical about actual advertising; when somebody runs a new ad campaign say, for an oil company, I generally expect news of some kind of ecological scandal to follow — and it pretty much happens every time.

    Ran into a guy some time back who’d recently started a job with a biofuels company — hard to be critical about anyone taking a job nowadays, but biofuels have been an especially bad investment — they consume more energy than they produce and drive global food prices way up. Still, if I absolutely had to buy a car right now, I’d either A) buy a $500 japanese import and continue paying increasingly high gas prices and driving global warming or B) lease an outrageously overpriced electric and feel slightly better about it, in spite of how much of that electricity is generated by “clean coal”.

    Of course, what we really need to do in the US/EU is stop exporting weapons, start exporting more family planning and then open up our freaking borders so we can slow down population growth a little more.

    • Uriel
    • April 27th, 2011

    I feel quite secure in a lot of my choices. Or rather I am happy that I believe I know the reasons for my choices. Or at least that I have put some thought into them.

    Advertising works because, as you point out, it works on our insecurities a great deal of the time. In groups insecurities melt away because no one is forced to stand out. Popular is too often mistaken for great. Which is ironic considering how much Advertising directs itself at persuading people they are an individual if they buy the same thing everyone else has.

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