Sunday, May 26, 2019

"The Return of the Hidden Persuaders"

The sight of the Facebook ad salesman extolling the mindbending effects of advertising on FB to potential customers at the same time his boss Mr. Zuckerberg is on Capitol Hill denying any efficacy whatsoever in shaping public attitudes—whether by  commission of or omission of—anything on or not on his website is pretty funny.

From American Affairs Journal:
Critiques of advertising are back. Ten years ago, casual talk about how advertising influences behavior would have come across as weird and paranoid—the preserve of the online conspiracy fringe. Today it is everywhere. Leading journalistic outlets fret over something resembling mind control. Politicos talk in ominous tones of stolen elections and Manchurian candidates. And government agencies, large monopolies, and many other institutions seem to want access to our precious “data.” The new marketing technologies are the culprit, we are told. Big Data gathering, targeted advertising, GPS tracking—the robots are coming. And they are coming for nothing less than the freedom of our wills.
Scary stuff. But what is really going on? Is it all a bit overblown? Or are there even more profound social and cultural changes taking place beneath the surface?
Let us start at the beginning. Advertising is really nothing but an attempt at social engineering. It is an attempt to channel human desire and action into specific, pre-planned activities that are considered amenable to those who run the advertisements—in some cases the same people who run our society. So it should not be particularly surprising that advertisers often venture into the mystical realm of social psychology seeking illumination. There they find, basically, two sets of tools for manipulating people: psychodynamics and behaviorism.
Let us start with the former. It is distinctly German in flavor. In the work of someone like the nineteenth-century psychodynamic pioneer Wilhelm Wundt it is shot through with Kantian transcendentalism and Hegelian idealism. In the more popular work of Sigmund Freud it is laced with Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will. Psychodynamics is a discipline obsessed with ghostly presences and melancholy absences. It tells us that we want something—a new car, a certain lover, a ham sandwich—because the object is inhabited by the spectral presence of something that we remember from long ago, something that receded from our grasp and left us with a gaping void into which our desires flow. The “trick” of stimulating desire, a psychodynamist will tell you, is to call the ghosts to the surface and then fill the gap between fantasy and reality with a flashy object.
The most obvious and vulgar example of this was when Freud’s own nephew—Edward Bernays, the founder of modern public relations—tried to flog cigarettes to women as phallus substitutes. The story goes like this: During the 1920s the suffragette movement was ascendant. Young women in the Western world were marching in order to secure the vote. Bernays consulted Freud’s colleague and translator A. A. Brill. Here is what Brill reportedly said:
Smoking is a sublimation of oral eroticism; holding a cigarette in the mouth excites the oral zone. It is perfectly normal for women to want to smoke cigarettes. . . . But today the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.1
Bernays then took the phrase “torches of freedom” and turned it into a public relations campaign. He hired a group of women to march in a 1929 Easter Sunday parade holding their torches of freedom for the entire world to see.
Bernays’s little stunt probably did quite a bit to normalize smoking among women. But did it really have anything to do with “oral erotic zones”? Probably not. Yet Brill was largely correct to observe that cigarettes were seen as the exclusive domain of one sex. And Bernays’s strategy of piggybacking on a movement for equal rights to sell cigarettes was no doubt clever. This had less to do with “oral erotic zones” than it had to do with social engineering—tobacco companies wanted a larger market, and smoking equality between the sexes expanded their market. So they hitched themselves to the equality bandwagon to sell their cigarettes. Today we see advertisers trying to attach their brands to fashionable political causes all the time—from massive corporate sponsorship of pride parades, to Budweiser’s “America” cans in 2016, to Pepsi’s widely ridiculed ad featuring Black Lives Matter protest imagery.
Politicians adopted these techniques early on. Bernays himself advised President Calvin Coolidge to meet with celebrities in the White House. Coolidge was seen as a rather dull man, so Bernays set up “pancake breakfasts” between him and popular Broadway stars. He then fed stories to the press with witty headlines. One such story mentioned that one of the stars had “almost made Coolidge laugh.” Bernays was a master of seamlessly eroding the boundaries between corporate power, the press, and political power. All three were corralled into a single arena and made to sing from the same hymn sheet. In many ways, the world we live in today is the one that Bernays built.
Behaviorist Advertising
But let us now turn to the second influential theory. Behaviorism is a lot cruder than psychodynamics. If psychodynamic advertising is like a mysterious foreigner calling late at night to read you poetry, behaviorist advertising is more like a robocaller that interrupts your microwave dinner. Behaviorism is all about repetition. In its modern form it was born out of the personal hell of a strange, obsessive man interacting for long periods of time with caged pigeons.
Burrhus Frederic Skinner, then a graduate student in psychology at Harvard, created what he called an “operant conditioning chamber.” The device itself was not quite as interesting as the moniker makes it sound. In fact, the operant conditioning chamber was just a box with some lights, a speaker, a food dispenser, a mildly electrified floor, and some levers to activate the latter two features. Into the “Skinner box,” as it came to be known, went a pigeon—or perhaps a rat, if the incessant cooing was getting on Skinner’s nerves.
What Skinner found was that the creature tended to learn from its mistakes. Eventually it realized that if it hit the lever connected to the electricity it would get a shock, and if it hit the lever connected to the food it would get a tasty treat. Needless to say, the poor pigeon learned to avoid the shock lever and peck at the food lever when it was hungry. From this “experiment,” Skinner began to construct a grand theory of human behavior. He argued that human behavior is basically “conditioned” by stimulus and response, and that the pigeon shocked into avoiding the wrong lever was basically a model for us all. Others were less enthusiastic, however. Linguist Noam Chomsky wrote:
Skinner confuses “science” with terminology. He apparently believes that if he rephrases commonplace “mentalistic” expressions with terminology derived from the laboratory study of behavior, but deprived of whatever content this terminology has within this discipline, then he has achieved a scientific analysis of behavior. It would be hard to conceive of a more striking failure to comprehend even the rudiments of scientific thinking.2
But while Chomsky was dismissive of the scientific content of Skinner’s theories, he was quick to point out that they contained very strong and rather aggressive prescriptions for social engineering. “The libertarians and humanists whom Skinner scorns object to totalitarianism out of respect for freedom and dignity,” wrote Chomsky. “But, Skinner argues, these notions are merely the residue of traditional mystical beliefs and must be replaced by the stern scientific notions of behavioral analysis.”3 The psychodynamists tried to bend the whims and desires of the population to their own ends; Skinner wanted to control the popular will through intrusive intervention....