COMM 150
Sept. 26, 2004
#1: "The Public Mind"

Emotions and feelings. Bill Moyers repeatedly said that both advertisers and politicians know that if you want to attract people to what you have to offer, you can always make an appeal based on a particular emotion. “Persuade by reason, motivate by emotion,” he said. If there isn’t an emotion inherently attached to a particular product, invent one for it, instead.

A man named Marshall McLuhan once wrote a book called “The Medium Is the Massage.” One of the things he says is that “The media work us over completely,” and Moyers knows that too. Advertisers know knowledge is power, Moyers says. And that can be almost anything, ranging from knowledge of a demographic to knowledge of psychological mind games. They always have another card up their sleeve, and in the 15 years since Moyers’ documentary, there are even more new ways of manipulating people. And McLuhan’s book was originally written over 30 years ago—says a lot, doesn’t it? If you control the emotions, you control the person and their actions.

One of the things that advertisers love to include in their ads is something that evokes a feeling of warmth or tranquility. Look at this ad from Febreze— their product is a machine that “play[s] scents like you play music.” People tend to feel serene and at peace with nature, so look at the carefully picked outdoors scenes that this product would supposedly remind us of.

Similarly, look at this ad from Splenda and this ad from Mirage. These use visual imagery, but as symbols. The people who put the ad together don’t expect us to believe that a tender moment is going to come from a sweetener packet or a hardwood floor. These products don’t represent feelings, but the little girl or the girl with Grandpa is supposed to. These products try for emotion by association—they want you to believe that there’s a connection between the product being shown and the feeling it’s showing.

In fact, look at the ad from Stickley Furniture. They use actual customer stories—what could be more real than an actual person who will vouch for the fact that they attach a certain feeling to the product? But that’s not the point, if you think about it. Someone may well have a sense of happiness or a fond memory for a particular brand, but even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean the same thing for us. The other person who has those fond memories has them because there’s a familiarity that’s been built up over time. Think about it… most of us probably don’t have families who’ve been using Stickleys for that long, so we don’t have any reason to feel the same way, but we’re told to.

Many other ads rely on more directly psychological ways to attract people. This one is from A Diamond Is Forever. It says, “God created woman. Then, after several million years of practice, he created yours.” There are many ads that supposedly celebrate something about us. This type of ad is rather simple: It says, “You’re worth it. Give yourself the best.” And the implication is, “This brand is the best.” Flattery seldom fails.

This next type of ad is a cruel one. Look at this hair-color gel from Scruples. Remember, Moyers told us that a fundamental human emotion is that of acceptance — and in a culture where looks are the first thing noticed, we want to look our best and be valued. Now look at this… “Our Daughter’s Wedding.” A photo album for one of the most important events in someone’s life. And look, it’s an ad for Botox! Look what it’s saying, and what all ads like this are really doing: They play on people’s fears and insecurities. Many middle-aged people would be present at a wedding, and middle-age is a vulnerable time. What’s so sinister about these ads is they don’t even have to do the dirty work, just set the ball rolling: Plant the smallest seed of doubt in someone’s mind, and if that seed grows, the person will convince himself that he’s not good enough. Then the product looks like a savior to him, when in reality it was what first told them they’re not good enough!

Suppose we switch to a simpler ad. This one has done its homework. This Toyota ad says “There’s a part of black history in every automobile” and shows us all the different car parts that have been invented by a black person. Toyota says, “This is to your credit. You’re part of the reason for our success and we recognize that.” This ad isn’t intrinsically evil; it’s just manipulative. Giving credit to people isn’t why ads are written. If Toyota added “…therefore, Toyota is of higher moral character because it uses these parts” to what they said, that would be an outright lie, because all cars use those parts, not just Toyotas. 

Those are just some of the ways in which advertisers try to play mind games with us. McLuhan says, “So pervasive are they in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, or unaltered.” Here is an ad that says “Reality. What a letdown.” In other words, it’s escapism. Watching TV isn’t going to hurt you. But it’s smoke-and-mirrors; it’s all about masking reality, or at least an attempt to change our perception of it. And when we don’t like reality as it is, illusion seems an easy way out. It’s not. It’s dangerous. I hold that all advertising, by its very nature, is manipulative. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be trying to convince you to act a certain way, buy a certain thing or feel a certain way.