Consumer Psychology: When Will the Villagers Grab Their Pitchforks?

The word “advertising” has a rather benign and practical definition. According to Merriam-Webster, advertising is “the action of calling something to the attention of the public especially by paid announcements.” It is a practice that has been around since the beginnings of civilization to help individuals or groups sell themselves or their goods. However, 20th century modern advertising is an entirely new beast and it has increasingly become more invasive, ubiquitous, and psychologically potent. The shift of focus in advertising from tangible products and services to abstracted, emotionally-centered branding concepts has led to a widening gap between the reality of what is being sold and the broad-brush, euphemistic ideations that are used to represent them. This week’s materials took a deep look at the cultural and societal impact of modern advertising and whether Madison Avenue has gone too far. They left me questioning whether the misleading messages and manipulative techniques implemented by marketing consultants have crossed moral boundaries, significantly damaging the integrity of both business markets and our democratic, political system. Moreover, I began to wonder if the most heavily targeted audiences will eventually revolt against consumerism, and if so, what form such a revolt might take.

Attack of the Clones

In the Frontline Episode, “The Persuaders”, we learned about two individuals who exploit behavioral and social psychology research to help their clients manipulate mass audiences and ultimately control their buying or voting behavior. Clotaire Rapailles used his work with autistic children to come up with a formulaic and questionably effective strategy for “cracking the code” of various consumer cultures, product categories, and brands. Rapailles claims to hunt for peoples’ primal urges, attempting to discover their “reptilian hot buttons” that compel them to action. Frank Luntz is a political consultant who generally works for various conservative candidates and special interest groups. He does research on test groups in order to learn the language, information, and isolated facts required to frame an issue or ideology so that people will go along with it. He teaches politicians and advocacy groups how to talk about an issue and the most effective emotional buzz words to use (e.g. “Death Tax”, “War on Terror”). Both of these individuals have used their craft to become rich and powerful within the highest circles of business and government. However, they actually owe much of their success and ideas to a man who was around long before them.


Edward Bernays has often been referred to as the “father of public relations” Author Larry Tye went a half-step further, coining him as “the father of spin”. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the legendary founder of psychoanalysis. Combining his uncle’s work on the unconscious, primal mind with Wilfred Trotter’s theories of crowd psychology, he came up with PR techniques that manipulated public opinion through subconscious channels (Wikipedia). According to the New York Times, he “helped shape public relations by favoring the use of endorsements from opinion leaders, celebrities, doctors and other ‘experts’.” Adam Curtis illustrates this strategy in his documentary Century of the Self: Leveraging feminist spirit and rhetoric, Bernays hired a group of young debutantes and staged a seemingly grassroots-driven “torches of freedom” event, ultimately helping the American Tobacco Company reset societal taboos surrounding female public smoking virtually overnight. Over 70 years later, similar techniques were templated by Madison Ave and used to help Sprite turn its brand into a hip-hop music icon.



We’re Not Crazy, We’re Local!

Just like “the merchants of cool” (i.e. Disney, AOL Time Warner, Viacom, etc.) are constantly looking to co-opt what teens presently consider “cool”, top advertisers are now attempting to deceitfully leverage the most current social-political sentiments surrounding such populist trends as anti-globalization and eco-friendliness. One great example of this, is what many are now calling “localwashing”. This is a strategy by large corporations to exploit the sudden rise of the local food and sustainability movements (i.e. “localvores”) who strive to support and build self-reliant food economies that “integrate the environmental, economic, and social health of their food systems in particular places.” Companies such as Whole Foods, Pepsi, and Walmart have all been recently pushing ad campaigns in which they dubiously claim their products are local (see here for a slideshow of examples). Starbucks was so brazen that it decided to open a location in its birth town of Seattle, thinly disguising the coffee shop as a small, independent business called “15th Ave Coffee and Tea.” Perhaps the most ridiculous perpetrator of “localwashing”, however, is the Venezuelan-owned oil company, Citgo. As a part of one of their current ad campaigns, they are putting up billboards across the country with the absurd slogan, “Local. Loyal. Like it should be.” They also have an entire page on their website sappily devoted to a massive, neon sign that resides next to Fenway Park in my beloved city of Boston. On this webpage, they praise the Citgo sign as a “majestic” landmark that citizens fought tirelessly to save. They even include an anonymous, supposedly “well-know Boston quote” that equates the sign to Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower.


Don’t Take it Personally

The “localwashing” efforts described above illustrate another phenomena discussed extensively in the documentary, The Corporation.  Many multinational companies, in recent years, have essentially managed to personify themselves (both symbolically and legally). Noam Chomsky once stated in an interview with CorpWatch:

“Corporations, in other words, were granted early in this century the rights of persons, in fact, immortal persons, and persons of immense power. And they were freed from the need to restrict themselves to the grants of state charters.”



It seems predictable that these corporations would now use localwashing to try and create a personal bond with consumers, acting as if they are truly members of our local community and family. As discussed in “The Persuaders”, top advertisers have also extended this personification into the world of entertainment media as well. Thanks to a growing alliance commonly referred to as “Madison & Vine”, advertisers have managed to insert their brands, front and center, into popular TV shows and movies, even portraying them as sympathetic heros. Such was the treatment of FedEx in “Castaway”.

Escaping The Matrix

It is now quite clear that advertisers plan to continue inserting themselves into our lives, crowding and imposing on our cultural identity and personal space. For them, they believe it is vitally necessary to “break through the clutter” that they created in order to simply survive. This is at least how NYU professor, Mark Miller sees it. Miller fears that our American culture is in great peril under the threat of such aggressive marketing:

“Once a culture becomes entirely advertising friendly, it ceases to be a culture at all. It ceases to be a culture worth the name.”

As Acxium harvests more and more personal data about us and “narrowcasting” becomes more pervasive, we will be segmented, categorized and stereotyped at ever more granular levels. This will likely provide advertisers with endless opportunities to target each and every one of us and feed us the messages they hope and pray our “reptilian” brains will instinctually react to.

The big question is when will consumers finally revolt? Is there a breaking point where consumers will simply become so over-saturated and over-stimulated that they simply grow deaf to all of the noise? Cable bills and movie ticket prices continue to skyrocket, yet the product is arguably getting worse. How many ads can be stuffed into a sitcom or a movie before it becomes so manufactured and contrived, so sugary and fake, that people finally just turn the television off all together and stop going to movie theaters? Independent and amateur content is becoming more and more sophisticated every day, as the tools for producers become cheaper and easier to use. Web-based podcasts are gaining steam and quickly becoming more innovative and intriguing than the reality TV flood that has washed over all of the old media airwaves. Ad-based traditional media is failing because advertisers recognize their investments are reaching a level of diminishing returns, but as they attempt to co-opt the creative content itself, they might just inadvertently kill the “cool” completely. If that happens, perhaps we will all learn to rediscover the rebellious teen identities still hiding deep down inside and tear away to build our own, democratic media world, leaving the middlemen and former authoritative sources behind. Clay Shirky’s vision of “Mass amateurization” might just be the undercurrent that finally breaks our consumer culture free, as we enter a new age of read/write interaction and cooperative, collective endeavors.