Advertisements aren’t inherently bad, but many use manipulative tactics that influence in ways we don’t even realise. Despite how much you think you ignore them, and how little you may believe they affect you, that’s not necessarily the case. Here’s a look at how manipulative ads work, the problems they cause, and what you can do to avoid these negative consequences.You see ads every day, whether it’s on a web page, before a movie, or in the middle of a TV show, and it’s easy to say “they’re just ads” because, at worst, they feel like a nuisance or interruption. A lot of people have difficulty accepting the idea that ads are manipulative, because we want to believe we’re in complete control of our choices. While the concept of advertising isn’t inherently problematic, we’ve moved on from the “Eat at Joe’s” sign to far more complex and sometimes even moving, cinematic messages that are designed to create significant memories of a product. These memories are created because an ad succeeds at making us feel something – whether it’s good or bad — and that emotional response can have a profound effect on how we think and the choices we make. Not all advertising is bad, but we’re going to take a look at what’s problematic, what isn’t, and ways you can avoid the negative effects associated with so much of what you passively experience.
The Problem: Advertising Is for the Rich, Not You
Photo by Andrew Magill
Advertising exists because there’s a product a company wants to sell and they want people to know about it so they can buy it. This much is obvious. Sometimes that product is a cleaning spray or a microwave oven, but often it’s yet another article of clothing, a gadget, another meal out, or something else you don’t necessarily need. These advertisements aren’t for the average person with a small amount of spending cash, but rather they’re for the rich.
Rich people don’t make up a large portion of any population, but they’re the ones with money to spend. They can see an ad, decide they want a product, go buy it, and it has very little affect on their wallet. The problem is that we all see the same advertising but can’t necessarily afford the purchases. We all want the lifestyle of the rich, as we see it depicted in television, film and commercials.
We Reference What We Desire
We’re not so blind that we believe our studio apartments are servant-filled mansions, but we see people in similar situations on television who live in a way we couldn’t afford. Take the show Friends, for example. Rachel and Monica shared a gigantic apartment in Manhattan despite Rachel working, for some time, as a waitress and Monica as a chef. Collectively they enjoyed a lifestyle they couldn’t afford. This is one example of many in which you’ll find TV characters living outside their means with no consequences. Entertainment shows us average people living a better lifestyle than they can afford without many monetary concerns. And then we’re shown advertisements, compelling us to buy the lifestyle depicted in our favourite shows. According to David M. Carter, a financial analyst and graduate of the master of applied positive psychology program, this is called referencing:
Experts in the field call it “referencing”. We reference, either intentionally or otherwise, to lifestyles represented to us (in the media or in real life) that we find attractive. We create a vision of ourselves living this idealized lifestyle, and then behave in ways that help us to realize the vision. The problem with this process is that the lifestyles most often portrayed, and ultimately referenced, are well beyond the means of all but a very small percentage of Americans. We aspire to something that the vast majority of us cannot possibly achieve. And, in this attempt to realize our aspirations, we borrow heavily, feel poorly about ourselves because we just can’t seem to get there, and become addicted to a way of living that gradually and inexorably separates us from the things in life that bring us the most joy.
How Manipulative Advertising Works (and What to Do About It)
There are all kinds of ads, but in general they all aim to keep you from thinking and, instead, make your buying choices based on an emotional response. Here’s a look at some of the tactics and what you can do to counteract them.
Don’t Forget to Think
Advertising exists to tell you about a product, which can be as simple as “Brand X soap cleans your dishes” or “Restaurant Y serves food”. Of course, when there’s competition in the market the ads you see need to be a little more descriptive in order to set products apart. For example, a restaurant may serve a reasonably tasty, unhealthy hamburger in under a minute, but why would you choose theirs over another? Because they said so.
According to Dr Julie Sedivy, you can’t really tell the difference between strong and weak arguments:
A pivotal study by Ellen Langer and colleagues provides one of the earliest demonstrations [regarding the ease of persuasion] . In this experiment, students in a university library were approached by an under-cover experimenter who asked to jump ahead of them in the photocopying line and make a few copies. Sometimes, the experimenter would justify the request by saying “May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?” But other times, no explanation was offered. Not surprisingly, students were more reluctant to grant the favor when the experimenter didn’t bother to justify the request. But the justification didn’t actually have to provide a good reason-it just needed to sound like one. So, students complied just as readily when the experimenter gave a “placebo” explanation that was utterly without content: “May I use the Xerox machine because I need to make some copies?” Apparently, just decorating the sentence with the word because was enough to sway the students.
Basically, if you’re not prepared to think — and you often are not when you’re watching television or reading a magazine — you’ll pretty much accept any suggestion if it is offered to you. Since you’re being so passive, you may not even realise it’s happening.
What can you do? Think. When your parents used to tell you “because I said so” you probably weren’t ready to accept that answer. Don’t do it subconsciously when watching an ad. Think about what the ad is saying. Play devil’s advocate and consider the negative aspect of the products that definitely aren’t being shown to you. It only takes a few seconds to consider that the chalupa you’re seeing may or may not contain actual meat. Keep your brain active when you’re looking at ads and you’ll be better off.
Be Wary of Your Emotional Responses
No ad is more effective than one that makes you feel something because emotion and memory are tightly linked (more on this here). The video above belongs to Google and is considered to be one of the best commercials that aired during the 2010 Super Bowl. It uses search strings to tell how a young man goes to Paris, meets a women, falls in love with and marries her, and they start a family. What makes this ad so good is that it not only made many people feel good, but it also demonstrated 1) how Google works, and 2) that Google appears to be an effective way of finding any information you might need throughout your lifetime. Does it tell you whether or not Google is better than another search engine? No. Does it provide you with any potential downsides to using Google, such as whether or not the search results were actually useful? Of course not. It shows you that Google can find lots of different kinds of information and it makes you feel something to be sure you remember it. You may even remember that the scenario describe in an ad happened to you.
If you’ve ever purchased movie theatre popcorn — which is among the unhealthiest foods you can eat (not to mention overpriced) — or chosen something pretty over something functional, you’ve made an emotional choice based on desire rather than thinking about it logically. This is not to say emotions are bad, but that without a balance of emotion and logic you might not always make the best choices. Emotional ads try to capitalise on that phenomenon. An effective ad gets you to buy the product, not buy the product and be happy with it. When you have an emotional response to an advertisement, you need to be wary of any decisions you want to make regarding the product it’s selling.
The arousal of emotions passes with time, and so there are a couple of good things you can do to avoid any negative results. First, when thinking about buying something you want to identify whether your motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic. David Carter explains:
Intrinsic motivation is represented by self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling. Extrinsically-motivated people, on the other hand, focus on financial gain, their appearance, and social popularity. They generally seek acceptance by something or someone outside themselves.
If your motivation is extrinsic, chances are you want to avoid purchasing this thing you believe you want. Desire can be a powerful thing for people, and consumer addiction is a problem, so another tactic that can help is to enforce a mandatory holding pattern on your spending. Basically, the idea is that you require yourself to wait 48 hours before deciding whether or not to make a purchase. If you think you’ll need help with this, find a friend who can hold on to your credit card. Make them the gatekeeper to your purchases. If you truly have an addiction to spending it’s not going to go away immediately. Get someone you trust to help you out.
Watch Out For Products Indirectly Targeted at You
You want your dog to be healthy, but it’s not like you’re the one eating the dog food so you’d think you’re more likely to make a logical choice when choosing their food. That’s not necessarily the case, as ads can target you very well even if you’re making a decision for somebody else.
The ad pictured here (see more) depicts two skinny dogs engaging in human-like intercourse while a fat dog watches. The tag line reads, “LIFE’S HARD when you’re a FAT DOG.” This ad is designed to be funny, but it’s also designed for people to think about how humans judge fat people and play on their desires to lose weight. The ad isn’t selling a better sex life for your dog — a dog that is likely spayed or neutered — but playing upon human concepts of sex and beauty. Sure, a fat dog is likely an unhealthy dog but where in this ad do you learn why the dog food is healthy? You don’t, because, again, the ad isn’t targeting logic — it’s targeting your emotions. You don’t ask whether or not the dog food is healthy because the ad is asking you if you care whether or not your dog is healthy. These types of ads make no real claims. They simply identify the problem and you connect the dots. You assume there’s a connection when there may not be one at all.
So what do you do about it? You do your research. When you view an ad, it helps to ask why. Why am I reacting the way I’m reacting? Why does this product solve a particular problem? If the product interests you, the answer should too. Look for product reviews (while being aware of fakes) and other information that can help you determine if what you want to buy can actually do what you think it can do. Don’t buy blindly — do your research first.
Avoid Ads Entirely
Muting or skipping ads on any medium may seem like an effective way to solve the problem, but ignorance doesn’t mean the ad isn’t still lodged somewhere inside your memory. While avoiding ads entirely is pretty much an impossible prospect, you can still make the effort to get as close as possible. Of course, this means making sacrifices.
If you want to cut out ads from television and never, ever see them, your options aren’t necessarily great. You can buy DVDs when they come out several months after the television season has ended, you can purchase content at a premium (either online or on demand through your pay TV provider), or you can download content via the internet (which may require a set of flexible ethics). You can’t remove or block ads in a magazine or newspaper, so you’ll have to start reading online and use an ad blocker. Even with all of that, you still can’t avoid billboard ads or ads you see outside of your personally cultivated ad-free zone. You’re also not without the influence of reference lifestyles (as discussed earlier) unless you cut out entertainment media altogether. You simply cannot live without ads if you want to be a part of modern society, but a significant reduction is possible using the aforementioned methods.
Photo by Alfonso Contreras
While I, personally, do what I just described — and have for over a decade — there are plenty of reasons you shouldn’t. First of all, if ad revenue is how companies are able to afford to provide entertainment, blocking or removing their ads can hurt their budget. If everyone did that, they’d have no money to produce the content you want. When you don’t see ads, you’ll sometimes find yourself lost in a conversation about ads and products you’ve never heard of. If you like watching televised sports, you don’t get to watch them live (which can ruin the experience). In fact, you don’t get to watch anything live and that generally means watching it the next day. Giving up ads requires patience and sacrifice. While I consider those two things to be very important skills, that’s just my opinion. How you choose to approach this problem is entirely up to you. The most important thing is to remember to think, because regardless of how manipulative advertisements can be your choices are still yours and yours alone.
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