Manipulation – The Great Enemy?

add Decades ago, Pepsi launched an advertising campaign that had people drink Pepsi and Coke from two different cups that were label-less and had them decide which drink they preferred. The results showed that Pepsi was preferred to Coke. This prompted Coke to launch a campaign that slightly altered its age old recipe but failed miserably. A scientist, however, finally uncovered something fascinating that Coke would have liked to have known. Because of years of marketing and positive feelings such as community, Christmas, and family that people have typically associated with Coke, people would find Coke tastier than Pepsi if they knew that they were drinking Coke. Indeed, it is what the neurologist was able to uncover. This story is covered in depth in the book “Buyology”, by Martin Linstrom. The suggestion here is quite fascinating. Our perception of a product can change our taste of it. There are, of course, several other examples of this. One other instance I can recall is in Dan Ariely’s book, “Predictably Irrational”, where he gets college students to drink beer with vinegar in an experiment. The findings suggested that once the students were told that the beer they were drinking contained vinegar, they rated it much lower than when they tasted the same drink without knowing that vinegar was added to it. This relates to the Placebo concept, of course. What we believe can affect our senses. The problem with this concept is it’s difficult to use it to benefit oneself. It’s quite easy to use it to manipulate people, and it’s what most, if not all of what the marketing world are constantly trying to achieve. The reason why it can’t be self-beneficiary is because the attempt of trying to convince yourself something is real undermines the ability to genuinely believe it. I cannot make myself believe that eating a strawberry will cure me of my headache because I know that I don’t have any good reason to believe that strawberries cure headaches. Going back to the Coke vs Pepsi example, what this finding underscores, and quite worryingly, is that marketing is extremely effective, and companies should and will invest as much money as they can to find innovative ways of trying to manipulate people. It is, however, unreasonable to condemn corporations, as they are only responding to the incentives created by people’s responsiveness. Many people are often insulted at the thought of other human beings trying to control their minds, but isn’t that a natural part of human behavior? Whenever we lie, exaggerate, compliment, flirt, joke with other people, are we not trying to provoke some kind of response? And we do so without ever asking for their permission. When you lie to compliment someone to seem more likable, you surely must know that they never explicitly expressed their desire to like you. You are, in effect, manipulating them. There is no difference between large multibillion dollar companies trying to manipulate our minds by using subliminal messages in their advertising campaigns and our attempts in trying to get a person to like us by flirting with them. The reason, I think, why the former is considered a moral abomination while the latter is not is because these companies are making quite ridiculous profits by their efficient use of mind manipulating techniques, whereas the most anyone can get out of flirting with a random stranger is a private relationship with that person. And in both cases, the exchange is bilateral. In other words, when it comes to flirting, both parties (usually) get something out of it. And when it comes to corporate advertising, you are ultimately getting a product for the trouble of letting your mind become manipulated by its subliminal or in-your-face messages. Of course, the obvious drawback is that we sometimes get tricked into buying products we don’t really want or need. But then again, don’t people end up going out on dates with people they never really wanted to go out with in the first place all the time because of a good first impression? It’s precisely the art of first impressions that marketers often spend their lifetimes trying to perfect. Trying to grab a person’s attention from the few seconds that they get to see their ads is the ultimate challenge, and whoever does it the best is the world’s greatest flirt.

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5 thoughts on “Manipulation – The Great Enemy?

  1. “There is no difference between large multibillion dollar companies trying to manipulate our minds by using subliminal messages in their advertising campaigns and our attempts in trying to get a person to like us by flirting with them.”

    I think that as this statement stands, I disagree, even if I think you’re trying to speak to something deeper or I get the gist of the argument you’re making.

    Flirting differs from advertising, to me, because doesn’t almost “need” to be inherently dishonest. Coke is sugar water. It’s an unhealthy, resource heavy, impersonal machine who’s bottom line is profit. Everything it says about itself, even efforts to conserve, are stooped behind a fundamental lie. This is a product that, were it less popular, might beget better health and a better environment.

    Even the most insidious flirt, lying about feelings, a psychopathic level of manipulation of facial features or reading the body language of the easiest and most insecure to take advantage of, is going to do it one person at a time and hopefully only once if/when the person learns from the experience. Advertising arrests an entire culture. You can know everything about how advertisers work and the psychology of the first impression or familiar symbols, and you won’t be able to stop your mouth from salivating at the properly timed commercial.

    Advertising is a deliberate blunt force and massive wave of influence. Flirting, while potentially used insidiously, is a kind of interplay and feedback system that 2 people are voluntarily engaging in. I don’t think corporations get a pass for “humbly trying to promote their product” in the same way a guy might be trying to land a date by leaving out grittier details about his commitment issues during bar banter.

    • “Flirting differs from advertising, to me, because doesn’t almost “need” to be inherently dishonest. ”

      But neither does advertising really. Some advertising is genuine. Some people are trying to sell you something that will be mutually beneficial. I don’t think there is anything inherently dishonest about flirting or advertising.

      “Even the most insidious flirt, lying about feelings, a psychopathic level of manipulation of facial features or reading the body language of the easiest and most insecure to take advantage of, is going to do it one person at a time and hopefully only once if/when the person learns from the experience. Advertising arrests an entire culture.”

      Exactly. This is actually the argument I’m making. The only reason we don’t condemn flirting is because of it’s microscopic nature as compared to advertising, but I’m saying that if one was manipulative and wrong, so should the other one be too. I’m saying that manipulation, which is essentially what we condemn companies like Coke for doing, is far more prevalent than we like to think. Large corporate advertising is nothing more but a reflection of our inherent individual characteristics.

      “Advertising is a deliberate blunt force and massive wave of influence. Flirting, while potentially used insidiously, is a kind of interplay and feedback system that 2 people are voluntarily engaging in. I don’t think corporations get a pass for “humbly trying to promote their product” in the same way a guy might be trying to land a date by leaving out grittier details about his commitment issues during bar banter.”

      Is it really always that voluntary? Can’t someone be flirted to, seduced, and end up doing something they wouldn’t have wanted to do in the first place, not because they chose to but because that person who was doing the flirting was just so damn good at it? Doesn’t Coke do just that on a much much larger scale?

  2. Well, let’s get specific. Or at least ask a better general question. Do you think “most” advertising is “genuine?” I don’t.

    “Large corporate advertising is nothing more but a reflection of our inherent individual characteristics.” I mean “nothing more ” seems to undersell it’s level of impact is all.

    “Is it really always that voluntary?” Always? Probably not. But to the extent that an adult preys on the over-affable and trusting nature of a child or asshole plays on naivety, I’m going to give both parties the credit. I have a problem letting people off the hook for their decision making. This is obviously a little different if they’re drunk. Advertising assaults the subconscious, endlessly.

    • Okay, let me make my stance clear.

      I do not in any way advocate(or condemn) advertising, my stance on advertising is neutral. Corporations who use it are neither doing something good or evil. I think subliminal advertising can certainly be seen as an extremely convoluted ploy used by corporations to exploit people’s naivety and irrationality. It would be incredibly easy to make several arguments that expose how morally bankrupt these organizations are, how they would stop at absolutely nothing to make profit, and how they do so with no remorse whatsoever. But I don’t like that approach, it’s very unsatisfying, and deeply unflattering. Worst of all, it doesn’t solve anything.

      What I find fascinating is that we’ve somehow been able to create a dichotomy between the world of corporations and the world of people and that’s what I was alluding to in my post. We see the corporation as this intrinsically evil entity and we, the people, are the victims of it. A corporation is just run by people who do exactly what everyone else does but at a much more advanced, and dare I say, evolved level.

      The problem for me is that once we consider advertising a morally reprehensible and despicable thing to do, then we’re doing nothing towards solving the actual problem. There seems to be a complete willingness to shift responsibility from oneself to some external entity. I think it would be a lot more useful if we appreciated advertisements for what they are, and how powerful they can be, and try to do what we can to be aware of it and to avoid falling for them.

      Once you understand how advertisements can affect you and which types of ads are the most powerful and why, you would be less likely to fall prey to them. I would like to add something that I didn’t consider before but came to me after reading your comment. Advertising aimed at children is certainly morally reprehensible, I have no argument here.

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