Advertising as Propaganda

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            You’re online, not even “window shopping”, but an advertisement for a product you never thought of buying is on the page you’re reading. You’re not sure if you need the product, but you are compelled to open your Amazon account and check the price of the product. When you find the product on Amazon, you note “That price isn’t too bad. I can afford this.” You place the product in your “cart” and proceed to the checkout. The item will arrive in a few days.

            Of course, when your item is delivered and you open it, you ask “Why did I buy this?” Good question. Why?

            It seems we live in a world where we never ask why. The usual argument for avoiding this question is: “I don’t have time to think about it.” In the words of the Merovingian: Yes, of course. Who has time? Who has time? But then if we do not ever take time, how can we ever have time?

            If we fail to take time to ask why we’re doing something, we act at a subhuman level. Again, the Merovingian offers some insight. Causality. There is no escape from it. We are forever slaves to it. Our only hope, our only peace is to understand it, to understand the why. Why is what separates us from them, you from me. Why is the only source of real power. Without it you are powerless.

            I recently reviewed my college ethics textbook to recall what it says about being human. Man is the only creature in this world who can think, but if his thoughts simply run along by association without his conscious direction and control, such thoughts are only acts of a man, not human acts, even though they are of rational order….it is impossible to have a human act unless it is guided by intellect and will. [Right and Reason: Ethics in Theory and Practice, Austin Fagothey, S.J. 1972]

            The Merovingian: Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without. Is it? Who has the power to prevent us from exercising intellect and will over our thoughts, feelings, and actions?

            It seems like advertisers have the power. They have the resources to create any illusion that can influence consumers to purchase products and services. They know how to condition the subconscious with video and audio methods that control our emotional responses to their ads. The techniques of advertising are essentially those of propaganda.  

            Jacques Ellul: To be effective, propaganda must constantly short circuit all thought and decision. It must operate on the individual at the level of the unconscious. Note: The application of motivational research studies to advertising also leads to this.[ Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes by Jacques Ellul 1965, p 26]

            In essence, our behavior is manipulated by advertisements. We don’t reflect on a message contained in the ad; we react by buying a product or service.

            You disagree. We control all our thoughts and actions. We carefully review the consequences of our choices before we act. As the saying goes, “Nobody tells me what to do.”

            You’re right. Advertisers didn’t tell you what to do. They manipulated you to act.

            Advertising goes about its task of creating a psychological collectivism by mobilizing certain human tendencies in order to introduce the individual into the world of technique. Advertising also carries these tendencies to the ideal, absolute limit… advertising offers man the means for realizing material desires… Advertising must affect all people; or at least an overwhelming majority. Its goal is to persuade the masses to buy. [The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul 1964]

            What percentage of this nation’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is based on consumption?

            From the St Louis Federal Reserve: Shares of gross domestic product: Personal consumption expenditures: Q3 2021: 68.8 percent. Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) is the primary measure of consumer spending on goods and services in the U.S. economy. It accounts for about two-thirds of domestic final spending, and thus it is the primary engine that drives future economic growth. PCE shows how much of the income earned by households is being spent on current consumption as opposed to how much is being saved for future consumption. [NIPA Handbook Chapter 5] (Clearly, this represents the effectiveness of the advertisers’ ability to persuade the masses to buy.)

            Resistance is futile………., well, not really. We can reclaim our lives if we admit that we don’t need everything we feel the urge to buy. Just ask why. Why do I want this thing? Take time to think before we act. (But then if we do not ever take time, how can we ever have time?)

            A final thought.

            This past Sunday, November 7th,  I was watching football and a commercial ran advertising some phone app. A young lady explained that she bought a pair of boots, but had no idea why she bought them. (It’s ironic that this commercial ran after I started this post; the opening paragraphs were already typed) The young lady was going to sell these on the internet via the app being advertised. She became aware of the “manufactured need for the product” after receiving the boots. Wouldn’t it be better to identify, and control, this “urge to buy” before acting on it?

            As the Merovingian says, Why is what separates us from them. So don’t be like them. Just ask why and feel the power.

            “Good night and good luck”, Edward R. Murrow

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