Monday, April 04, 2005

Advertising & the Mental Environment

Here's an interesting transcript from an interview with "culture jammer" Kalle Lasn. He claims that commericial advertising is polluting our minds, and it's time we did something about it. So he's made up ironic 'subvertisements' like "There's never been a better time to buy... You're living in the factory, the product being manufactured is you." 'Buy Nothing Day' sounds pretty cool too.

Lasn is a bit extreme, but I have to admit some sympathy for his general anti-commercialism. I wonder how large an influence the media has over some people -- is it impeding their autonomy? Are their commercialistic values 'authentic', or the result of brainwashing? (And which would be worse?)

Some might defend advertising on the basis that it "informs" consumers about what options are open to them. There's something to this argument, but (like that which it defends) it hides as much as it reveals. In reality, most adverts contain little or no useful information. Their primary purpose is not to inform us, but to manipulate us into buying their products. This has far more to do exploiting our insecurities, and various other psychological tricks, than it does rational persuasion through honest advocacy of truly worthwhile products. So I'm far from convinced that bombarding us with adverts is somehow in our own best interests.

Assuming that commercialism really is a bad thing, what ought to be done about it? Lasn's "Adbusters" campaigns seem to be aimed at raising awareness and convincing people to become less dependent on the media by watching less T.V., etc. I guess that's a start. It's difficult to imagine what else might be done, really. Any thoughts?

It's worth noting that censorship might be appropriate in a few cases. We've banned tobacco advertising, for example, due to its harmful effects. Alcohol advertising would be the logical next step. Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of making these products available to those who want them. But it's quite another thing to allow commercial interests to manipulate people into using drugs, or otherwise encourage their use.

New Zealand has got a serious binge drinking problem, especially (but not only) amongst young people. I wouldn't be surprised if alcohol was doing us more harm than all other drugs combined (mostly because it's just so much more common, of course). So it seems quite irresponsible to allow the big alcohol companies to flood the media with adverts which portray this drug abuse in such a misleadingly positive light. We can't blame all our cultural problems on the media, of course, but I do think they are making things worse than they otherwise might be.

3 comments:

  1. Whenever I hear the "media and advertising manipulating our minds" argument it's generally coming from people who consider themselves magically unaffected by this nefarious influence. It is always other (less aware?) people who need there minds protected.

    But apart from this implied condescension there is an important issue overlooked by those making this argument and that is - by what cognitive mechanism could advertising have such an effect? This position makes unstated assumptions about how people learn, about how the mind works, assumptions that I don't believe are supported by modern psychology.

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  2. No, I wouldn't claim immunity. I'm as much concerned with preserving my own autonomy as anyone else's. Though I'm far enough out of our cultural mainstream to perhaps be less vulnerable to this sort of manipulation than, say, those more concerned with "fitting in", keeping up with fashion fads, etc. (If my attitude here is "condescending", so be it -- that's no rational objection anyway!)

    As to your substantive point, I think there's little question that exposure to advertising does impact our behaviour. Reflection on personal experience should support this. (Besides, if it didn't have results, why would companies spend so much on it?) But it certainly would be interesting to learn more about the cognitive mechanisms behind it all. Hopefully our local cognitive scientist will drop by and explain...

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  3. Hey Richard, I've actually done some research that would be considered consumer research (cognitive mechanisms underlying brand preference, e.g.), so I might be able to say something. I'll think about how to approach it and try to post something here or over at Mixing Memory.

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