Propaganda and Advertising

I am of the opinion that the ecological crisis will not be solved by a few adjustments to the tax structure or with the invention of a few greener technologies. The unsustainability in my analysis is systemic because it has its roots in the way we think. It might be hackneyed today to insist with Einstein that you cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it, but it remains true none-the-less. This is why among all the many responses to the ecological crisis that it is possible for an individual to take, it is the development of a contemplative practice that seems most relevant to me. It is also why I think knowing a bit about evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience is very worthwhile.

We live in a culture that is molded and formed by more people educated in the arts of manipulating human behavior than any time in our species history. Ever since Edward Bernayes used crowd psychology and the insights of his uncle Dr. Freud to introduce the new profession of public relations, a steady increase in the effectiveness of mental manipulation techniques has been taking place.

Bernayes Propaganda (1928) is available online. It is almost innocent in its propagandizing for propaganda. This is typical of the material (italics added):And the man or woman who has a music room… will naturally think of buying a piano. It will come to him as his own idea. Under the old salesmanship the manufacturer said to the prospective purchaser, ‘Please buy a piano.’ The new salesmanship has reversed the process and caused the prospective purchaser to say to the manufacturer, ‘Please sell me a piano.'”

Most people are able to get through our education systems completely ignorant about how the emotions work and how emotional triggers are imprints in our nervous systems. The playing field is so uneven. On one side are harassed parents without the security a growing middle class once provided and on the other literally thousands of PhD trained psychologists and psychiatrists working all day, every day to invent and perpetrate manipulation of peoples’ hopes and fears for fun and profit.

I would like to think that learning a bit about evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience might provide some effective tools to level this playing field a bit. Understanding what our deepest drives and fears are, where they come from and how they play out just might help some people to resist the all-to-easy going with the crowd – after all the crowd looks like Lemmings heading for a cliff from the perspective of the ecological critique. Something other than business as usual is needed. In this circumstance anything that can aid us in breaking through the cognitive and emotional straightjackets that are keeping us from responding in ways proportional to the threat could prove to be very valuable.

Those of us who hope to shift values are going to need to be as skilled in presenting how the emperor has no clothes as the advertising industry is in insisting he is wearing the latest fashion.

As in ecology where we strive to work with the direction things want to go, so with the mind. Working skillfully with the mind includes some understanding of what the mind wants, what it was evolved to do. We need to understand why a man who works hard is proud of his ability to buy his wife an SUV for her jaunt down to the grocery store. It is a status symbol sure, and we will have more to say about that by and by, but a more basic evolutionary drive is involved as well. The SUV is a display of his skill as a provider, a display in the real world of things. Those of us who dare to hold out some hope for adjusting society’s values to create and support a more sustainable set of life support systems have to recognize clearly what allies and challenges will greet us along the way.

I use the term advertisers to refer to all the many different professions that use the mass media to increase their own power or profits through the manipulation of human beings’ desire and fear. This includes Madison Avenue but less obviously also encompasses all the PR departments packaging up stories to look like news reporting which our news programs then regurgitate without mentioning the source, placing products from Pepsi to iPads in our young people’s schools side by side with the mandatory watching of their ads every morning on the ‘school news’, the many professionals making a living by arranging product placement in movies and TV shows where the arts of theater have stoked the emotions and primed their audiences for unconscious manipulation, and we should not forget the army of lawyers rewriting text books, history, trails of evidence and working day in, day out to assure their employers have plausible deniability as they ride rough shod over the laws of the land and the customs of decency in communities.

As an aside, there are some books that were so fundamental in shaping my view it is easy to overlook mentioning them. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander is one such book. If you are considering going on a media diet it might be just the ticket. If you are concerned about the state of the “news” the classic study from 1988, which I have yet to see surpassed, comes from the left end of the political spectrum, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (movie version available). Both are highly recommended. A little study in this area and the knee-jerk response that markets just provide what the buyers want looks astonishingly naïve.

I would be remiss not to mention the many educated people putting their knowledge of psychology to work to saturate an entire generation in realistic murder scenarios, creating for their employers in the video game industry profits in excesses of movies, theaters, rock concerts and all the rest. Yep, twitchy, simulated human-hunting is the number one pastime – a pure co-opting of our nervous systems ability to respond quickly to loud, flashy sensory inputs and hijack the adrenal systems with a graphically detailed threat of violence. Does not sound quite so clever when put that way does it?

The hope mentioned is not entirely unreasonable. I contend that many of the current perversions of our sad and sick polity are the direct result of PR and advertising, in a word – mind manipulations. Once the resources for the non-stop mental bombardment run dry, people may respond to events differently than they do today. One of the areas of our social lives I expect to see considerable changes in is the world of work. Today only the power of advertising’s coupling with capital are able to sustain the perversions of work that render it meaningless and without true value for the great majority of people in the overdeveloped world. Most people want to feel that what they are doing in their many hours of employment is really, truly making a difference in the world, making it a little bit better. When most work is spreadsheets and yet another consumer product, well… By cold-heartedly manipulating our desires and fears, the products billions of years of evolution, advertising is able to offer incitements that are all but irresistible. This is particularly true given the system they create to systematically remove more healthy and viable alternatives.

For example, since the security of the extended family and the productive homestead have been removed as viable options for most people, the need to provide for those we love can be more readily redirected to whatever the needs of the market might be this quarter. There are numerous sociological studies of how the nuclear family was created in a boardroom and sold to society to produce the market required by post-war industrialism. By design, options to consumerism were removed. Just as the food industry learned how the right percentage of salt, fat and sugar can become irresistible while being nutritionally vacuous, so our general incentive system has similarly been perverted by using the same tricks; using our evolved nature’s against us.

Gaining an understanding of our evolutionary inheritance has at least two benefits:

  1. Less shrill judgements of our social and individual inanities.Much of what looks to the ecologically literate as downright insanity – the huge SUV where a small car will do – looks a little less crazy when analyzed from the point of view of evolutionary psychology. Sure the manifestation of caring for loved ones might have been perverted to harmful forms and someday the biosphere violence hidden in such forms will be recognized but that does not change the fact that the intention is noble.
  2. A more realistic assessment of the human condition, both socially and individually.Learning about all the different ways our biological inheritance has expressed itself through numerous cultures breaks through the foremost obstacle to radical change in the industrial world, the one that says that ‘this is just the way the world is.’ No, in fact, it is not. Studying our evolutionary past helps us separate the defining characteristics of our species from the culturally contingent. The same study can also aid us as individuals as we work to make sense of our inner world experiences.

Did you sense an undercurrent of anger in this essay? Particularly in the paragraphs describing the abuse of our minds by the rich and powerful? Such things are tricky. On the one hand the critical analysis gains gravity through its symbiosis with the emotions. Consider the work of Nietzsche; without his passionate style his philosophy would not be what it is at all. Additionally, the reason for allowing an expression of anger is ultimately one of healing. On the other hand, just adding more anger to a world already filled with hate is not doing anyone any good. Anger at injustice is needed if anyone is to try and protect the weak and innocent, yet history teaches us the worst of our human monsters thought they were acting for the right reasons so we need to be careful.

I wanted an illustration to continue our discussion of feelings and their role in individual health and the health of our societies. Feelings are no less a cognitive phenomenon than any other object of consciousness. What sets them apart is their content, for they are first and foremost reports on the physiological state of the body. Damasio explains in Descartes Error they are, “the cognition of our visceral and musculoskeletal state.” He goes on to say that, “Feelings let us mind the body, attentively, as during an emotional state, or faintly, as during a background state.”

Neuroscience is suggesting that the western ideal of a completely emotionless objectivity is actually just a cover of sorts for other agendas. Unfelt abstractions have violated the basic rule, ‘take your body with you.’ There is much here for a contemplative to consider.

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