Tuesday, 25 October 2011

In which George shoots the messenger (and misses)


Back in 1957 an unemployed market researcher called Vance Packard published “The Hidden Persuaders”, a work purporting to expose the evils of advertising and, in particular, the application of psychological techniques in what he called “subliminal advertising”. Packard’s ideas are still popular even though there is almost no evidence that the methods he describes work.

However, we still see of advertising depicted as a sinister, occult science dedicated to using psychological techniques to dull the consumer’s mind and manipulate her into almost robotic purchasing behaviour. Here’s George Monbiot:

Advertising claims to enhance our choice, but it offers us little choice about whether we see and hear it, and ever less choice about whether we respond to it. Since Edward Bernays began to apply the findings of his uncle Sigmund Freud, advertisers have been developing sophisticated means of overcoming our defences. In public they insist that if we become informed consumers and school our children in media literacy we have nothing to fear from their attempts at persuasion. In private they employ neurobiologists to find ingenious methods of bypassing the conscious mind.

The idea of subliminal manipulation remains despite this:

The notion that subliminal directives can influence motives or actions is contradicted by a large body of research evidence and is incompatible with theoretical conceptions of perception and motivation

Or this:

Conducted a meta-analysis to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of subliminal advertising in influencing the consumer's decision between alternatives. A review of narrative reviews is provided to illustrate that sample size and effect size are seldom used as the basis for evaluating whether subliminal marketing stimuli are an effective means for influencing consumer choice behavior. The results of the meta-analysis of 23 studies indicate that there is very little effect.

In simple terms Monbiot is talking nonsense. However, it is a seemingly persuasive nonsense since he goes on to conflate subliminal methodologies (the “bypassing of the conscious mind” bit) with the concept of brand equity:

The first time we see an advertisement, we are likely to be aware of what it's telling us and what it is encouraging us to buy. From then on, we process it passively, absorbing its imagery and messages without contesting them, as we are no longer fully switched on. Brands and memes then become linked in ways our conscious minds fail to detect.

Now it’s true that brands – like many other things – are heuristics and employ the idea of mnemonics to achieve (or rather try to achieve) the situation where, when faced with a decision about a given purchase, the consumer recalls the brand. Most likely this is within a choice set rather than solus – we are likely to recall both Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola when considering purchasing a fizzy soft drink.

However, brand heuristics do not sit in isolation from other non-advertising heuristics such as personal taste, socialisation and preference.

The essence of the ‘advertising is evil’ argument cannot rest on subliminal manipulation (it doesn’t work) or the misrepresentation of brand equity leaving just the argument that advertising makes us buy more stuff:

People who watch a lot of advertisements appear to save less, spend more and use more of their time working to meet their rising material aspirations. All three outcomes can have terrible impacts on family life. They also change the character of the nation. Burdened by debt, without savings, we are less free, less resilient, less able to stand up to those who bully us.

I’m sure George Monbiot watches the BBC so isn’t in this category and fails to present a source for his contention. However, it’s pretty difficult – if you think about it for a second – to understand how you set a control group for the sort of study Monbiot refers to – there is a good longitudinal analysis by researchers at Warwick University linking advertising effects and longer working hours in the USA but this shows a general correlation between rising advertising expenditure and longer working hours which isn’t quite what George is arguing.

If there is a problem – and I’m not entirely sure that there is one – its cause does not lie with advertising but, as Monbiot spots, with values. And I do not think – actually I know – that advertising is a mirror to our values not the creator of those values. If we are to seek salvation from the sinful consumerist world, which I guess is Monbiot’s objective, the answer doesn’t lie in half-baked psychology or misplaces and misdirected attacks on the messenger.


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