Defending your mental environment in the age of ads 

Learning to view campaign ads critically rather than passively is the antidote to mass-media manipulation

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Your life has a price tag. So does mine.

That’s not a new concept, of course, but when did it become OK?

Apparently, it was 10 years ago, when General Motors suspected that defective parts in their Chevy Cobalt and Saturn Ion cars were killing customers, but chose not to warn drivers or issue a recall.

GM had “considered several fixes” but simply weighed “the lead time required, cost and effectiveness” of making repairs against the cost of settling with accident victims’ families. That means if you drive a GM car, the company has assigned a dollar amount to your life.

Even if you don’t own a car, how does that fact make you feel? What does it tell us about how companies can affect our human culture?

We know that for-profit corporations are obligated to “maximize shareholder value” by making as much money as they can, but GM’s priorities reveal a corporate culture that values the profitability of its car brands over human life.

What makes that a big, scary deal is that commercial advertisers hold infinitely greater sway over our personal behaviors than ever before. In fact, marketers have made advancements in fields of behavioral science that other researchers have overlooked. One of those areas is behavioral economics, the study of the psychology behind how consumers make economic decisions.

In 2011, Leo Burnett Worldwide, the Chicago-based global advertising company, created a list that classified as many as 1,800 discrete human behaviors. They compiled the data from survey results and more than 10,000 interviews. The payoff for their effort was a ring-shaped chart of “Behavioral Archetypes” that helps clients identify which behaviors of yours they want to change.

In a candid interview with AdAge, Leo Burnett’s executive vice president of research services, Carol Foley, described her company’s use of the Behavioral Archetypes model to identify and change consumer behaviors.

“What we created was a data-informed way of organizing behavior,” Foley said. “This is a way to help strategists think about behaviors and craft intentions.”

And how do “strategists” (marketers to you and me) use this organized data to “craft intentions” in the minds of ad viewers?

First, the agency identifies a behavior of yours that will need to change if their client is going to sell you more of their product. They then use the Behavioral Archetypes model to figure out a desirable counter-behavior that they can influence you to adopt instead.

So if you buy generic or store brands to save money, Foley says that you’re exhibiting a “surrender” or “coping” behavior, as it reflects a tolerance for lower “badge value” brands instead of more expensive and self-indulgent ones.

Foley says the marketer’s goal is to create tension in your mind by repeatedly asking you, “Is the surrender worth it?” Their message becomes: “Go ahead and buy generic bathroom cleaner or aluminum foil, but don’t compromise on this.”

An estimated 3,000 advertiser messages crash-land into our conscious minds every single day. That’s usually the reason why you buy things you didn’t intend to buy. But even if you never purchase an advertiser’s products, you’ve probably internalized their skewed values, since humans absorb broadcast messages so easily. We may feel immune to the effects of these ads, but over time they blunt our perceptions of language and logic. The unending streams of manipulative messages eventually pollute our mental environment and clog our cognitive digestion.

In 2014, we’ll witness an unprecedented amount of political campaign advertising in Florida, especially commercials supporting Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election. These ads will serve virtually no informative function, but will still very likely alter the behavior of millions of Floridians.

You can resist these intrusions into your thought space by viewing ads critically instead of passively. Imagine yourself as an anthropologist visiting a new democracy, and note the appeals to emotion (especially fear) and other logical fallacies employed. Think about where the images and sounds were purchased or created, and talk to friends and family members about what you notice in the ads and whether you agree with their messages.

Conversation and community are already essential to mental wellness, but as antidotes to mass-media manipulation, they’re priceless.

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