Manipulating consumer desires

Manipulating consumer desires (August 27, 2007)

By Ben Teehankee

Green Light, Manila Standard Today

The use of advertising to inform consumers of the existence and benefits of products and services is important for the functioning of our free market system. Advertising not only helps link sellers with buyers in mutually beneficial transactions but also helps achieve sales volumes that bring down the prices of goods – an important benefit to consumers.

Yet, there is much about local advertising (and its close cousin consumer PR) that bothers me. A lot of advertising use falsehoods, manipulate desires through appeals to human weakness and the subconscious, target the young who cannot yet see through manipulation, and divert people from their real needs in favor of non-essentials.

When I see a toddler pulling on his mother’s hand to bring him to a well-known fast-food, I remember the power of children-targeted advertising to intrude into the sacred relationship between parent and child. University belt students repeatedly foregoing lunch to use their precious allowance on cell phone load remind me of advertising’s power to make people forget even their own instincts of self-preservation.

But isn’t this really just giving people what they want? Shouldn’t “buyer beware” simply apply? Nonsense. Firstly, companies have rarely been content to give people what they want. Instead, they shape what people want so that they can become consumers. And, often, the method of choice for accomplishing this is psychological manipulation through advertising and PR. Secondly, the seductive power of psychological techniques can often undermine an adult’s normal defenses, more so a child’s.

As a behavioral sciences major in college, I was fascinated by how early psychologists taught animals to do whatever they wanted. Ivan Pavlov caused dogs to salivate merely at the sound of a bell by repeatedly pairing a bell sound with food. The dogs’ innate need for food was used to manipulate it (“condition”, in psychological terms) to salivate at the sound of the bell even without food being offered.

The use of manipulative psychological techniques to influence consumer desires can be traced at least as far back as the 1920s in the US under the leadership of Edward Bernays -- an early practitioner of public relations. Bernays worked on a number of consumer campaigns during this time and his strategy for increasing cigarette sales among women is a textbook case of how powerful and often unconscious human needs are used to persuade consumers to buy things they don’t actually need.

Bernays was working for the American Tobacco Company who wanted to break the social taboo against women smoking in public. American women had just been granted the vote after a long struggle and their clamor for freedom and equal treatment was still very much in the air. Seeing the opportunity to ride on this yearning among women, Bernays sent young models to march in the New York City parade and instructed them to light Lucky Strike cigarettes on cue. Press photographers, who had been told by Bernays that women's rights marchers would be lighting "Torches of Freedom," were on hand just at the right time to record and report on the “historic” event. Public smoking among women eventually became acceptable after Bernays’ campaign.

Bernays’ strategy used many elements often seen in modern consumer advertising and PR campaigns. First, Bernays misrepresented young models as women’s rights marchers. Modern ads or media appearances use testimonials from celebrities who have never used the product advertised. Second, Bernays used the slogan “Torches of Freedom” to associate cigarettes (a non-essential and even harmful product) with the strong feminine desire for personal freedom and equal treatment (a legitimate human need). Today, ads persuade the gullible to buy self-esteem and peer acceptance along with liposuction and cell phone load. Similarly, magazine covers, billboards and primetime TV shows associate the buying of products with the basic instinct for sexual stimulation. Third, Bernays coincided his PR event with a well-loved city parade – using people’s natural attraction to the popular public gathering. Nowadays, PR tie-ins between products and respected events lead consumers to associate the positive feelings of, say, graduating from school with spending for a “well-deserved” vacation trip to Hong Kong.

Manipulation insults people’s intelligence and treats them as objects – not as rational human beings. It reminds me of encyclopedia salesmen in the old days who would ring your doorbell and tell you how everybody else in your street had placed orders already (not true) and, when you showed any hesitation to order, would slyly say: “But you do care about your children, don’t you?”

Edward Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis. Like psychologists and psychiatrists, he understood the power of psychoanalytic techniques to tap into people’s innermost needs and desires. In fact, because of their power, using these techniques to treat neurotic patients requires a license in some countries. Unfortunately, companies peddling products can use similar techniques on hundreds of thousands of people by simply hiring an advertising company. Instead of promoting mental health, the effect is what I would call “consumption neurosis”.

Can products be promoted without manipulation? In “Selling with Integrity”, Sharon Drew Morgen explains the buying facilitation method which puts the buyer in control of the purchase decision with his needs and decision-making style in mind, not the seller’s. It emphasizes honesty and never imposes a belief system on a potential customer but merely offers the possibility to serve his or her real needs.

Are we becoming a country of Pavlovian dogs and Freudian neurotics, manipulated at will by companies and advertising to live to consume? We don’t have to be if we become wiser in tuning out manipulative advertising and PR messages. More fundamentally, companies and advertising professionals can bring back honorable service to business by using only honest and informative promotional messages that do not manipulate people.

Dr. Ben Teehankee is the Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr. associate professor of corporate social responsibility and governance and human resource management department chairman of De La Salle Professional Schools. He may be emailed at