Don't Believe Everything You Think: Marketing, Manipulation & The American Mind

05/01/2017 03:00 am ET Updated May 02, 2017
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While those numbers represent the majority of Americans, they don’t tell the full story.

According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, a staggering 96% of Trump supporters continue to support him, with 62% thinking he’s doing better than expected. So much for buyer’s remorse.

How can such divergent views exist between his supporters and the rest of the civilized world? What phenomenon explains such polarization?

Many people assume the two parties represent two ways of looking at the world, or at least two ways of addressing our issues. This is misleading and overly simplistic, and it reinforces the “opposing-team” dynamic that leads to an “Us v. Them” mentality.

Make no mistake: this divide is intentional. And it surreptitiously exploits our mental frameworks.

PSYCHOLOGY

In modern America, the metaphor of rival teams is a convenient way to identify and separate our values, organize information, and employ mental shortcuts. Neuroscientists call these mental shortcuts heuristics.

Think of them as file folders in the filing cabinet that is our brain. These files are created very early in life, helping us organize and make sense of the world.

During our developmental years, we begin with such basic labels as Good (candy, Mom, toys) and Bad (broccoli, bullies, dentists). Or Relevant (school schedule, medicines) and Irrelevant (brother’s school schedule, mom’s medicines).

As adults, when we hear a newsflash about illegal immigrants, we may file that under Conservative. If we skim a headline about transgender bathrooms, we may file that under Liberal. Or we may associate Tuna Helper with Poor People, and foie gras with Fancy People. Or Buffalo Wild Wings with White Males, and Popeye’s with Black Males.

To clarify, these statements do not affirm the associations.

These are examples of how we often process information, usually unconsciously, often incorrectly, based on our cultural cues, our family views, and regional social norms.

The problem with such labeling is it leaves little room for complexity, nuance, or adjustments. It often relies on stereotypes, be they positive (Asians are good at math) or negative (white men can’t dance). It confines us to narrow thinking patterns, resulting in Us v. Them thinking.

If you subscribe to a team mentality, then you are likely to filter out information that does not apply to your team. Worse, you may reject it merely because a word triggers a negative reaction.

It’s easy to see how positive associations warrant our attention, while negative ones are easily dismissed.

These mental shortcuts become our default wiring. The more conditioned we are to associate people, issues, or ideas with one of these file labels, the harder it is to correct course.

For instance, if a male child picks up a girl’s doll, but is chastised by his parents, he begins to associate his feminine preferences with Shame. The more this is reinforced by family and society, the harder it will be for him to accept his sexuality later in life, ultimately leading to depression, low self esteem, and self-loathing, which he may never shake.

Becoming self-aware of these mental patterns, and actively seeking to rewire them, is the foundation of cognitive therapy, i.e. psychiatry.

Remaining unaware of these mental patterns is the foundation of Advertising, Marketing, and Public Relations, i.e. propaganda.

PROPAGANDA

It is no coincidence that Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, is indirectly responsible for the American advertising industry. Trying to understand human desires and behaviors, Freud pioneered the field of psychology.

Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, used these psychological insights to manipulate public opinion. In his aptly named book Propaganda, he outlines key manipulation tactics, which Hitler used as a Nazi playbook.

Its founding principles are pervasive in all of Propaganda’s siblings: Advertising, Marketing, Branding, Publicity, and Political Communication.

Bernays was so successful, he sold us the idea of eating bacon and eggs for breakfast, and he convinced the women’s movement to smoke cigarettes to feel as powerful as men. As a result, lung cancer has been gender neutral since 1929.

When I began college to pursue a degree in Advertising, I thought that meant billboards and movie trailers, or jingles and logos. But I was a naive teenager. Today, the industry’s reach is far wider, and more insidious.

See if you can tell what the following have in common:

  • Boston Tea Party
  • Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
  • Olympic Torch Relay
  • NASA shuttle launches
  • Marilyn Monroe’s skirt flying up over a sidewalk grate for The Seven Year Itch
  • Tour de France
  • The Hollywood Sign

Marketing methods are not always obvious. They do not look like a road sign declaring the next gas station. Instead, they’re the reason we celebrate Valentine’s Day, buy chocolate for Easter, and insist on diamonds for wedding rings.

Such Marketing strategies are not limited to consumerism, but infect every aspect of American life. They mold our personal values, shape our perceptions, and undermine our political process.

To put simply, and to quote Edward Bernays, they “engineer consent.”

MANUFACTURING OUR CONSENT

In Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s groundbreaking book Manufacturing Consent, they explain this concept as follows:

In layman’s terms, the mass media no longer differentiate between Advertising, Propaganda, Publicity, and actual information, i.e. news.

Unfortunately, neither do we.

See if you can tell what these have in common:

  • I heart New York
  • Got Milk?
  • Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth
  • Diamonds are forever, and they are expensive because they’re rare.
  • The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
  • Doubting the dangers of tobacco
  • Global warming is a hoax
  • Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction

The NRA’s most famous advertising slogan is, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” spoken by EVP Wayne LaPierre at a news conference in 2012. Notice it appeals to our team mentality. We are the good guys, and they are the bad guys. This is a well-crafted slogan that paints the world in narrow terms and is designed to sell us something. After Sandy Hook alone, NRA profits spiked by 100 million, and its membership increased by hundreds of thousands. This does not even include firearm sales for their partners at the gun lobby. What better way to mythologize this slogan than merchandising it on official NRA t-shirts, available for $18.95 on their website.

The trick to both of these campaigns is undermining science. If they do it long enough, it becomes impossible to file climate change info in the Science or Important file. The doubt they’ve manufactured creates too much confusion. With so many mixed messages, we default to what’s easiest; we toss it in either Liberal or Conservative files, which means half of us disregard it altogether.

Talk about a Freudian slip.

These manufactured messages are so pervasive and often repeated, most of us don’t realize they were developed by committees out of Mad Men.

Everything we consume has been carefully branded, packaged, and commercialized by economic titans to achieve their own financial, social, and political ends.

Today, market influences are so strong it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s news, what’s Propaganda, and what’s Publicity. This is what I was referencing in “Post Truth Nation, when I wrote of the difficulty to differentiate news from noise.

“Post Truth” is another way of saying decisions based largely on Belief, not on verifiable data or truth. In other words, on how we think things work, often informed by Marketing messages, Ad campaigns, political distortions, urban legends, or Propaganda. This includes lies, half-truths, myths, folklore, misinformation, and even gossip.

In his tell-all book Trust Me: I’m Lying, Media Manipulator Ryan Holiday writes:

When these messages influence our perceptions, our life stories, and our Beliefs, they manufacture our consent. And we are none the wiser.

PRISONS OF BELIEF

From primary school, you may recall the Reading lessons on Fact and Opinion. At the time, the distinction seemed obvious, mainly because the examples were so easy.

  • Fact: The sky is blue.
  • Opinion: Ishtar is underrated.

If only things were so simple.

A Belief is little more than an opinion, often accompanied with great conviction.

We believe it to be true, but it’s taken on faith. Regardless of how fervently it’s believed, it is not backed up by certifiable proof; it does not pass scientific rigor; it does not hold up in court.

Some common beliefs include:

Some larger beliefs encompass our worldview:

  • The good guys always win.
  • Bad guys get their due.
  • What goes around, comes around.
  • Everything will work out in the end.

These Beliefs appeal to our desire to make sense of the world and to find meaning.

Whether we realize it or not, they are often constructed out of fear. We need to be assured that life is not random, but a reciprocal relationship between our behavior and our destiny.

One of society’s key Belief generators is organized religion, and it plays a powerful role in how we view the world. To encourage us to live honorable lives, Churches would have us believe the world is one of reciprocity.

This means: If we obey the Lord, then our lives will be spared misfortune.

This idea that life is reciprocal – that we get what we deserve – is a Belief. It is not grounded in reality. If it were true, the world would look entirely different. But it doesn’t work that way. Six million Jews did not die in the Holocaust because they skipped synagogue.

Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. Accidents occur. Life can be random, even meaningless.

Good people die each day, years before their time, for no reason. Bad people live longer and enjoy better lives because they have no conscience to guilt them. The wealthiest can get away with murder because they can afford better lawyers, or can buy off lawmakers. The poorest may rot in jail, even when they’re innocent, because of human error and lack of resources.

These are inconvenient truths many of us would prefer to ignore. But not all of us have that luxury, especially those who are not white, straight, and gainfully employed.

The world is not fair; it is not just; nor is it always comprehensible.

Bill Cosby drugging and raping women for half a century, but only spending his last 10+ years of life in prison is NOT justice; it’s getting away with 50 years of rape during the prime of his life because of power and money. Whatever meager sentence he receives will be the equivalent of a retirement home downgrade as he transitions from senility to a death bead.

These beliefs of reciprocity are wishful thinking. They are how we want the world to work.

Our brains cling to these Beliefs in order to protect us from truths that threaten our sense of security. And we don’t like to feel insecure. In fact, we go to great lengths not to feel insecure.

Thus, our Beliefs distort our perceptions so they can fit in our file folders. These folders, or heuristics, are more commonly known by another name – bias.

COGNITIVE BIAS

The name of that process is calledbelief confirmation.”

These Beliefs confirm our sense of identity. They create our personal narratives, which we use to understand our life story.

Explains Margaret Heffernan in Willful Blindness:

This means: If we think the world is one of reciprocity, and if our own experience seems to confirm it, then we are more likely to dismiss uncomfortable information.

This is why white people don’t understand Black Lives Matter. This is why men do not understand women’s rights, equal pay issues, or sexual harassment. This is why straight people don’t want, or don’t care about, gay discrimination.

This conflict between Belief and reality creates what scientists call “cognitive dissonance.”

Cyber-psychologist Mary Aikan explains in The Cyber Effect:

This is the price we pay for reducing life’s complexity into oversimplified file folders.

So, if our brains are working against us so that we feel safe, how can we tell what’s reality? And which Beliefs are influenced by propaganda?

Remember: The single purpose of Advertising is to sell us something, whether it’s in the form of Public Relations, Publicity, or political communication… it’s all the same.

Whether Marketers want us to try a new soft drink, watch a new TV show, or vote for a new candidate, they are selling us an image of what they think we want to buy.

Which brings us to another part of the Marketing machine. See if you can guess what these items have in common:

  • Family Values
  • Fair and Balanced
  • Tough on crime / War on drugs
  • War on Christmas
  • Obama is a Muslim / doesn’t have a birth certificate
  • Hillary is crooked / untrustworthy
  • Liberal media / liberal bias
  • Academics as elitists

Naturally, these are all Beliefs. But before they became Beliefs, they had to be created. These paid-for slogans were crafted in strategy meetings, approved by committee, launched like a product, and repeated so often our heuristics fire just reading the list.

They are examples of Branding. These Brand identities shape how we see political candidates. They anchor us with positive or negative feelings, and we stay loyal to brands for emotional (read: subjective) reasons, not rational (read: objective) data.

When Advertising invades politics, and political rhetoric becomes Brands, capitalism has truly triumphed over democracy.

These methods of persuasion are invective attempts to wield power and influence.

Here’s how they work:

Family Values: Who doesn’t believe in family values? What’s being sold here isn’t morals, religion, or wholesomeness. It’s deliberately inferring that the other candidate is not someone with Family Values.

This is Subliminal Marketing at its finest.

Fair and Balanced: Instead of trying to be Fair and Balanced, Fox News merely brands itself that way. This is known as brand association - any deep-seated logo, motto, or tagline reinforcing a brand’s attributes. Except in Fox’s case, it’s pure deception; a combination of politics, Marketing, and Psychology.

Tough on Crime: Who isn’t tough on crime? No one wants convicts roaming the streets looking for victims. This operates much like Family Values, but with one telltale distinction. It was created as a code for “nonwhites.”

Considering both drug use and crime were in decline, why did they do this?

For two reasons:

According to John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, and Watergate co-conspirator:

Other scripted talking points from these campaigns include: the concept of a welfare queen; the idea the government can’t do anything right; that welfare recipients are trying to game the system; that white people’s tax dollars are spent on lazy black people; that immigrants are stealing our jobs; that blacks have lower IQ’s than whites, and endless other racist lies...

After all, according to Republican strategist Lee Atwater:

War on Christmas: Does anyone actually care how other people celebrate the holidays? In short, no. This slogan was lifted by Fox News as a wedge issue to ensure Brand loyalty. It works by dividing white middle class Christians from anyone perceived as different – classic Us v. Them branding.

(This is not unlike in the 90s when MTV needed to purge its older viewers still around from the 80s. They did this by airing divisive shows like Beavis and Butthead, which fragmented their audience down to the desired demographic: teens.)

The War on Christmas is utter nonsense because:

b) America was founded for religious freedom. This means the freedom to practice ANY religion, be it Mormonism, Scientology, or Festivus. Freedom means each of us gets to choose, not some of us get to choose for everyone else.

Obama: The perception that Obama is a Muslim without a real birth certificate is Branding that serves one purpose: to discredit the first black President. It’s an example of more Us v. Them thinking; as long as we associate Obama with “not like us,” he loses respect and credibility. This coded language mirrors the War on Drugs and Tough on Crime messaging of the Southern Strategy, pioneering 1001 ways to undermine black progress.

Think for a moment: Which politicians do you associate with unflattering labels?

My guess is, only ones from a single party, as it’s generally a small group of political operatives who employ these tactics. Thus, these negative associations are emotionally based, not grounded in evidence. If it were verifiable, why don’t we have strong emotional reactions to other politicians guilty of the same thing?

If you can’t fight the message, fight the messenger. Which brings us to the next label.

Elites/Elitists: The reason America has such anti-intellectual problems is because political interests have taught us to disregard experts. Expertise was once respected, but now it is undermined.

Dismissing expert scientists, academics, economists, or journalists by calling them “Elites,” is one more way to smear someone who has an argument you can’t win, especially when he contradicts doctrine, religion, or party platforms. This is known as an ad hominem attack.

Science and data can be such a nuisance when your Belief system requires unquestionable loyalty.

Like Big Oil and Big Tobacco, our leaders who discredit nonpartisan experts by questioning their findings are trying to preserve their political agenda, and their power. This is particularly true when it pertains to their biggest campaign donors: big oil, dark money, Wall Street, and any other corporate sponsors underwriting their legislation.

If you want to mistrust an Elite, make sure it’s an Economic Elite whose commercial interests prohibit common sense solutions to global warming, deforestation, pollution, poverty, gun control, mass incarceration, failed drug policies, healthcare reform, price gauging, or credit protection, to name only a few.

Whoever stands to lose the most money is usually up to no good. This is how we can tell when politicians, corporate sponsors, or political parties use such deceitful tricks.

Our partisan divide begins with Media Manipulators, who disseminate Propaganda through media outlets, which affirm their audience’s Beliefs. These are echoed by politicians, who are funded by the Economic Elites who paid for the manipulation, all in one never-ending circle of deception.

When we stop thinking critically, we surrender to these reinforced Beliefs, perpetuated by clever Branding, pervasive Public Relations, strategic Marketing, Advertising campaigns, and a Journalism of Affirmation.

SEPARATING PROPAGANDA FROM POLITICS

Movements and ideas tend to develop in one of two ways:

Invention: Something isn’t working for a segment of the population, so they seek solutions.

  • FaceBook, wanting a visual phone book to see what other students look like
  • eBay, an online auction house no longer limiting antique stores to their geographic region.
  • Black Lives Matter, demanding that cops stop murdering unarmed black men.
  • Gay Rights Movement, demanding equal protections under the law.
  • The Women’s March, demanding that women be treated with the same respect as men.

These causes seem obvious, which lead many to wonder how anyone could not see their legitimacy. Which brings us to…

Opposition: Someone of power is threatened or stands to lose something, so they try to impede it. Examples:

Other opposition tactics include:

  • anti-cigarette and anti-global warming campaigns
  • Koch Brothers’ sponsored tea party protests and Fox News’ death panel hysteria to combat the Affordable Care Act
  • Nixon and Reagan’s War on Drugs to dispel unwanted minorities from society
  • Tort reform to keep corporations from paying out high damages in court
  • Republican’s Benghazi / Clinton scandal to fight her presidential campaign
  • McCarthyism
  • Monica Lewinsky scandal to reclaim conservative power in the White House
  • Carolina’s transgender bathroom laws to rile up voters during election season
  • Lawyer claims that rape victims are asking for it

Why do Media Manipulators go negative?

Because the human brain is more attuned to negativity. This “negativity bias” is why political smear campaigns outperform all others. We react more strongly to negative stimuli.

Ironically, the anti-science lobbyists employ science to deceive us - a double whammy.

The dead giveaway of an opposition tactic is playing into anger and fear, usually through racist or sexist tension and stereotypes.

The key to knowing when these tactics are used is to focus on the powerful, not the powerless.

Inciting anger at the powerless (such as the poor) is always a tactic of manipulation by the powerful (business interests). This has been consistent throughout world history in every civilization.

This is the sole reason for the racial divide in the South. As Nancy Isenberg’s explains in her phenomenal work White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America:

In other words, white plantation owners (the 1%) convinced the middle and lower classes (the 99%) to hate blacks in order to secure their financial interests. (Slavery was a workforce they didn’t have to pay.)

But it’s hard to see this when our Bias reinforces our prison of Belief.

CONCLUSION

Since Beliefs are based in fear, abandoning Belief requires bravery.

It’s all too easy to disregard new information that disrupts our understanding of the world. It’s easier to rely on bigoted Belief systems we inherited from former generations, institutionalized in our culture.

These long-held Belief systems continue to thrive because they work. It’s how the powerful subjugate the powerless.

But it traps us in a prison of Belief. We are unable to see the bars made of our own bias.

Rejecting information that challenges our Beliefs keeps us from evolving. Remaining trapped in a partisan vacuum, we deny infinite knowledge only a keyboard click away.

When we avoid discomfort in favor of ignorance, we sacrifice democracy in the process.

This is the high cost of low politics. And why America’s future remains uncertain. The forces that peddle lies have too much at stake to correct course, and they are only growing more powerful.

Following in the footsteps of authoritarian regimes, the Trump presidency ensures that lies muddy the truth more than ever. Very shrewd people know how to push our buttons. And they are paid good money to do so.

The principles of Propaganda and Psychology are at work tirelessly whether we realize it or not.

These merchants of Marketing will not go quietly, nor relinquish their reigns in a moment of conscience. Their money buys influence. Their influence buys power. And power has no conscience. It is only concerned with control.

Controlling the message is how they control the people.

The only way to break free is through critical thinking.

The biggest mistake of those who dont use Propaganda is that they underestimate its power.

We often assume people are smart enough to see through the slander. But we’re weened on a media diet that knows no boundaries.

We each live in different target markets, segmented by race, gender, and class, reinforced by media messages tailored to our preferences.

Our Beliefs are a combination of stories we are sold, and stories we are told, mythologized by our environment.

If those stories aren’t based in truth, they may be doing more harm than good.

Belief is not truth. It is manufactured consent.

Life is not fair. And the world is not just.

Believing it is... only ensures it won’t be.

To paraphrase a successful ad campaign:

How does America spell Belief?

“O - U - R B - I - A - S”

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