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Advertising and the Consumer Mindset

advertisingI watched a documentary yesterday about how corrupt our country is. It was awesome. And by awesome, I mean depressing. And the documentary started out with a disclaimer about conspiracy theories, so obviously I went in assuming everything they said was going to be pure fact. Kidding aside though, the documentary did touch on one subject that I found particularly interesting: public relations and advertising.

The segment focused on Edward Bernays, who happens to be Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Bernays is often credited as the father of public relations. During World War I, he was the man who realized the government could garner more public support for war if America’s involvement was positioned as an effort to bring democracy to Europe, rather than an effort to gain power for America. After the war, he wondered whether he could employ the same tactics during peacetime. He pulled together his uncle’s work on psychoanalysis and other great thinkers’ work on crowd psychology to develop a means to control what people think. He called it “public relations.”

Bernays was not an advertiser, but he paved a path for the advertising industry. He believed in the mass production of ideas, that if he convinced those in power to feel a certain way, they would pass that idea onto their followers, and thus he could control what people thought. He realized he could create economic benefit for the corporate elite using this tactic to tell people they needed to buy things. Advertisers may persuade people to buy into a certain product or idea, but Bernays had a method to create ideas and desires in a large population. Advertisers then need only to convince you why you should buy their product.

It was a grim look into the world of advertising. I suppose I’ve always known that companies are selling you products that you’ve been tricked into thinking you need (hell, my job is to convince people to buy my company’s products!), but when you see it all laid out as one man’s devious plan to control our minds and create groupthink, it just seems so much more evil.

So what can we do about it? The main message of the documentary was that consumers hold the ultimate power because we can decide which businesses succeed and fail based on where we spend our money. When you go shopping, ask yourself why you think you need all the items in your cart. Are they a necessity, or have you just been conditioned to think you need them? Do you need to actually buy the item to get the desired result, or could you make it yourself or use something you already own? Every time you buy something you don’t truly need, you’re reinforcing some big corporation’s control over your life.

This is all beginning to sound very hippie of me, but if enough people stop buying crap that they don’t really need, corporations will stop making it because their number one goal is to make money off of you. If they aren’t making a profit from a product, they will change. So don’t feed the corporate machine. Only buy something if you’re comfortable knowing that you’re supporting the company that makes it.

19 Responses to Advertising and the Consumer Mindset

  1. I may be the only one who is not influenced by advertising. No one can sell me something! I choose to buy and I only buy to replace existing things that wear out.

  2. I try to only buy things that I need and not to be swayed by marketing, but I’m sure that I’m influenced in some ways I’m not even consciously aware of (which is of course what “they” want).

    • Gen Y Finance Journey

      Despite the disclaimer indicating that everything in the documentary was a conspiracy theory, it still got me thinking about how my views are shaped and if I’m ever really able to make an informed decision. Even if you think you have all the facts, unless you discovered those facts yourself, it’s very possible that whoever passed those facts along to you had been influenced by someone else. I’m really trying not to become a conspiracy theorist. :)

  3. As someone who works in the advertising industry, I could not agree more. They try and make you feel like you “have” to have whatever shiny new thing that’s being hawked at you. But, you know what, if people did not buy it then they’d have nothing to hawk. It’s all about being an informed consumer and voting with your wallet.

    • Gen Y Finance Journey

      Exactly. Clearly there are enough people buying the stuff that they keep selling it. All we need to do is stop buying it.

  4. “…consumers hold the ultimate power because we can decide which businesses succeed and fail based on where we spend our money.”

    I always try to explain this to people. Many people like to declare “Walmart is causing mom and pop shops to go out of business!” Not true. Consumers are causing local businesses to close shop. Walmart is just a store with a bunch of products sitting on shelves. It cannot force people to shop there. What it can do is entice consumers to change their shopping habits by offering a better shopping experience (cheaper prices, better selection, etc). But, the ultimate power is with the consumers. Do they stop shopping at their local stores and switch to Walmart when one opens in their area? Based on Walmart’s success, the overwhelming vote from consumers is: YES!

    • This is very true and we’re starting to see a lot more of it in the UK as well.
      I walk down the high streets where I work, where I live, and where I hang out at weekends, and they ALL have several unoccupied shops now. If it carries on, the logical conclusion is we all end up working for the bigger corporations with poorer employment contracts. I feel it’s no longer just about saving your pennies, and people have to remember everything has a cost.
      We all have 24/7 banking by phone now, and it’s very convenient, but only because there’s somebody else working those hours. If we continue to insist on this state of affairs, we will all be working shifts on any day of the week, simply for others convenience too.
      I picked my current job precisely because I didn’t want to work evenings or weekends anymore, however, we have now started opening on saturday mornings, and so the rot begins again…

    • Gen Y Finance Journey

      This is making me want to go watch You’ve Got Mail…

  5. There are marketing gimmicks surrounding us everywhere we go. Infact the world is one big giant marketing gimmick just waiting for consumers to suck it all up. We only buy what we need but sometimes we need each other to say “no” we can go without.

    • Gen Y Finance Journey

      From what I’ve read, Edward Bernays believed he was doing something good, that democracy couldn’t work unless the people all held unified beliefs. I wonder if in some form it is a good thing. But there is no question it’s gotten out of control and the idea of controlling the masses by telling them what to believe and what to buy is not healthy.

  6. These days, people tend to be more skeptical of everything; I’d like to think advertising doesn’t have the grip on minds that it once did. I do know my kids are real impressionable though – they recite commercials they see on their cartoons as well as the pitch man! I always have to tell them about their hidden agenda.

    • Gen Y Finance Journey

      Well you’re probably surrounded mostly by like-minded people who are educated enough to see through the facade to the underlying motivations of the advertisers, and who are financially conscious enough to make wise decisions with their money. But if you go to a small town in middle America with a high school graduation rate of 50%, I’m sure you’d see a lot of people who are easily swayed by advertising.

  7. It sounds like an interesting documentary and it is surprising how easily people are swayed by a smooth talker or flashy advertisement.

    • Gen Y Finance Journey

      It’s called Ethos, if you’re interested. It actually was a terribly made documentary, but had some interesting bits in it.

  8. I am a huge sucker for advertisements. I’ve been known to say things like “I liked the commercial and its making me want to buy xx product” all the time.

    Ps. What was the name of the doc?

    • Gen Y Finance Journey

      I’m kind of a sucker for clever or funny advertisements. I’d be more likely to buy a product if they have really entertaining commercials.

      The documentary was called Ethos. It’s hosted by a seemingly high Woody Harrelson and has terrible production value.

  9. Although I hate advertisements as much as the next guy they do an awful lot of good besides make companies money. There is so much science behind them that just the other day I remembered an ad for fairy liquid I had seen as a child which caused me to buy it over a rival. 10 years on and still influencing my decision..

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