Seeing cute babies and animals releases dopamine in the human brain. The lesson marketers take from this is that putting babies and animals on packaging and ads will increase sales. They want you to associate the drugging pleasure of cute with whatever they’re selling. Businesses are taking advantage of cuteness being physically addictive to make a profit off of you.
What I’m trying to get at is that advertisers know how to sell to you. It’s in their financial interest to learn how to manipulate our minds.
For example, there are companies devoted to taking EEG readings of brains responding to products and ads in order to give other companies better ideas on how to subconsciously influence you into parting with your money.
Allow me to share with you some of the charming chapter titles of just one of the many neuroscience marketing books out there. These are from The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind.
“Your Customer’s Brain is 100,000 Years Old”
“The Boomer Brain is Buying”
“The Female Brain is Buying”
“The Mommy Brain is Buying”
I’m not trying to say the book is evil. I’m just letting you know; there are people out there targeting you. They have a collective trillion dollar budget aimed at making that money and more back from your pocket.
Advertisers are also not above using butchered neuroscience to make unbacked claims about the products they’re selling. One thing they like to do is use the fact that people rate information presented with an image of a brain as more credible than the same information presented without a brain. Just as neuroscientist Molly Crockett says in her beware neuro-bunk TED Talk, the lesson becomes “Do you want to sell it? Put a brain on it.”
Maybe you’re thinking, “So what? I’m not gullible enough to be manipulated by ads into doing anything I wouldn’t want to do anyway.”
It’s not about gullibility. It’s really important that you realize no one is immune. Not me. Not you.
The truth is, things we are never consciously aware of can still affect our behavior.
I first learned about the following experiment from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow.
In an experiment performed by John Bargh, college students were asked to use random words to form short sentences. Some students were given a few words we generally relate with the elderly (like gray, bald, or wrinkle) while others were not. The words old and elderly were never used. Afterward, the students walked down a hall to go perform another task; it turns out the walk down the hall was the real test. Students who saw words related to the elderly walked much slower than those who had not.
When asked, none of the students said they noticed a theme in the words they were given for the experiment. Nevertheless, they unknowingly took on characteristics related to words they saw. This effect has come to be known as priming; this example is of stereotype priming and is just one of an endless number of ways we can be primed to think or act a certain way.
Another study found that people exposed to background images or words related to money (like a dollar sign screen saver across the room) became less willing to perform simple acts of help such as explaining test directions to a confused person or helping someone pick up a pile of dropped items. Since reminders of money are impossible to avoid in our capitalist consumer culture, I wonder how much friendlier would we all be if this wasn’t the case.
Another troubling effect is that the more familiar you are with something, the more likely you are to believe it is true.
Here’s an excerpt from Thinking, Fast and Slow about this:
A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact. But it was psychologists who discovered that you do not have to repeat the entire statement of a fact or idea to make it appear true. People who were repeatedly exposed to the phrase “the body temperature of a chicken” were more likely to accept as true the statement that “the body temperature of a chicken is 144°” (or any other arbitrary number).
So what kinds of things do we get used to? Clothes being out of fashion by the end of a season. The idea of always needing replacements, upgrades, and new things in general. The idea that buying lots of shit is actually patriotic because it keeps our economy afloat. That makeup is needed to cover blemishes. That we’re lovin’ it.
I bet you can fill in this blank: ________ are forever.
Advertising changes the way you think, for better or worse. The majority of the sensory input your brain processes is done at a level unavailable to your conscious mind. That’s why it’s called your subconscious.
The only way you’re going to be able to stop (or at least limit) the manipulation of your thought processes by those who want to make money off of you is to actively limit exposure. That means not being content to sit through TV and radio commercials even if you “don’t pay attention” to them. Your subconscious still does. That means using Adblock, or something similar, to block the online ads that cover most websites. It means skipping the free apps that are made free through showering you with ads. It means doing whatever you can to get as many ads as possible out of your life.
You can’t completely avoid all advertising, but you can significantly lower the percentage of it that you see. The purpose of advertising is to manipulate your mind. If you want to be happier and spend less, take steps to protect yourself.
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