Friday, September 21, 2007

Emotional Coercion

Years ago, I read a book called "Why We Buy" by Paco Underhill. He and members of his research team would go to various shops of clients and observe customers. They have sneaky methods of noticing you so that you don't notice them noticing you. These researchers record a plethora of facts about you: what you are wearing, the company you keep, how you move about the store, what you pick up, what you touch, etc. You could almost hear David Attenborough in the background, narrating your activities. The research company then sticks all this data together and comes up with clever ways to get you to do what the store managers want you to do: buy more stuff. As a marketing executive, Underhill knows the tricks because he invented/discovered a lot of them. The "tricks" are making use of the simple things that make us tick, gleaned from this extensive observation of consumer behavior.

Humans are, first and foremost, survival machines. We evolved in the wild to be and act in ways that were conducive to our reproductive success. We're such clever monkeys, though, that we quickly de-wilded the wilderness. Our genes did not get the message, and are still cranking us out to behave as if we were still in the jungle. Of course, we have instinct blindness, that is, we are not aware of what we do or why - we don't need to, we just do it. That was the case for several thousands of years, but now we have folks like Edward Bernays, Underhill, and others that have been able to pinpoint specific instincts and ingrained behavior that we have in response to specific environmental cues. I would like to remind the reader that we are not entirely driven by instincts or predetermined behavior; there is a great variability in our thoughts and actions and our reasons for them. We are not little robots that mindlessly go about our business (well, most of us aren't). I mention this now to make a point later. (that humans ought to be "rational, reasoning, and thoughtful", not mindless animals that react to environmental cues.)

Bringing up Edward Bernays suggests, quite rightly, that government propaganda can and obviously does make use of the same tactics used by advertisers, and vice versa. We should not have expected things to be otherwise.

Our Candidate

From the video, we can see that the way to subvert the good sense of humans, propaganda must appeal to emotions. Fear is, I believe, the most commonly used and effective emotion to elicit the desired response. The reason is fear played such a huge role in our lives in the jungle. Fear meant survival, even if it was irrational. Running from a tiger cub thinking it is a tiger because the fear magnified the threat may indeed seem silly to us, but our monkey ancestors would rather expend a few calories like this and be wrong than be gobbled up for good.

Other emotions and systems come into play as well. For example, humans like faces. We have a natural propensity to notice them. (As an aside, I'm pretty sure most animals with faces have some face recognition pattern). Humans also have built-in attractiveness measuring systems. Symmetry of the body, especially faces, is often a good indication of quality genes. Stick symmetrical, youthful human faces all over advertisements - even if faces have nothing to do with the product:

[at an auto exhibit where a blonde model poses together with a car for a raffle.]
Homer: [looks at model after signing his raffle ticket] Do you come with the car?
Model: Oh you! [laughs childishly]
[Homer leaves. Another man walks up to the car]
Male attendee: [looks at model after signing his raffle ticket] Do you come with the car?
Model: Oh you! [laughs childishly]
- and people will look at it and make associations between the people depicted and the product. Multi-national and -cultural studies have shown that women with a .7 waist to hip ratio are found, on average, to be more desirable than other ratios. This probably has a lot to do with fertility cues. Associating fertility cues with automobiles makes a lot of sense.

Let's not expect advertisers to be the sole users of these facts. The recent republican debates and polls have shown Mitt Romney is a popular candidate. I predicted it was because of his hair, and since we know that national politicians generally don't say anything meaningful, this is probably the case.

The point of all this is to demonstrate the similarity of tactics. Now we must break down the underlying reasons for using them. The simple reason is: they want us to do something. Whether it's handing over money for a good or service or as a donation for a campaign, to having a positive mental attitude towards the company, party, or politician makes no difference.

Wanting something is not inherently bad or undesirable, it's just a matter of how we go about getting it. If I can save some effort by asking someone to pass the pepper, I just politely ask them to do so. I don't have to resort to fear-mongering or excessive charm. The use of emotional and sexual manipulation is what makes the previous cases so detestable. Rather than be addressed as rational, thoughtful, intelligent, responsible people (you know, humans), advertisers and political propagandists appeal to base instincts and survival mechanisms. It is insulting because it suggests that A) we are too stupid to understand the real reasons why we should do something, and B) we are too stupid to even ask. The most insulting thing, though, is C) it works.

Not all the time, nor on everyone, but it does. We are such that we can't help but react a certain way in some cases. I consider it coercion. In an obvious case, a person holds a gun to my head and demands my obedience. Bypassing such crude methods, I am induced as a monkey (not as a human) to obey through cleverly designed media spots. One interesting property of media coercion as compared to violent coercion, is that whereas the latter is good at obtaining direct obedience with direct, individual contact and less so in large groups; the former is rather poor at bending the individual to its will, but quite effective at moving crowds. Everyone has these holes in the armor of their persona, but not everyone has a gun to their head. Most people can overcome emotional or sexual coercion, but not always so with violent coercion. The trouble is that we often don't even notice we are being emotionally manipulated. It is easy to spot the gun and the malevolence behind it. Appeals to emotion - especially those couched in the innocent activity of "merely informing others that such a product exists" - do not have an apparent ill-intent. It may seem just fine and logical to vote for this or that candidate because of this or that emotionally-charged "issue".

This is perhaps the scariest and most dangerous aspect of emotional manipulation: because it is your emotion and your reaction, you feel like you are in control. You are not. At least, not completely. The amount of autonomy you give up depends on how comfortable you feel being driven by your emotions to perform the bidding of another person. Over time I would imagine you would be happy to have others make your decisions. After all, your emotions tell you that what you are doing is desirable, so what you want is what they want, and you don't have to go through the trouble of trying to figure out what it is you want. They do that for you.

So when I rail against consumerism (or political ads not unlike the spoof above) and all it's evils, this is just one aspect of what I mean. If you've ever seen a person zombie-like in front the TV, flashes of light flickering off their glazed eyes, reduced through years of careful conditioning to be an emotionally-driven consumer robot, you will experience the horror...

Horrified yet? Good, now do my bidding...


Blogger breakerslion said...

This is exactly why I can't stand Oprah. She plays the emotions of the crowd in a way that would bring a tear to the eye of any 19th Century tent show huckster.

I just saw a Mitt Romney campaign ad this morning. He had to slip in the old "Democrats, the party of big spending" talking point. It almost made me wish we really did live in a cartoon universe, so I could watch 5 pounds of corn meal fall out of his mouth after he said it. WHO has run up the deficit to levels incomprehensible to the human brain?

By the way, if you contact the makers of that spoof, thank them for including me ;-)

02 October, 2007 17:25  
Blogger Delta said...

I liked that spoof ad.

If you've ever seen a person zombie-like in front the TV, flashes of light flickering off their glazed eyes, reduced through years of careful conditioning to be a emotionally-driven consumer robot, you will experience the horror...

This sort of person and my perception that many in America are like this is very depressing to my hopes of some sort of progressive change. The average person doesn't care at all about politics, and it fully content with living their life, as you say, as a emotionally-driven consumer robot. Do you think people who have become this way can easily break out of it? Or do you think it's somewhat permanent? Generally speaking, there will of course be exceptions.

The Democratic candidates do a great job of using emotions as well. You hear Obama or Clinton talk about restoration of demoracy, corporate corruption, peace through diplomacy, healthcare, and the like. But do they actually have any concrete plans to change these things? If so, I haven't heard them. They just take the words that the actual progressive movement as their own and use them in their speeches in order to play off the positive emotions that people have associated with these things.

14 October, 2007 13:50  

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