Advertising and Persuasion … Hit us Right where We Want

I have been very impressed by Frontline’s 2004 program “The Persuaders” about the art of advertising products and policies, the art of persuading people to buy or to vote. If I understood correctly, the idea is the folllowing: efficient advertising is about persuading people to buy into what they already want. This entails both discovering what people want (and sometimes people don’t know themselves, as there structures of desire are like a hidden “reptilian code”, beyond any rational argumentation and very akin to deep seated emotions), and presenting what you have on offer with words and emotions that connect with the deep wants of people. A piece of political advice that struck me: don’t speak about “the Iraq war”, but rather about “the war on terror” (the latter one seems acceptable, while the former sparks off discussion and debate); don’t speak about “global warming”, but about “climate change” (the latter doesn’t show the same urgency as the former).

I like the program, as it awakens in me a double critical sense: (a) be aware of the fact that there are structures and patterns of desire in people that they are not always aware of, and that can also be approached as a sociological phenomenon, and unearth this hidden “code” not to use it for advertisement, but to make people and societies more self-aware; (b) be aware that advertisers and persuaders are using this hidden code for their own goals and interests.

Moreover, as a theologian, I would like to point out two more elements that may be important for sound social and political discernment about our ways of life. This deeper “reptilian code” may be an important given, but we can unearth it (at least the “persuaders” do it to better sell their products and policies) and bring it to the level of consciousness. That also means, that we can be critical of its content, that we may take some distance and ask ourselves if this code is really the last word about our lives and our desires. I think, as a theologian, that this is exactly the point where we have to ask the question: how does this “code” relate to God and how God created/s us in our world? Can we assume responsibility in the face of this code, so as not to allow persuaders to play us all to easily …

The second critical note I want to add as a theologian, concerns the fact that the focus on playing the tunes of this “reptilian code” moves out of play arguments of content: as consumers we are reduced to our emotions and codes, our argumentative capacities are bypassed. This is a dangerous thing to do with regard to our consumption habits, particularly in times of human caused global warming. It is also a very dangerous feature in politics. My Christian faith tells me that we have been created as rational and emotional beings, and I think this is confirmed by who we are and what we can … we should not drop these fundamental features or ourselves. Codes are there to be unravelled and to be critically assessed. In this case, religion and the reference to God may be a good help to do so.

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