We are all constantly manipulated.

Advertisers make us think we need products to feel better about ourselves, do things we’d like to do, or look sharp.   Politicians manipulate us by appealling to our emotions, be it fear or hope, making promises and projecting images that hit us at subliminal levels.

Sometimes its overt.  You go into a car dealership and you know that when they innocently ask “what other cars are you looking at” they are judging your price range.   If you’re looking at a Camry and you say you’ve been eyeing a Honda Accord or a VW Passat they know they can offer a higher price than if you’ve been looking at a Kia or Chevy.  You know that they are doing their best to get you to drive off with their car that day, and that the ‘negotiation’ with the ‘manager’ is staged.  But most of us still fall for it, and often later realize they controlled the process.  If manipulation can succeed when its so overt and we know about it, think about how effective it can be when it’s ubitquitous, subtle, and we think we’re simply making free choices.

Dr. David Kessler, in his book The End of Overeating describes how the food industry programs us to overeat, and manipulates their products in ways that get us addicted to food.    Indeed, the food industry hits us everywhere from psychology (adds that make it seem good and normal to indulge — usually connected with images of family, friendship or maybe adventure) to physiology (manipulating our tastebuds and making it easier to eat).  Kessler notes that with modern foods we don’t have to chew as often — our food comes already partially pre-digested.

Marketing is everywhere, mixing appeals to make us want something with claims that make it seem easy to purchase — get credit, don’t worry about the cost, the omnipresent ‘I deserve it’ rationalization, or simply that ‘everyone is doing it.’  We end up buying things we don’t need, and really don’t want.

It is most evident with children.  The marketing to children starts when they are two and can identify products by logo or name.  By the time Ryan was four, he wanted everything he saw a commercial for.  Whether it was roll out flower beds, some new gadget, or any toy they advertised, he was enthused and enthralled.  He caused his day care teacher to laugh when he ran through a commercial for one of those convenience products and ended, in dead seriousness, with “and the best thing of all — you don’t have to lift a finger.”   We are a little better at avoiding the glitz and excitement built into commercials — but not much.

We are manipulated in the political realm.  Like him or not, one has to admit that Barack Obama ran a superb marketing campaign.   His people were overt about the methods they used — gathering e-mail addresses in order to send messages for fund raising, projecting the proper image, and selling their candidate.  Of coure, Karl Rove marketed George W. Bush, the ‘compassionate conservative,’ and one Bush aide asked why suddenly in September 2002 there was such a push for war in Iraq answered “you don’t market a new product in August.”

Whether it’s Obama’s appeal to youth, hope and hippness to talk radio’s more base appeal to fear, nationalism and anger, manipulation takes place all over the political spectrum.   To be sure, it’s been worse.  In Rwanda Hutus were manipulated to slaughter Tutsis, in Cambodia the Khmer Rouge manipulated peasants to start a mass genocide, in Stalinist Russia Communist ideology was used to manipulate an entire society.   And, of course, I’ve noted earlier how the Nazi Goebbels once claimed he learned all he needed to know from the advertisers on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

We are manipulated into thinking life is about certain things.  Why do we want to be a material success, why do we put job ahead of friends and family, why do we see some careers as more acceptable than others, why do we think free market capitalism is choice?   The manipulation concerning these issues involve something akin to modern myths.  Even though the wealthy corporations can manipulate us in ways we don’t even recognize, we believe that they are just giving us choices, and we get to autonomously decide what we want.   They also provide the rationale for justifying our choices, making us feel empowered, even as we’re manipulated.

Just as the Catholic church created a view of reality in the Middle Ages where the real world was irrelevant and all that mattered was to prepare for the afterlife — hence the lack of material progress for centuries — we now have a secular materialist world view where the meaning of life is defined by material wealth or condition.  It’s a new kind of myth:  the free market means freedom and choice (we don’t notice the manipulation, and in fact feel empowered by our choices), success in life is defined by material conditions (house, family, good job, financial security), but we are manipulated to think it’s never quite enough.

Moreover, while the myth is secular, the source of power here, as with other manipulations, is appeal to our emotions.   Disneyland overtly connections consumption with the notion of family, a happy childhood, and a sense of ‘magic.’   The yearning for psychological contentment leads to a host of consumable products from electronics (I’ll be happy with a flat screen TV and stereo surround sound) to drugs (this pill will wash away the feelings of depression).  And, of course, psychological contentment is always kept at arms length.

I’ve posted numerous posts about consumerism.  But rarely do even the most astute social critics truly recognize the scope of just how manipulated we are.   We know advertisers are trying to manipulate our behavior, but most people have no clue just how extensive that manipulation is — or how much it shapes our experience of life.   That yearning dissatisfaction with ones’ current situation, even though one might have a good family, a comfortable home and a well paying job, comes directly from such manipulation.  The economic crisis, our wars, our dependence on oil (and the crises it may cause in the future), and the way we’re destroying our planet are all results of manipulation.

The manipulation is not centralized.  It comes from government, from advertisers, and it has been become part of the fabric of our culture.  We are hypontised by the world, in a way, taking a rather strange culture defined by a particular kind of secular materialism as “normal” and even “best.”   Reason/rational thought is elevated as the primary value, even though reason itself cannot uncover values and provides the capacity for the elite to manipulate emotions.   The biggest limit on our freedoms comes not from religion, government, or foreign threats, but from the waves of manipulation that shape and push us every day.

There’s no clear way to overcome this, except to learn about the manipulation (reading books like Kessler’s noted above, or perhaps Bejamin Barber’s Consumed), and try to notice it in our own lives.  And then to recognize that for all our wants, desires, and discontents, the best way to avoid manipulation is to grap the moment, bask in the now, appreciate the beauty and the people around us, and realize that our experience of the moment is real — not the strange social scenerey of the world in which we find ourselves.

  1. #1 by earthking on May 9, 2009 - 18:04

    Without the Catholic Church and the monks, much of the culture and history from the Greeks and Romans would have been forgotten. However, I agree with you that consumerism is very rampant nowadays and gets the best of us. I often ponder what Jesus would say about consumerism. After all, he was one to focus on being content with what you have. Any thoughts?

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on May 9, 2009 - 19:54

    I agree on the role of the church saving culture and history (I had a post from Italy making that point:

    I think there’s no doubt that modern hyper consumerism is contrary to the principles of the New Testament and especially Augustine.

  3. #3 by Patrice on May 12, 2009 - 20:39

    Political aspects aside, I must say I am relieved to know that my 4 year old is not the only one that wants every.single.thing. she sees on tv. Currently at the top of her list are that upside-down hanging tomato grower thingy and a mounted toothpaste dispenser (and light-up shoes, bendaroos, a cupcake decorating machine, etc…). I find myself so annoyed at the constant stream of “mommy will you buy me that?” but I haven’t had much success so far at teaching her that we just don’t buy everything we see. Sigh.

  4. #4 by henitsirk on May 13, 2009 - 05:16

    This is one big reason why we don’t watch TV! It’s important to me that my kids become aware of marketing and these kinds of manipulation. My kids are a little young for big lectures on capitalism and advertising, but I make age-appropriate efforts.

    We talk about why I don’t like toys and games that are character driven: because the goal is to make you want every product that has that character, to buy more products. I try to point out that when you get a Disney princess coloring book, you are limiting yourself to what Disney is giving you, whereas if you draw your own pictures, you are unlimited. And we have explained to our kids that we won’t buy them clothes with characters or logos, because we are not walking advertisements! Essentially I try to show them that if you consume what someone else has made, you are limiting your own creativity.

    I also try to counteract consumerism through my own role modeling for them. They have seen me spend a lot of time mending clothes so that we don’t have to buy new ones. We use the library and BookMooch far more than we buy new books. We buy a lot of stuff from the thrift store, and donate a lot right back to it.

    I also am trying to teach them long-term saving and planning, though again they are pretty young for that. My son always asks if we can eat out, so I try to explain to him that every time we eat out, that’s less money we can save up to buy a house. That’s inspiring to him because he really wants a backyard!

    I think role modeling is the key with children, because they imitate the adults around them. We don’t watch TV, we avoid impulse shopping, we save money, we avoid characters and logos, and so on. And so they do those things too. Of course, I’m just waiting for puberty when they rebel against all that!

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on May 13, 2009 - 18:26

    I greatly respect your approach — that takes work to follow through on. We haven’t done that well. I hardly watch any TV, but Ryan certainly discovered shows he likes! We do limit TV (by re-direction to other activities rather than saying ‘that’s enough’) though lately Ryan’s gotten to like the Simpsons. That is actually one of my favorite shows of all time, so we sometimes watch a couple episodes in a row on DVD (he doesn’t get most of the jokes though). I stopped watching that show and TV when Ryan was born, not for virtuous reasons but simply there was no more time! I used to spend Sundays watching NFL football, I’ve watched virtually none in the last six years. Why give up a Sunday to TV when there are kids around!

    In general, we decided on a more relaxed approach, though one with teaching intertwined throughout (learning about marketing and manipulation, even if he gets “Cars” tennis shoes).

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