Think of the Children
Advertising is about the transmission of information, and it is also about convincing people to buy something. In other words, it is a form of persuasion, but this use of persuasion is implicitly equated with the use of force by its detractors. Sometimes, as in the case of the French website RAP (“Résistance à l’Agression Publicitaire” or “Resistance to Advertising Aggression”), the equating of persuasion and force is explicit. The site features an illustration of a police officer brandishing a billy club accompanied by the slogan, “Ne vous laissez pas matraquer par la pub,” which translates, “Don’t let yourself be bludgeoned by advertising.”
Usually, though, the message is less overt, as it is on Commercial Alert’s website, whose slogan is “Protecting communities from commercialism.” The site complains about the psychology profession “helping corporations influence children for the purpose of selling products to them.” Here, the word “influence” seems none too menacing, but its effect is quickly bolstered by the words “crisis,” “epidemic,” “complicity,” and “onslaught.” Force may not be explicitly mentioned, but these words bring to mind infectious disease, crime, and violent conquest. Without coming right out and saying it, the implication is clear―although one could argue, ironically enough, that this effect was meant to be subliminal.
Now, are children more vulnerable than adults to the persuasive nature of advertising? Of course they are, especially when very young. But it is part of the job of parents (and later, teachers) to equip children with the tools necessary to judge competing claims and see through manipulative techniques. I’ll be the first to admit that there is room for improvement in this area―and a free market in education would go a long way toward providing that improvement―but as far as advertising goes, most kids are savvy to the more outlandish claims well before they even reach adolescence. As people grow up, they learn through experience that beer doesn’t bring babes (though a little may beneficially lower one’s own inhibitions) and that makeup will only get you so far. At any rate, treating all adults like children is hardly a fair way to deal with the fact that some minority of people will remain gullible their entire lives.
Of Words and Bullets
Many of those who really hate advertising share a worldview that involves rich, powerful corporations controlling everything. In fact, there is a sense in which this view has some merit, for it is true that large corporations often gain unfair advantage over their competitors, suppliers, and customers. When this happens, though, it happens through the gaining of political influence, which means the use of actual, legally sanctioned force to hogtie the competition, restrict consumers’ choices, or extract taxpayers’ hard-earned income. In a truly free market, the government would not have the authority to dole out special privileges, as it does in our mixed economies. Without any goodies to fight over, corporations would have no legal means of squashing competitors and could only succeed by being as efficient as possible and persuading customers to buy their products (and if their products do not satisfy, they will not get many repeat customers). To target this persuasion as a serious problem when actual, legal force is being used surely reveals an inverted sense of priorities, or at least a serious misunderstanding about the sources of society’s woes.
Another example of the implicit equating of persuasion with force is the thinking behind legislated limits on the amounts individuals can spend expressing their political views during an election―in essence, limits on political advertising. Here, as in commercial advertising, the purpose is clear: if persuasion is force, then the government is perfectly justified in countering that initiation of force with retaliatory force. If words are bullets, then words can be met with bullets. But it is clear what happens to free speech in such a scenario. Instead of competing voices clamouring for your attention, one monolithic government propaganda machine decides what can and cannot be said. In the political realm, this works against new or historically small parties trying to break through since they have a disproportionately hard time attracting many small contributions in order to pay for ads to get their message out. This leads to a situation in which a couple of largely indistinguishable parties become more and more firmly entrenched.
In fact, the notion that persuasion is force brings to mind nothing so much as George Orwell’s novel, 1984, in which the government has destroyed the precision of words by continually reinforcing its contradictory slogans: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is power, and love is hate. It is shocking to observe the smug self-righteousness of those who hold forth on the enormous manipulative power of advertising and who are so sure that they, of all people, have not been brainwashed. But in fact, it is they who have been, if not brainwashed, then at least misled about the relative power of advertising versus the average Joe’s ability to think and judge for himself. They have bought, hook, line, and sinker, the most superficial critique of capitalism, when our mixed form of capitalism has plenty of real abuses crying out for correction.
The Power of Persuasion
The point is not that persuasion is powerless. I am engaged in trying to persuade you of something right now, and if I didn’t think I had a chance of succeeding, I wouldn’t waste my time. The point, rather, is that persuasion must be met with persuasion, words and rhetorical techniques must be answered with more words and more rhetoric. If free competition is allowed in the marketplace of ideas, no one’s victory is assured, and we needn’t fret too much over the use of psychological tricks, because the trickster’s competitors can use them too, or overtly challenge them instead. (See Gennady Stolyarov II’s article “The Victory of Truth Is Never Assured!” for a related call to action.)
If we are still worried, though, it is undeniable that better education―freer education―would produce a less pliant population, especially important for the issue of political persuasion. The other thing that would help is fighting for full freedom of competition, in both commerce (no special government privileges) and politics (no limits on political speech). In other words, we need to eliminate the government’s use of force in the realms of education, commerce, and political campaigning. Agitating for the government to solve our problems for us with the use of more force will only make matters worse, and further infantilize us in the process.