One of the more common complaints consumer advocacy groups have about advertising is the use of "manipulative" techniques that are employed to get people to buy goods and services that they do not want or need. Our consistent counter argument to that: If the studies are true, and consumers are really the most educated type of consumer we have ever known, and they have access to nearly unlimited amounts of information, then manipulation cannot be possible. Consumers can look up ingredients, research case studies, and comparison shop with ease.
The argument of manipulation is invalid.
Or, is it?
A writer for Phys.Org's The Conversation recently covered the achievements and life of Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud and the often-touted "father of public relations." Bernays, who died about 20 years ago, wrote a book that has served as the foundation that branding and public relations were built on. In his book Propaganda, Bernays talked about how to use propaganda properly. When it is used improperly, it is called "impropaganda." Unfortunately, the latter definition never took off.
Bernays believed that the "public masses" could be controlled through unconscious influences; that the powers that be could, in effect, make people do whatever they wanted as long as they used the right message, created the right visual.
Back in those days, it could have been called manipulation due to the lack of access to information, the limited population of highly educated people, and the effectiveness of mass marketing. Since print, radio, and TV were still novel and people loved to hear and read what was going on, using "single bullet" communications worked.
These days, the conversation has shifted. Our goals now are to influence behavior, not to manipulate. We want to partner with the consumer, not control them. We need to provide the experience, not force it. Though many of the techniques and principles Bernays advocated in the past can still work today, we cannot readily assume that our consumers can be manipulated or controlled.
Though we do sometimes believe that the consumer is smart but a group is stupid, we do prefer to give the consumer the benefit of the doubt.
Dwayne W. Waite Jr. is partner and principal at JDW: The Charlotte Agency, a marketing and advertising shop in Charlotte, NC. He enjoys consumer behavior, economics, and football.
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