Hiding in Plain View: The Past and Present of Manipulative Advertising




YOU KNOW you’re being watched. You wake up and check Facebook, taking some time to support your friends by liking their posts, but also aware in the back of your mind that these digital signals are being recorded and read for some other purpose. At work, you take a break to do some web surfing. Somehow the same ads for Florida vacation spots keep popping up, even though you researched that topic weeks ago and concluded the trip was outside your budget. At the urging of the grocery store chain you use most frequently, you download an app that gives you special access to discount prices. You congratulate yourself on your thrift, but something nags at you. There was all that boilerplate you didn’t read (and couldn’t have understood if you did) when you clicked “I agree” to install the app on your smartphone. What personal information did you just forfeit, and to whom?

Life today requires being the target of a nonstop commercial stakeout. There are ways to try to shield some activities from marketers’ prying eyes, but they are often cumbersome or ineffective. We are constantly being nudged toward advertiser-friendly defaults. Meanwhile, the commercial-surveillance arms race continues. Marketers can now identify individual users from the number of fonts in their browser or the rate at which their particular computer’s battery loses its charge. Digital monopolists like Amazon, Facebook, and Google hungrily expand their trove of consumer dossiers either through partnerships with big companies like the credit-monitoring firm Experian or outright acquisition of other businesses that began with the promise of shielding your data from advertisers.

Sixty years ago this summer, the journalist Vance Packard exposed the market research techniques being deployed by Madison Avenue in his book The Hidden Persuaders. The book struck a public nerve, remaining on the best seller list for a year, selling millions of copies, and forcing Mad Men–era advertisers into a defensive crouch. The reaction to The Hidden Persuaders is notable not only for what it tells us about a particular moment in American life, but also for what it suggests about our current age of ubiquitous commercial surveillance.

In his book, Packard described the new psychologically assisted “depth approach” to marketing that probed the subconscious motivations of shoppers. Instead of surveys and sales figures, free-ranging interviews were used to get consumers openly musing about the irrational thoughts behind their marketplace behaviors. Psychologists scribbled all this information down and then analyzed it in order to make recommendations to corporate clients. For example, in work for Chrysler, the motivational researcher Ernest Dichter concluded that men view the convertibles they see in auto showroom windows “as a possible symbolic mistress.” Once inside the store, reality sets in and they buy a sedan, just as they “once married a plain girl who […] would make a fine wife and mother.” Dichter counseled Chrysler to give men the best of both worlds, and the automaker introduced a detachable hardtop that represented, in Dichter’s words, “the union between wife and mistress.” The new hardtop model was a huge commercial success.

Packard contended that the exploitation of the shopping subconscious endangered American individualism as Madison Avenue engaged in “mind-molding on the grand scale.” The clandestine nature of this new form of market research posed a threat. “The most serious offense many of the depth manipulators commit,” Packard wrote, “is that they try to invade the privacy of our minds.” Breaching this boundary held grave consequences for self-determination in a world of powerful corporations and their advertising agency accomplices.

Not everyone embraced Packard’s thesis. The Hidden Persuaders was somewhat thin on evidence, and advertisers accused Packard of relying on mere innuendo to make them into irresistible boogeymen. Some reviewers presented a counter-portrait of a gullible reporter who had been sold a bill of goods by a few boastful motivational researchers. Intellectuals like Dwight Macdonald and Harold Rosenberg had their own take, contending that middle-class consumers obsessed with material comforts were the real problem, not the advertisers responding to their wishes. They panned Packard’s accessible, punchy prose as middlebrow writing meant to appeal to those same bourgeois consumers.

The skeptics had a point. In general, The Hidden Persuaders gave the motivational researchers too much credit. Advertising agencies did indeed have psychologists on staff, doing their best to assess the subconscious wants of consumers. But many of the techniques that shocked Packard’s readers were subsequently discredited; it turned out that they had little impact on actual purchasing behaviors. Yet even if the motivation research Packard described was not as effective as he claimed, his book raised a fundamental social question: when does acceptable commercial persuasion cross the line into unacceptable manipulation?

This is a question that has been asked several times in American history as advertisers develop new tools for their product proselytizing. In the early 20th century, the introduction of mass-produced goods shipped over long distances put consumers at an informational disadvantage. Shoppers could no longer depend on local sources to ascertain product quality. Public ire mounted over a national marketplace rife with unsafe and deceptive products, and Congress eventually passed new laws to help restore some balance to the advertiser-consumer relationship. For example, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 gave government experts the authority to examine drugs for false representations and make sure that they did not fall below federally mandated purity levels. On the other hand, worries over the emotional appeal of television advertising in the 1960s and 1970s largely failed to translate into substantial consumer protections. In a series of radio addresses and op-eds in 1975, a pre-presidency Ronald Reagan castigated would-be regulators for “promoting the notion that people are too dumb to buy a box of corn flakes without being cheated.” Reagan’s anti-paternalist message resonated, and the American consumer movement has never regained its former strength.

Today, a host of new advertising techniques operate beyond our field of vision. The data exhaust we emit as we traverse the web, shop with digital coupons, and use the GPS and Bluetooth capabilities on our smartphones becomes fodder for ads targeted to our psychological profiles and moments of greatest cognitive weakness. Social media platforms and gaming apps run constant massive online human experiments to get us to post and play longer (so that we can be exposed to more ads). So-called “neuromarketers” scan the brains of test audiences to calibrate commercials for maximum effect.

These new mechanisms for studying and selling to consumers mirror the ones chronicled by Packard. They are all designed to paint a more accurate portrait of the consumer mind. They eschew deliberate consumer feedback for instinctual, involuntary disclosures. Armed with better information about how we think, companies can make their messages more appealing and overcome the mental defenses we erect against businesses that don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart.

But there is also a big difference between the selling strategies of today and those chronicled in The Hidden Persuaders. Packard’s book, as the title suggests, unmasked hidden practices. The psychoanalytic study of purchasing behavior was not something that 1950s businesses proudly presented to the public. Yet today’s advertising practitioners don’t just disclose their ability to spy on consumers in unguarded moments; they boast of it.

Companies no longer make a secret of dividing up their audiences into psychographic segments. This May, a report showed that Facebook’s ability to monitor posts and photos in real time let it determine when young users were in the throes of different emotional states, including “stressed,” “defeated,” “anxious,” “nervous,” and “overwhelmed.” Although this report was supposedly leaked to the press against Facebook’s wishes, other very public pronouncements testify to Facebook’s ability to assess and discriminate on the basis of user personalities.

Facebook is not alone. Conflicts on YouTube comment boards are touted as marketing opportunities, letting advertisers zero in on different commenters’ emotional reactions to all manner of subjects. Big brands like Nike, McDonald’s, and Under Armour openly use image recognition technology to comb through photos posted on social media, looking for pictures that reveal desired feelings like happiness or excitement alongside a related product, and then target ads to the poster. For every selfie, there is now a grateful advertiser.

Then there are the ad campaigns based on monitoring blood flow and electrical impulses in consumers’ brains. Instead of asking consumers what they think, consumer neuroscience lets businesses read minds, avoiding the problem of customers who don’t know or don’t want to reveal what their true feelings about an ad or product really are. At first, in the early 2000s, businesses downplayed their investment in this sort of market research, not wanting to scare away shoppers worried that their brains could be hijacked by outside forces. But now, this marriage of science and selling is featured in corporate press releases.

In the moment, we may not realize that these techniques are being used against us. The appearance of an online commercial can seem serendipitous, not the product of an around-the-clock digital vigil. Ads do not announce their reliance on neural scans from a test audience or disclose their grounding in an algorithm’s assessment of our emotional state. Yet, in a larger sense, these strategies are very much out in the open. Surveys show that consumers know about and dislike commercial surveillance practices, yet feel largely powerless to resist them. We may not know the specifics, but we know we are being watched and that we can’t do much about it. Packard believed that motivational research could be blunted through consumer awareness. But as companies become more brazen in revealing their new market research methods, awareness seems like an inadequate solution.

If the reaction to The Hidden Persuaders was shock, fatalism tends to be the response to descriptions of the modern commercial panopticon. In his book The Attention Merchants, law professor Tim Wu contends that this is all part of a historical pattern: advertisers inevitably go too far in their efforts to capture human attention, ultimately disenchanting audiences enough to produce a backlash, and then the whole cycle repeats itself a few years later. Others, like psychologist Adam Alter, adopt a darker perspective, contending that these new forms of consumer information collection are irresistible, particularly on social media where we can’t stop ourselves from releasing monetizable data in our pursuit of Facebook likes and Twitter hearts.

So what should be done about these not-so-hidden persuaders? Ironically, it was the prospect of “subliminal commercials,” a technique only briefly alluded to in The Hidden Persuaders, that drew the strongest response. Aldous Huxley was struck by Packard’s book, lamenting, in his 1958 book Brave New World Revisited, that its revelations had not triggered even greater public alarm. Huxley found the prospect of subliminal advertising particularly disturbing, cautioning that the technology could result in people “doing all sorts of things they didn’t really want to do.” Another critic, Marya Mannes, was more blunt, describing subliminal advertising as a “rape of the mind.” The Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission held hearings. Political pressure forced the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters to declare a ban on subliminal ads in 1958.

The ban on subliminal advertising wasn’t necessary, for a simple reason: it didn’t work. But the actual effectiveness of subliminal advertising and the other selling techniques discussed in The Hidden Persuaders was less important than the public response they triggered. Advertisers had crossed a line that legislators and industry regulators felt they could not ignore.

Sixty years later, we don’t need another Packard to draw the curtain back on advertisers’ occult techniques. They are there for us all to see. The problem is getting people to care: convincing the public that marketers have violated an inviolable boundary. The line between acceptable persuasion and unacceptable manipulation is historically contingent. The 1950s subliminal advertising scare came at a time when Americans feared brainwashing by communist foes. This made the notion of advertisers holding the strings while consumers danced unawares too much to take.

Have contemporary advertisers yet crossed a line that will galvanize public opinion and wake up somnolent public officials? Maybe the sheer size and market control of today’s commercial messaging platforms will trigger sufficient consumer indignation. We might ask how Facebook and Google can be trusted to ethically shape the preferences of over a billion people. Another potential flash point is the cozy relationship between commercial and political market research. Political campaigns comb through the same data as retailers, assessing party preferences on the basis of in-store purchases and online revelations. If there is widespread agreement that the political product we are getting from all this surveillance is substandard, this dissatisfaction may lead to a movement for limits on digital spying.

Regardless, change needs to happen soon, before our capacity for outrage ebbs away for good. In 1957, Vance Packard’s readers could be startled by the notion of commercial forces steering their decisions. Part of the persuasive project undertaken by today’s advertisers, however, teaches citizens that nonstop personal disclosure is normal and beneficial. The relationship between advertisers and consumers should be dynamic, periodically adjusting to the informational asymmetries and power imbalances generated by new technologies and marketing strategies. The danger is that this critical moment will pass without consumers putting up a fight, and we will lose the ability to see what is hiding in plain view.

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Mark Bartholomew is a professor of law at the University at Buffalo School of Law and the author of Adcreep: The Case Against Modern Marketing.


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