Monday, April 30, 2018

The Problem of Brain-Hacking

Sorry to say, your brain has been hacked. So has mine. It’s an inevitable part of living in modern culture, alarming but universal. I’m talking, of course, about advertising.

The average American is exposed to a few thousand advertisements every day. Whether these are billboards, commercials, online sidebars and and banners and pop-ups, branded t-shirts or sponsored products, in the modern era we are absolutely bombarded by demands for our attention and money.

You know the feeling: you’re not even hungry, but you see a billboard for Steak n’ Shake and suddenly you want ice cream. You buy a cleaning product labeled “eco” and feel a surge of moral pride. You’re at a ball game and instantly crave a Coca-Cola. You see an ad for whitening toothpaste and suddenly feel self-conscious about your off-white teeth. You think you hate skinny jeans when they first come out, but after five years you find yourself wearing them. These are all examples of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) manipulations of our brains that advertisers have spent thousands or millions of dollars carefully cultivating.

Advertising isn’t bad all the time— sometimes it matches a genuine need/desire with a place to fulfill them. For instance, I follow a couple farms and seed companies on Facebook because I want to know when they get in a new shipment of chicken feed or start offering pepper plants. Several of my friends own small businesses, which I’m all in favor of supporting. And if I ever publish a book, I’ll definitely be advertising! 

But, with all that said, I still think that advertising, the majority of the time, only creates negative effects. For instance: 

It breeds discontentment. Ads make you want stuff, even if— or especially if— you don’t need it. This is their whole job.

It encourages insecurity. Almost every advertisement is meant to play on some insecurity— the way you look, your social situation, the way people perceive you, whether or not you’re a good parent/significant other, how well you fit into the tribe of people you view as your “own,” etc. Of course, all these insecurities can be swept away if you just buy the product! 

It advocates the idea that consuming = activism. Advertisers, noting that environmentalism and social justice are now trending, have made several attempts to tap into those markets. Some of them have done so clumsily, but others have succeeded in subtler ways, such as stating that a (tiny) percentage of your purchase goes to support xyz cause, or that items are “eco-friendly” because they have slightly less plastic or different chemicals than the hot-button-issue chemicals. Although some of these offers are in good faith, most of the time you’d be much better off just donating money to cause in question.

It gives us a false sense of what is “normal.” Even if we don’t want what that specific advertisement is touting, we may get the sense that “normal” people buy stuff like that, so this other unnecessary thing we want to buy is worth it because normal people don’t deprive themselves, so why should I?

It encourages waste. The constant search for more creates a huge problem of wasted resources. Most modern products are made cheaply in poor conditions, only to break and end up in a landfill. 

The more I learn about advertising, the more I feel despair of having any sort of aesthetic or opinions of my own— we are deeply shaped by the marketing that presses on us every day. Still, I think it’s important to put up a good fight, to stand up to the cultural norms, and to try to shape our own identity. In my next post, I’ll share some of the steps I’ve taken to try to lessen advertising’s hold on my life.


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