Ad­ver­tis­ing and academia are con­trol­ling our thoughts. Didn’t you know?

Sunday Trust - - VIEWPOINT - By Ge­orge Mon­biot

By abet­ting the ad in­dus­try, univer­si­ties are lead­ing us into temp­ta­tion, when they should be en­light­en­ing us. To what ex­tent do we de­cide? We tell our­selves we choose our own life course, but is this ever true? If you or I had lived 500 years ago, our world­view, and the de­ci­sions we made as a re­sult, would have been ut­terly dif­fer­ent. Our minds are shaped by our so­cial environment, in par­tic­u­lar the be­lief sys­tems pro­jected by those in power: mon­archs, aris­to­crats and the­olo­gians then; cor­po­ra­tions, bil­lion­aires and the media to­day.

Hu­mans, the supremely so­cial mam­mals, are eth­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual sponges. We un­con­sciously ab­sorb, for good or ill, the in­flu­ences that sur­round us. In­deed, the very no­tion that we might form our own minds is a re­ceived idea that would have been quite alien to most peo­ple five cen­turies ago. This is not to sug­gest we have no ca­pac­ity for in­de­pen­dent thought. But to ex­er­cise it, we must - con­sciously and with great ef­fort swim against the so­cial cur­rent that sweeps us along, mostly with­out our knowl­edge.

The pur­pose of this brain­hack­ing re­search is to cre­ate more ef­fec­tive plat­forms for ad­ver­tis­ing. But the ef­fort is wasted if we re­tain our abil­ity to re­sist it.

Surely, though, even if we are broadly shaped by the so­cial environment, we con­trol the small de­ci­sions we make? Some­times. Per­haps.

But here, too, we are sub­ject to con­stant in­flu­ence, some of which we see, much of which we don’t. And there is one ma­jor in­dus­try that seeks to de­cide on our be­half. Its tech­niques get more so­phis­ti­cated ev­ery year, draw­ing on the lat­est find­ings in neu­ro­science and psy­chol­ogy. It is called ad­ver­tis­ing.

Ev­ery month, new books on the sub­ject are pub­lished with ti­tles like The Per­sua­sion Code: How Neu­ro­mar­ket­ing Can Help You Per­suade Any­one, Any­where, Any­time.

While many are doubt­less over­hyped, they de­scribe a dis­ci­pline that is rapidly clos­ing in on our minds, mak­ing in­de­pen­dent thought ever harder.

More so­phis­ti­cated ad­ver­tis­ing meshes with dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies de­signed to elim­i­nate agency.

Ear­lier this year, the child psy­chol­o­gist Richard Freed ex­plained how new psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search has been used to de­velop so­cial media, com­puter games and phones with gen­uinely ad­dic­tive qual­i­ties. He quoted a tech­nol­o­gist who boasts, with ap­par­ent jus­ti­fi­ca­tion: “We have the abil­ity to twid­dle some knobs in a ma­chine learn­ing dash­board we build, and around the world hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple are go­ing to qui­etly change their be­hav­iour in ways that, un­be­knownst to them, feel sec­ond-na­ture but are re­ally by de­sign.”The pur­pose of this brain

But what puz­zles and dis­gusts me even more than this fail­ure is the will­ing­ness of univer­si­ties to host re­search that helps ad­ver­tis­ers hack our minds.

hack­ing is to cre­ate more ef­fec­tive plat­forms for ad­ver­tis­ing. But the ef­fort is wasted if we re­tain our abil­ity to re­sist it. Face­book, ac­cord­ing to a leaked re­port, car­ried out re­search - shared with an ad­ver­tiser - to de­ter­mine when teenagers us­ing its net­work feel in­se­cure, worth­less or stressed. These ap­pear to be the op­ti­mum mo­ments for hit­ting them with a mi­cro-tar­geted pro­mo­tion. Face­book de­nied that it of­fered “tools to tar­get peo­ple based on their emo­tional state.”

We can ex­pect com­mer­cial en­ter­prises to at­tempt what­ever law­ful ruses they can pull off. It is up to so­ci­ety, rep­re­sented by govern­ment, to stop them, through the kind of reg­u­la­tion that has so far been lack­ing.

But what puz­zles and dis­gusts me even more than this fail­ure is the will­ing­ness of univer­si­ties to host re­search that helps ad­ver­tis­ers hack our minds. The En­light­en­ment ideal, which all univer­si­ties claim to en­dorse, is that ev­ery­one should think for them­selves. So why do they run de­part­ments in which re­searchers ex­plore new means of block­ing this ca­pac­ity?I ask be­cause, while con­sid­er­ing the frenzy of con­sumerism that rises beyond its usual planet-trash­ing lev­els at this time of year, I re­cently stum­bled across a pa­per that as­ton­ished me.

It was writ­ten by aca­demics at pub­lic univer­si­ties in the Nether­lands and the US. Their pur­pose seemed to me starkly at odds with the pub­lic in­ter­est. They sought to iden­tify “the dif­fer­ent ways in which con­sumers re­sist ad­ver­tis­ing, and the tactics that can be used to counter or avoid such re­sis­tance.”

Among the “neu­tral­is­ing” tech­niques it high­lighted were “dis­guis­ing the per­sua­sive in­tent of the mes­sage”; dis­tract­ing our at­ten­tion by us­ing con­fus­ing phrases that make it harder to fo­cus on the ad­ver­tiser’s in­ten­tions; and “us­ing cog­ni­tive de­ple­tion as a tac­tic for re­duc­ing con­sumers’ abil­ity to con­test mes­sages”. This means hit­ting us with enough ad­ver­tise­ments to ex­haust our men­tal re­sources, break­ing down our ca­pac­ity to think.

In­trigued, I started look­ing for other aca­demic pa­pers on the same theme, and found an en­tire lit­er­a­ture. There were ar­ti­cles on ev­ery imag­in­able as­pect of re­sis­tance, and help­ful tips on over­com­ing it. For ex­am­ple, I came across a pa­per that coun­sels ad­ver­tis­ers on how to re­build pub­lic trust when the celebrity they work with gets into trou­ble. Rather than dump­ing this lu­cra­tive as­set, the re­searchers ad­vised that the best means to en­hance “the authen­tic per­sua­sive ap­peal of a celebrity en­dorser” whose stand­ing has slipped is to get them to dis­play “a Duchenne smile”, oth­er­wise known as “a gen­uine smile.” It pre­cisely anatomised such smiles, showed how to spot them, and dis­cussed the “con­struc­tion” of sin­cer­ity and “gen­uine­ness”: a mag­nif­i­cent ex­er­cise in in­au­then­tic au­then­tic­ity. An­other pa­per con­sid­ered how to per­suade scep­ti­cal peo­ple to ac­cept a com­pany’s cor­po­rate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity claims, es­pe­cially when these claims con­flict with the com­pany’s over­all ob­jec­tives. (An ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple is

ExxonMo­bil’s at­tempts to con­vince peo­ple that it is en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble, be­cause it is re­search­ing al­gal fu­els that could one day re­duce CO2 - even as it con­tin­ues to pump mil­lions of bar­rels of fos­sil oil a day).

I hoped the pa­per would rec­om­mend that the best means of per­suad­ing peo­ple is for a com­pany to change its prac­tices. In­stead, the au­thors’ re­search showed how im­ages and state­ments could be clev­erly com­bined to “min­imise stake­holder scep­ti­cism”.

A fur­ther pa­per dis­cussed ad­ver­tise­ments that work by stim­u­lat­ing Fomo - fear of miss­ing out.

It noted that such ads work through “con­trolled mo­ti­va­tion”, which is “anath­ema to well­be­ing”. Fomo ads, the pa­per ex­plained, tend to cause sig­nif­i­cant dis­com­fort to those who no­tice them. It then went on to show how an im­proved un­der­stand­ing of peo­ple’s re­sponses “pro­vides the op­por­tu­nity to en­hance the ef­fec­tive­ness of Fomo as a pur­chase trig­ger”.

One tac­tic it pro­posed is to keep stim­u­lat­ing the fear of miss­ing out, dur­ing and af­ter the de­ci­sion to buy. This, it sug­gested, will make peo­ple more sus­cep­ti­ble to fur­ther ads on the same lines.

Yes, I know: I work in an in­dus­try that re­ceives most of its income from ad­ver­tis­ing, so I am com­plicit in this too. But so are we all. Ad­ver­tis­ing - with its de­struc­tive im­pacts on the liv­ing planet, our peace of mind and our free will sits at the heart of our growth-based econ­omy. This gives us all the more rea­son to chal­lenge it. Among the places in which the chal­lenge should be­gin are univer­si­ties, and the aca­demic so­ci­eties that are sup­posed to set and up­hold eth­i­cal stan­dards. If they can­not swim against the cur­rents of con­structed de­sire and con­structed thought, who can? Mon­biot is a Guardian colum­nist

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