Why do we buy stuff we don’t need? We asked an expert to explain ways we get brainwashed into overconsumption – and why often we’re not even aware of this manipulation!
By Chere Di Boscio
What are some of the mysterious ways we get brainwashed into overconsumption? Think about this, for example.
Say you’re about to buy a new winter coat, and for some reason, you also pick up a pink hat. A fake fur pink hat. In a certain candy floss pink.
You’re not sure why – you’re not really a ‘pink’ kinda girl, and you don’t even wear hats that often – but then, there are many ways advertisers make us buy stuff we don’t need.
It’s something expert Neil Sanders can tell you all about. Marketing techniques amount to a plague on our society that play with the human mind and lead to overconsumption, overspending, and overuse of the world’s resources.
Neil holds an MA in Film Studies, has studied Psychology and Media Production, and is a qualified hypnotherapist, too. He has been studying and speaking about the history of the ‘dark art’ of advertising for years, as well as its applications by military and government intelligence agencies across the globe.
In addition to appearing on several television shows, radio programmes and podcasts, he’s also the author of Your Thoughts Are Not Your Own Volumes 1 and 2, and has produced a DVD set about marketing techniques as well.
Here, we asked Neil about the origins of our crazy consumer society, and details about the main ways we get brainwashed into overconsumption.
How We Get Brainwashed Into Overconsumption
First off, tell us a bit about how and why the consumer society was born?
The why is simple: to make money. Pinpointing the exact start of consumer society is tricky, but in a modern sense, you cannot ignore the influence of two key figures: Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. Both utilised the newspapers and press releases to promote the virtues of a product disguising this as a topical ‘news story’, or ‘advertorial’.
This still happens today, even more frequently. For example, it seems just about every other week in the Daily Mail there is a story about some cheap moisturiser cream that has miraculously cleared up some person’s psoriasis or eczema – these are not really ‘news stories,’ but are rather (not very well disguised) advertising campaigns.
How is psychology used by advertisers to manipulate the public into making purchases?
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
He developed a theory called “The engineering of consent” which basically means defining norms for people to follow, such as how we think ‘retail therapy’ or hanging out at a mall is normal today. This drew heavily on the work of his uncle, who just happened to be Sigmund Freud, and focussed on appealing to the emotions and the subconscious minds of potential buyers, as opposed to rational or practical reasons for them to purchase a product.
Bernays had seen how effective the appeal to raw emotion could be during the First World War and was part of the effort to promote US involvement in the conflict through the use of propaganda. After the war, he felt that the techniques of propaganda could be applied to selling products, people and ideas. People could easily be brainwashed into overconsumption, too. The term “propaganda” had negative connotations, however, so was rebranded as “public relations”.
Can you give us some direct examples of how he did this?
Sure! He promoted cigarettes as a symbol of female independence, arranging a public display where beautiful young girls lit up their Lucky Strike cigarettes, declaring them “torches of freedom.” Luckily, the news media just happened to be there to capture this spectacle, and the idea of cigarettes = freedom was planted in the public’s consciousness.
After noting Ivory soap had an ability to float in the bath, he promoted it as ‘the purest’ soap – ‘so pure, it floats’! And tied other arbitrary properties to products suggesting that this is the reason this product is superior. All of this appeals to the subconscious, and is part of the drive to buy things for pleasure and or status rather than necessity. Overconsumption, in other words. The best type of marketing campaign is where you go: I want that product, but can’t quite pinpoint why.
Another important campaign was the NW Ayer campaign for DeBeers in the late 1940’s. In order to increase sales of diamonds, they invented the concept of the diamond engagement ring. They promoted this as a symbol of love, and tied the concept of owning a diamond to celebrities making them an aspiration product.
Prior to this, engagement rings were rare, and diamond engagement rings were unheard of – they created the tradition. They suggested that the bigger the stone, the more obvious the suitor’s love for you. They even introduced guidelines for how many month’s wages should be set aside for the ring. This was all an advertising construct, as opposed to a tradition, but it still continues today. They engineered consent and convinced people they wanted something that they didn’t need. That’s just one of the many ways advertisers make you buy stuff you never thought you needed before.
What effect does TV and technology have on our minds, and how does it make us consume more?
The repeated learned action of sitting down in front of the box allows the brainwave activity to slow down to an alpha state that allows for the subconscious to be spoken to. I practice hypnotherapy, and the first thing I ask is if the client has ever cried at a film. If you have, you can be hypnotised, as you have allowed something that you know is not real to affect you and cause an emotional response – you have gone along with the suggestion.
When you relax someone during hypnosis, you are attempting to slow their brainwave activity down through distraction. This allows you to “speak” (such as it is) to the subconscious. There is a theory that the subconscious has no filter or critical analysis, so it blindly accepts anything you put to it. This allows advertisers to take advantage of this state and simply align positive images or ideas to a product. This is why advertisements are often all incomprehensible crash, bang, wallop nonsense.
Again, the point is to appeal to people on an emotional level not a functional or practical one. The most effective way is to appeal to the ‘reptilian brain’ (the amygdala) and then give the conscious a way to justify the purchase.
One example is the Hummer – a terrible car, but a sales phenomenon. Why is this? Because it was sold as a weapon. It is a weapon, it’s a military vehicle. So the reptilian brain enjoys the power and status of having a weapon on the roads and the conscious justifies this by saying it is to protect you or your family or your children.
Ok, that’s TV though. Given the age of the internet, how have sales techniques changed?
The best technique is to convince the consumer that they discovered something, then it is personal to them. For example, that’s exactly what Scooter Braun did to promote Justin Bieber: he published his videos on social media in such a way that everyone thought they were witnessing an organic growth of a young artist, but in reality, he had a huge marketing scheme behind him.
This has happened recently with numerous “independent” designers artists, and musicians. For example, Lil Pump has a huge viral marketing firm behind him promoting his presence on social media. Tekashi69, despite claiming to be independent, is rumoured to be connected to Lyor Cohen’s son (Lyor Cohen signed everyone of any importance in the hip hop world during the 1990s). Many of the new Soundcloud rappers have big industry people behind them, but the marketing is designed to make them seem ‘organic’ or ‘independent’.
Of course, once an artist becomes somewhat established, there’s a practice of artificially inflating YouTube views or Twitter/Pinterest/Facebook followers or even buying Instagram followers to give the impression that an individual is more popular than they actually are. It’s all about perception.
What about subliminal advertising? Does it really work?
If you mean “real” subliminal advertising, i.e. hidden messages, then yes, studies have shown that this does work. The most famous referenced experiment is the James Vicary cinema test. What he did was, he placed a single frame in the film that had the legend “Drink Coke, eat popcorn” and the story goes that this increased sales.
This study is highly debated, and in all likelihood was not true. However, more recent studies at prestigious universities around the world have shown that subliminal techniques do have an effect. One particular experiment had two sets of people who were to sit at computer terminals and perform simple maths tests. Some of them had positive words flash up and some had negative words. The results showed that those who received the negative messages were far slower at completing the task and more likely to make errors.
Tests have been done on Coca Cola and Pepsi to see if there is a marked difference in taste. In blindfold tests, people struggle to differentiate between the drinks. When placed into a Coca Cola cup, regardless of the liquid 85% of people reported it tasted better.
In a final experiment the test subjects were given water but shown images of Coca Cola branding. The brain activity showed that despite the drink, the pleasure response was initiated when the branding was evident. This meant that due to the expectation of a great product, promoted by Coca Cola’s marketing, the perception of reality was altered. Because the subject expected the product to be superior, due to the brand association, it tricked their brain.
How is subliminal advertising most used today?
You could make the argument that celebrity or influencer endorsements and the attachment of certain brands to sporting events, festivals or cultures is a subliminal advertising technique, as it promotes an idea about the brand that isn’t necessarily true. You feel the product is better simply due to the association with some larger entity or idea.
Product placement also acts in this way – sometimes, it’s done subtly (like when you see a can of Coke or a clearly branded watch, car or cereal in a movie). Other times, it’s so blatant, it looks like a commercial in the middle of the film.
If sales techniques work to make us brainwashed into overconsumption, could they also work to say, encourage people to buy vintage, go vegan or stop over consuming?
Sure it can. The film Earthlings is essentially marketing for a vegan lifestyle, it is propaganda/public relations. There have been campaigns that promote good causes, AIDs awareness in the 1980’s for example, or campaigns suggesting you wear seatbelts. I think the real reason that you don’t see more of these is because there is a cost associated with it. Usually this is a capitalist venture not an ideological one and even if it is ideological, there is often a lot of money to be made by someone.
How can we undo this consumerist brainwashing?
Try not to respond on an emotional level. No one is immune to it, but try not to buy into the construct and concept of ‘the brand’. I think the best thing you can do is to learn the techniques of advertisers and marketing firms. Once you understand that a celebrity or influencer endorsement doesn’t mean those people actually use that product, or you can decode the language used in a slogan, then, like a magic trick revealed, it loses a large part of its impact.
So there it is: key ways advertisers make us brainwashed into overconsumption. They’re using subliminal messages via product placement, celebrity endorsement or artwork; by literally hypnotising you and sending out messages during TV shows, and by fooling you into believing something is ‘new’, ‘organic’ or something you yourself discovered with clever marketing techniques.
As Neil says, we don’t need to (literally) buy in to these techniques – a little awareness will go a long way to stopping you from purchasing those unneeded fluffy pink hats.
Do you think you’ve ever been brainwashed into overconsumption? Do you think marketing is responsible for the environmental crisis we’re currently in? Let us know in the comments below!