Let’s take a moment to think about what an advertisement is. The goal of an advertisement is to encourage consumers to behave in a certain way, predominantly to encourage purchase of a particular product or service. Decades ago, they did this by appealing to a logical customer acting in his or her own narrow self interest. Commercials focused on the new features of each product and how it would make life easier.
Does that commercial look strange to you? Slow and needlessly technical? Well, chances are good that you are more used to commercials like this:
First, they’re more engaging. You probably didn’t make it through the first commercial, but did the second two tell you anything about the product? Anything at all? Excepting the unlikely scenario that you didn’t know that Kia was a company that made cars or that Coca-Cola was a product that you could drink, these commercials are devoid of information that would interest homo-economicus. Well, I suppose she’d learn that Coca-Cola contains added flavors and no fruit, but that’s hardly likely to encourage her to make the purchase.
These commercials appeal to parts of our brains outside our rational decision-making. That is, they want to circumvent the parts of our brains responsible for what most of us would think of as free will. What’s that called? Is it a free exchange of ideas? Or is it something else?
If you were offered the opportunity to see an episode of your favorite show in exchange for seven shots of a laser that beams associations such as “COCA-COLA :: FRIENDSHIP” and “COCA-COLA :: HAPPY LIFE” into your head, would you take it?
What if the laser was the entertainment? What if it told you “PHYSICAL THREATS :: EVERYWHERE,” and gave you a little chill of excitement to enliven a dull evening? Do you think it would be wise to take that laser? It’s free.
How about a laser that repeats opinions to you you already hold? You feel good for the validation, but there are other people whose lasers artificially validate their own opposing opinions. Good luck with the free exchange of ideas when mind lasers are making everyone utterly confident that their own opinion merits no examination.
What does it mean for democracy that so much money and talent is invested in controlling the minds of purchasing and voting Americans? Even if you personally avoid commercials and apply careful criticism to the other media you consume, what can you do about people who don’t? Buy your own mind laser and try to shoot them until they are ready to see reason? How has that worked for you in the past?
In a nation founded on trust in the individual’s ability to make the best rational decisions for himself and for the collective, the fact that private industry founds its strategies on the absence or weakness of public rationality should be deeply concerning.