Humanity’s uniqueness is being used against us. We’re manipulated daily to believe and act in ways that can harm us.
Advertisers manipulate us using word triggers such as “We do it all for you,” “Open happiness,” “I’m lovin’ it!” and “Have it your way.” They’re intended to evoke in the public a sense of ease about satisfying hunger, spiced with a subtle whiff of sexual excitement. Such slogans tell us little about the food. They’re designed to make us reach for the product to meet our unconscious drive for sexual stimulation while, on the conscious level, we feed ourselves.
Some other word triggers include: “We Really Move Our Tail for You” or “Reach Out and Touch Someone” or “Think Outside the Bun” or “Eat Away Your Feelings.” These are similarly manipulative. They tell us little about the product while triggering unconscious emotions that drive us to buy it.
A provider of medical education uses the slogan “#1 Job Ready Program,” but the facts of the situation differ significantly. Graduates struggle to find work, make little money, and cannot repay high levels of debt incurred in the process. The slogan appeals to unconscious desires that predispose readers to enroll in the program. It deceives and misleads.
This is called “framing,” because it gives us only a part of the total picture of what’s happening. The message is, “Forget the food, look at the sex.” or “Forget the realities of the labor market, just sign up for the course.”
Politicians override public discussion of key issues by using framing in their speeches. Think how “Obamacare” is used by conservatives to refer to the Affordable Care Act. Use of the president’s name is supposed to trigger our prejudice and racial feelings.
Climate deniers say global warming is “a socialist conspiracy to redistribute wealth.” That’s neither true nor appropriate, but the emotional triggers are set to unleash instant dislike for acting to control climate change.
So why do we fall for this manipulation? It works because the uniquely human process of converting experience into action is largely unconscious. Clumps of neurons in our brains combine experience with emotion. These drive our behavior, and our ability to express our feelings and beliefs to others. It’s all below the conscious level.
For example, I’m hiking in the woods. I see a snake. My brain now attaches emotions formed previously from stories about people dying from snakebites. So I’m instantly afraid of the snake. This causes me to warn my hiking companion, “Look out! Get away! There’s a snake over there.”
Such neural associations are unconscious and powerful. They can protect us, or help us make decisions, take action and accomplish our goals. They also make us vulnerable to manipulation.
With today’s superabundance of advertising and political framing, the public is literally drowning in loaded symbolism and metaphor. Increasingly fewer words can be used neutrally without predisposing us toward unconscious responses.
The problem is that framing evokes action before one can understand the facts of a given issue or concern. That’s a subtle form of coercion -- psychological violence. Framing unconsciously drives decisions that should be carefully conceived at the conscious level on the basis of facts.
The question I’m raising is this: Isn’t this “brainwashing” immoral? If someone purposefully uses words that override conscious intent, shouldn’t this be outlawed, or at least regulated?
Sure, it’s easy to say “buyer beware” -- beware the slogans and framing as well as the product or argument. But when an ad is purposefully designed to subvert your conscious will by causing an unconscious response, isn’t that going too far? Do you feel comfortable being manipulated to buy products or give assent to political arguments that you otherwise, in the light of day, might well reject? Shouldn’t you be “the decider?”