Monday, April 13, 2009

Are we brainwashed by advertising?


Since arriving in the UK I've participated regularly in an audience discussion show entitled Off the Cuff. The programme is broadcast weekly on the Iranian international English news service channel, Press TV (channel 515 on Sky on Saturdays from 19h33 - 20h00 GMT). The topics usually concern some item of public contention, such as the war in Iraq, the effects of capitalism or the limits of personal freedom and the role of the state. I am over-complicating it though - it is simply an opportunity for people from all walks of life to engage with one another on issues they feel are important.

My first week on the show was very interesting indeed. Here the audience was asked how deeply they feel the media, and the advertising industry in particular, influences our consumer behaviour and dictates our lifestyles, preferences and needs.

I didn't fully get round to my point (owing to the fast-paced nature of the show and my own bombastic speaking style), but I think my message is clear. Certainly the advertising industry is guilty of a lot of sins. For instance, statements that downplay or ignore the harmful effects of the products they sell, such as greasy food or alcohol are clearly objectionable. Also, advertisers promote a view of the world which says that only through the attainment of vast personal wealth and by purchasing items you don't really need, can you be happy.

These are fairly common objections, and an industry such as this should be subjected to the proper regulation because its influence is great. Content that actively promotes a prejudiced view of a minority group or uses hate speech or which is totally misleading should suffer appropriate sanction. But we also have agency and choice and are not the "blank slates" the ad execs sometimes think we are. Can one teaspoon of detergent really wash a thousand dishes? I don't think so. Most educated and discerning people can come to a conclusion independently of the inputs the media feeds us.

"The medium is the message". Another frequent adage. A swish website, a viral marketing campaign and the use of repetition and catch phrases all help to push a product. The above qualities were all evident in the ground-breaking Obama presidential campaign. They helped to amplify Obama's message, but without the charisma and intellect that underpinned his candidacy he wouldn't have won. Similarly, the sloganeering and fear mongering of McCain (and especially his vice presidential nominee) weren't enough to hide the inherent contradictions of a moderate trying to pass himself off as a conservative right-winger.

To put it colloquially: if your product is shite, it won't sell, because word gets around and people see through transparent rubbish.

At the top of this post you will see an abridged version of this episode which I edited to show the salient points (with my own comment at the end). Click here to download the full episode onto your computer from Press TV's website (Original broadcast on the 28th of March 2009).


Thanks to Pete Engelbrecht for editing the clip and to Press TV for the original material.


  1. Erm, what do you mean?

    Oh right, I suppose he is all medium! Maybe I stand corrected. Hopefully SA voters prove you wrong.