Advertising Meets Its Slippery Slope

The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Media Insider:

We’ve now reached the crux of the matter when it comes to the ad biz.

For a couple of centuries now, we’ve been refining the process of advertising. The goal has always been to get people to buy stuff. But right now, there's a perfect storm of forces converging that requires industry insiders to do some deep navel-gazing.

Formerly, to get people to buy, all we had to do was inform. Pent-up consumer demand created by expanding markets and new product introductions would take care of the rest. We just had to connect the better mousetraps with the world, which would then duly beat the path to the respective door.  Advertising equaled awareness.

But some time in the waning days of the consumer orgy that followed World War II, we changed our mandate. Not content with simply informing, we decided to become influencers. We slipped under the surface of the brain, moving from providing information for rational consideration to priming subconscious needs. We started messing with the wiring of our market’s emotional motivations.  We became persuaders.



Persuasion is like a mental iceberg: 90% of the bulk lies below the surface. Rationalization is typically the hastily added layer of ad hoc logic that happens after the decision is already made.  This is true to varying degrees for almost any consumer category you can think of, including, unfortunately, our political choices.

This is why, months ago, I said Facebook’s current model is unsustainable. It is based on advertising, and I think advertising may have become unsustainable. The truth is, advertisers have gotten so good at persuading us to do things that we are beginning to revolt. It’s just getting too creepy.

To understand how we got here, let’s break down persuasion. It requires the persuader to shift the beliefs of the persuadee. The bigger the shift required, the tougher the job of persuasion. 

We tend to build irrational (aka emotional) bulwarks around our beliefs to preserve them. For this reason, it’s tremendously beneficial to persuaders to understand the belief structure of their target. If they can do this, they can focus on those whose belief structure is most conducive to the shift required.

When it comes to advertisers, the needle on our creative powers of persuasion hasn’t really moved that much in the last half century. There were very persuasive ads created in the 1960s, and there are still great ads being created. The disruption that has moved our industry to the brink of the slippery slope has all happened on the targeting end.

The world we used to live in was a bunch of walled and mostly unconnected physical gardens. Within each, our relevant beliefs  would remain essentially private. Our beliefs lived inside us, typically unspoken and unmonitored.

You could probably predict with reasonable accuracy the religious beliefs of the members of a local church. But that wouldn’t help you if you were wondering whether the congregation leaned toward Ford or Chevy. 

That all changed when we created digital mirrors of ourselves through Facebook, Twitter, Google and all the other usual suspects. John Battelle, author of "The Search,"  once called Google the database of intentions. It is certainly that. But our intent also provides an insight into our beliefs.

And when it comes to Facebook, we literally map out our entire previously private belief structure for the world to see. That's why Big Data is so potentially invasive. We are opening ourselves up to subconscious manipulation of our beliefs by anyone with the right budget.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe we're immune to the potential abuse that comes with that manipulation. As I said, 90% of our beliefs are submerged in our subconscious.

We are just beginning to realize how effective the new tools of persuasion are. And as we do so, we are beginning to feel that this form of persuasion is  very unfair. No one likes being manipulated, even if they have willingly laid the groundwork for that manipulation.

Our sense of retroactive justice kicks in. We post rationalizations and point fingers. We blame Facebook, or the government, or some hackers in Russia.

But these are all just participants in a new ecosystem that we have helped build. The problem is not the players. The problem is the system.

It’s taken a long time, but advertising might just have gotten to the point where it works too well.

3 comments about "Advertising Meets Its Slippery Slope".
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  1. Jean Renard from TRM Inc., September 11, 2018 at 3:20 p.m.

    Each generation of consumer will respond differently of course to being manipulated, the key is to anticipate how each target demographic will react.  It seems so far that Gen Z are the ones with the most highly adapted filters.  At some point the climate of movements fueled by outrage will reveal themselves as being less than effective and then things might get real.  By then of course quantum computing, 5G or 6G networks and AI will be telling us what to do anyway or else.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 12, 2018 at 11:25 a.m.

    Gord, a very interesting piece with some "deep" thoughts worth pondering. Thanks.

    I should add that getting into the mind of the consumer and persuading him or her is a perfectly acceptable practice with most consumers in traditional media and it's main functions are  to sell the values or benfits of the product or service plus---and it's a big plus---to differentiate the advertised brand from its competitors---if possible. So it's not so much a matter of making us buy something we don't need but often, getting us to buy one brand as opposed to others and, in many cases, to reinforce the convictions of current brand users so they won't defect.

    While the importance of digital media in the world of branding advertising---as opposed to direct response advertising----is not as great as many assume, its devious nature and obnoxious tracking mechanisms pose a great problem for advertisers who rely on such media buys as, eventually, a user backlash of considerable magnitude will result---if it hasn't already. But the advertising world---branding advertising which motivates a consumer about a product or brand choice----is not at such a tipping point that it's movers and shakers need to lose sleep over impending disaster---not yet, anyway.

  3. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, September 12, 2018 at 7:19 p.m.

    I am in agreement until the last sentence. The problem is not advertisement per se but the distribution channels of the ads. Meaning, when internet ads came available, Google saw the opportunity to control the distribution of the ads. There were no condition set forth by the advertisers and ad agencies on how, where and terms of placing ads. Google set the rules. At the same time the publishers simply posted the ad rotating programs with no questions asked. The publishers were getting paid very well. Not that is a different story.

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