In this brief but smoldering tract, a psychologist deconstructs contemporary advertising as psychologically perverse, endlessly manipulative, deceitful, and ubiquitous.
Koob (Two Years in Kingston Town, 2002) succinctly describes how advertising and its equally out-of-control cohort, public relations, strive to mold behavior. He tells of how they use techniques of propaganda—and in fact become propaganda—in order to sell products, points of view, political candidates, and anything else, up to and including war. “As a psychologist, it disturbs me greatly to see that our society’s primary, systematic application of the principles of psychology has been as a tool for commercial and political persuasion and for the manipulation of behavior in the service of commerce,” he writes. He delineates these techniques of persuasion and shows, in a somewhat limited way, how they’re applied in ads that play on feelings of love, fear, anger, and other emotions that advertisers think will trigger purchases. Some readers may suspect early on that this heartfelt argument belabors the obvious. In truth, few people could fail to perceive how advertisers, with their psychology-driven bag of tricks, are encroaching ever further into common spaces, including the Internet. But Koob’s competently written, highly readable primer on how the culture came to this awful point would certainly be instructive to a younger audience that is growing up in a time when the $130 billion advertising industry is running at full tilt and slick ads are promoted as entertainment. Who could gainsay his recommendation that every student be taught how to recognize and resist this ceaseless assault? His plea for enforcement of “a strict truth-in-advertising law with teeth” appears equally worthy. Yet neither seems likely to happen, and mass manipulation through advertising in the interest of earning profits doesn’t appear on most lists of common public concerns. One is left to hit the mute button, avert one’s eyes, and swat away ads as one would mosquitoes. Quite clearly, Koob doesn’t believe that’s nearly enough.
An illumination and critique of a commercial
culture that distorts reality for gain.