How Strangers Manipulate You and How to Fight Back
“If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed, if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.”
– Mark Twain
Today’s media landscape is shaping and confusing the minds of young people at warp speed. Even adults trained in critical thinking and academic analysis get confused with the incessant noise and suspect claims that flow freely across the multi-channel, multi-device media world.
One of the big problems is that advertising and persuasion mechanisms are baked right into the product, and it’s now easier than ever to insert it, track it, retarget consumers and generally dupe people into misinformed positions in order to cultivate:
- Buying decisions
- Political decisions
- Medical decisions
- Financial decisions
- Lifestyle choices
- And other related drivers of everyday living and long-term planning
None of this is particularly new. It’s just that the science of scamming, duping, cajoling and nudging is getting dangerously competent. Unfortunately, advertisers have taken wisdom from books like Robert Cialdini’s Persuasion and turned it loose within the worlds of print journalism, TV, radio, podcasting and elsewhere. The upcoming generation of consumers is facing some of the smartest, most irresistible messaging techniques in history.
Smart companies view the media as hired storytellers to be manipulated on their behalf (many have always held this view, especially those in Public Relations or PR). Toms Shoes, the media-savvy shoe company founded in 2006, baked story into their product by giving away a pair of shoes for every pair they sold. That angle and philanthropic story helped them grow into a footwear giant. Willing media participants played a huge role in their success by covering the company’s many PR successes with Toms-wearing celebrities, third world philanthropy and related events. Toms’ success spurred hundreds of other companies, including the Gap, Pampers and Crocs, to copy their buy-one-give-one-away angle. Still other companies fool the media year after year with much less genuine stories (deceptive even).
If you Google Dawn dishwashing liquid and oil spill, you’ll see more storytelling at work that gets picked up by the mainstream press and shared heavily on YouTube. You’ll also see some controversy and irony about using petroleum based products like Dawn to clean up oil spills that affect wildlife.
Later, we’ll show you how Toys R’ Us and Target trot out the same story every holiday season, while local news stations consistently take the bait and provide glowing coverage.
Today, journalistically questionable and semi-bogus outfits like Buzzfeed, Vox and Vice rule content production, while technology behemoths like Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook control advertising delivery methods. In years past, centralized juggernauts like the CBS Evening News, The Wall Street Journal, various magazine and radio conglomerates, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, NPR and even Pravda managed to guide public discourse with relative ease. They claimed to separate news from advertising with an impenetrable wall (in some newsrooms, it was an actual wall). Yet these publications, by their very nature, were PR channels. Large businesses, like professional sports teams, amphitheaters, movie studios, Fortune 500 companies, and similar concerns enjoyed steady coverage in exchange for pay-to-play advertising expenditures. Politicians used these old platforms to great effect, as well (and great expense).
In decades past, the editor influenced and controlled your “feed.” Now you and your friends do to some extent. The platforms that control information presentation algorithms have a significant amount of control, as well (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple). We may soon see a day when actual headlines are customized based on your public profiles, fears, wants and individual quirks.
In order to navigate these new mine fields with some sanity, the best thing a student (young or old) can do is to get smart about how they’re being manipulated and pitched.