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The Return of the Hidden Persuaders

Critiques of advertising are back. Ten years ago, casual talk about how advertising influences behavior would have come across as weird and paranoid—the preserve of the online conspiracy fringe. Today it is everywhere. Leading journalistic outlets fret over something resembling mind control. Politicos talk in ominous tones of stolen elections and Manchurian candidates. And government agencies, large monopolies, and many other institutions seem to want access to our precious “data.” The new marketing technologies are the culprit, we are told. Big Data gathering, targeted advertising, GPS tracking—the robots are coming. And they are coming for nothing less than the freedom of our wills.

Scary stuff. But what is really going on? Is it all a bit overblown? Or are there even more profound social and cultural changes taking place beneath the surface?

Edward Bernays and the Psychology of Modern Marketing

Let us start at the beginning. Advertising is really nothing but an attempt at social engineering. It is an attempt to channel human desire and action into specific, pre-planned activities that are considered amenable to those who run the advertisements—in some cases the same people who run our society. So it should not be particularly surprising that advertisers often venture into the mystical realm of social psychology seeking illumination. There they find, basically, two sets of tools for manipulating people: psychodynamics and behaviorism.

Let us start with the former. It is distinctly German in flavor. In the work of someone like the nineteenth-century psychodynamic pioneer Wilhelm Wundt it is shot through with Kantian transcendentalism and Hegelian idealism. In the more popular work of Sigmund Freud it is laced with Nietzsche’s philosophy of the will. Psychodynamics is a discipline obsessed with ghostly presences and melancholy absences. It tells us that we want something—a new car, a certain lover, a ham sandwich—because the object is inhabited by the spectral presence of something that we remember from long ago, something that receded from our grasp and left us with a gaping void into which our desires flow. The “trick” of stimulating desire, a psychodynamist will tell you, is to call the ghosts to the surface and then fill the gap between fantasy and reality with a flashy object.

The most obvious and vulgar example of this was when Freud’s own nephew—Edward Bernays, the founder of modern public relations—tried to flog cigarettes to women as phallus substitutes. The story goes like this: During the 1920s the suffragette movement was ascendant. Young women in the Western world were marching in order to secure the vote. Bernays consulted Freud’s colleague and translator A. A. Brill. Here is what Brill reportedly said:

Smoking is a sublimation of oral eroticism; holding a cigarette in the mouth excites the oral zone. It is perfectly normal for women to want to smoke cigarettes. . . . But today the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.1

Bernays then took the phrase “torches of freedom” and turned it into a public relations campaign. He hired a group of women to march in a 1929 Easter Sunday parade holding their torches of freedom for the entire world to see.

Bernays’s little stunt probably did quite a bit to normalize smoking among women. But did it really have anything to do with “oral erotic zones”? Probably not. Yet Brill was largely correct to observe that cigarettes were seen as the exclusive domain of one sex. And Bernays’s strategy of piggybacking on a movement for equal rights to sell cigarettes was no doubt clever. This had less to do with “oral erotic zones” than it had to do with social engineering—tobacco companies wanted a larger market, and smoking equality between the sexes expanded their market. So they hitched themselves to the equality bandwagon to sell their cigarettes. Today we see advertisers trying to attach their brands to fashionable political causes all the time—from massive corporate sponsorship of pride parades, to Budweiser’s “America” cans in 2016, to Pepsi’s widely ridiculed ad featuring Black Lives Matter protest imagery.

Politicians adopted these techniques early on. Bernays himself advised President Calvin Coolidge to meet with celebrities in the White House. Coolidge was seen as a rather dull man, so Bernays set up “pancake breakfasts” between him and popular Broadway stars. He then fed stories to the press with witty headlines. One such story mentioned that one of the stars had “almost made Coolidge laugh.” Bernays was a master of seamlessly eroding the boundaries between corporate power, the press, and political power. All three were corralled into a single arena and made to sing from the same hymn sheet. In many ways, the world we live in today is the one that Bernays built.

Behaviorist Advertising

But let us now turn to the second influential theory. Behaviorism is a lot cruder than psychodynamics. If psychodynamic advertising is like a mysterious foreigner calling late at night to read you poetry, behaviorist advertising is more like a robocaller that interrupts your microwave dinner. Behaviorism is all about repetition. In its modern form it was born out of the personal hell of a strange, obsessive man interacting for long periods of time with caged pigeons.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, then a graduate student in psychology at Harvard, created what he called an “operant conditioning chamber.” The device itself was not quite as interesting as the moniker makes it sound. In fact, the operant conditioning chamber was just a box with some lights, a speaker, a food dispenser, a mildly electrified floor, and some levers to activate the latter two features. Into the “Skinner box,” as it came to be known, went a pigeon—or perhaps a rat, if the incessant cooing was getting on Skinner’s nerves.

What Skinner found was that the creature tended to learn from its mistakes. Eventually it realized that if it hit the lever connected to the electricity it would get a shock, and if it hit the lever connected to the food it would get a tasty treat. Needless to say, the poor pigeon learned to avoid the shock lever and peck at the food lever when it was hungry. From this “experiment,” Skinner began to construct a grand theory of human behavior. He argued that human behavior is basically “conditioned” by stimulus and response, and that the pigeon shocked into avoiding the wrong lever was basically a model for us all. Others were less enthusiastic, however. Linguist Noam Chomsky wrote:

Skinner confuses “science” with terminology. He apparently believes that if he rephrases commonplace “mentalistic” expressions with terminology derived from the laboratory study of behavior, but deprived of whatever content this terminology has within this discipline, then he has achieved a scientific analysis of behavior. It would be hard to conceive of a more striking failure to comprehend even the rudiments of scientific thinking.2

But while Chomsky was dismissive of the scientific content of Skinner’s theories, he was quick to point out that they contained very strong and rather aggressive prescriptions for social engineering. “The libertarians and humanists whom Skinner scorns object to totalitarianism out of respect for freedom and dignity,” wrote Chomsky. “But, Skinner argues, these notions are merely the residue of traditional mystical beliefs and must be replaced by the stern scientific notions of behavioral analysis.”3 The psychodynamists tried to bend the whims and desires of the population to their own ends; Skinner wanted to control the popular will through intrusive intervention.

The practical applications of Skinner’s theory tended to be advertising methods that emphasized sheer repetition and volume. The idea was to hit the hapless consumer with the same information over and over again—this would be the “stimulus”—until the will of the consumer was broken, and he or she was forced to undertake a certain action—this would be the “response.” Was it ever effective? It is hard to tell. Whereas stunts like Bernays’s can, in some sense, be studied as part of a broader cultural history, our capacity to assess how the sheer repetition of advertising “stimuli” changes behavior is very limited. Those who tout laboratory experiments miss the point entirely. As Chomsky said, these findings have no content outside of the lab—a point confirmed by the recent scandals in empirical psychology as researchers have found that most experiments are nonreplicable.

One reason to be skeptical about behaviorism is the fact that the theory got caught up in the “subliminal messaging” craze of the 1950s and ’60s. In 1957, marketer James Vicary claimed that subliminal messages flashed on movie screens—lasting only one-three-thousandth of a second, so briefly that they could not be consciously perceived—were able to substantially increase moviegoers’ desire for Coca-Cola and popcorn. This experiment reached the public imagination in Vance Packard’s popular book The Hidden Persuaders (1957). But since Vicary was never able to replicate his experiment, most have concluded that it was fraudulent (like so many other empirical psychology studies). Today the strongest case for the theory comes from the likes of psychologists Friederike Schlaghecken and Martin Eimer, who claim that subliminal stimuli cannot make anyone do anything they would not normally do, but that they may be able to make an indecisive person “lean” toward one of the alternatives presented within a voluntarily chosen set of options. If this is true—a rather large assumption—it means that subliminal advertising likely cannot do much more than get you to choose Pepsi over Coke.

Fears about the implications of behaviorism gave us wonderful contributions to popular culture—a glance at the Anthony Burgess/Stanley Kubrick masterpiece A Clockwork Orange in either its written or visual form is one example of that. But fear of success is not success. While clinical psychologists can bend doctrines to make them fit whatever they happen to be doing at the time—see, for instance, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—advertisers under scrutiny by high-paying firms are more responsive to failure and hence a little more adaptive. Vicary’s subliminal advertising largely went the way of the dodo, as did crude attempts by advertisers to bombard audiences with messages over and over again. During the 1960s, especially, lifestyle identification became all the rage. This fit with the times. While many today view the 1960s as a countercultural rejection of consumer capitalism and all its wiles, it was no such thing, as Thomas Frank has chronicled in The Conquest of Cool (1997).

There is an irony here. Many in the counterculture had actually read Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, which gave them a notion of advertising that was mechanical and behaviorist in nature. When they protested against “consumerism,” they were protesting against the Packard-Skinner model of stimulus-response. But, if anything, this opened them up to more psychodynamic forms of manipulation. Advertisers were extremely quick to pick up on the counterculture as a means to sell people products under the guise of “self-actualization”—indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that advertisers were key architects of this counterculture. The counterculture was for the advertisers a frontier at which they could construct new groups of consumers and open up markets—much as Bernays had done when he sold women cigarettes. The advertising analysts at AdAge give a few examples of this new spin on the old psychodynamic form of advertising:

[The 1960s] spawned a “creative revolution” in advertising, with agencies using self-deprecating humor, irreverence and irony to appeal to young consumers. Doyle Dane Bernbach’s Volkswagen work, launched at the end of the 1950s but emblematic of the creative, ironic approach of the 1960s, focused on the car’s “liabilities” with headlines such as “Ugly,” “Lemon” and “Think Small.” Advertising Age later named the effort the top campaign of the 20th century. One key goal of advertising was to win over young consumers, who were disaffected and distrustful of corporate messages. Both Pepsi-Cola Co. and Coca-Cola Co. managed to do this well. Pepsi’s “Think young” and “Pepsi Generation” campaigns (Batten, Barton, Durstine, & Osborn) and Coca-Cola’s multi-ethnic, peace-promoting “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” effort (McCann-Erickson) drove sales of the brands, at the expense of their competitors, and inaugurated the “cola wars.” Advertisers also worked to incorporate youth-targeted pop-culture references into their spots, such as Campbell’s tweaking its slogan to read “M’m, m’m, groovy!”4

Many will recognize these tactics in the “hipster” advertising methods of today. In fact, the latter strategies are not new at all. They are the exact same techniques that gave us the insufferable “dungarees and beards” baby boomer culture of the 1960s (which is perhaps why hipsterism relies so heavily on nostalgia and kitsch). Boomers did not object to advertising per se—they responded to it slavishly, buying silly looking European cars that touted their ugliness in public. They objected only to the crude behaviorist form that it sometimes took. But, when plied with psychodynamic techniques, the boomers swooned. Controlled rebellion meant big bucks for corporate America. Social-issue bandwagoning was a common tactic. To quote AdAge again:

Social issues penetrated advertising; Lever Bros. and Gillette Co. were among the many advertisers that pledged to show more African-Americans in commercials. Looser moral standards made it possible for agencies to create racier ads to stand out from the competition.5

Your Computer Is a Skinner Box

Anyone observing these trends might have concluded that behaviorism was dead and buried. Not so. Today we not only see behaviorist techniques jumping through our internet browsers, but new anxieties over the stimulus-response paradigm have arisen. Vance Packard’s ghost stalks the headlines. Articles proliferate on the nefarious effects of targeted online advertisements. Many Americans today quite literally believe that the 2016 election was stolen from Hillary Clinton by nefarious foreign operatives using classical behaviorist advertising tactics to brainwash voters.

What appears to have happened is that modern technology has given the old behaviorist theories a new lease on life. Behaviorist advertisers always thought that, in order to gain maximum effectiveness, they needed their audience to be as similar to subjects in a lab as possible. This is why Vicary chose the movie theater. In the movie theatre, everyone is focused on the same thing. Movie audiences are also consuming roughly the same products. This made it a perfectly controlled environment for Vicary’s experiment. Today, new technological developments allow behaviorist advertisers to replicate these conditions on a mass scale.

First of all, we spend much more time in front of what are in effect miniature movie screens. Surveys indicate that people spend an average of five hours per day on their mobile devices. This is in addition to the time many of us spend in front of a screen all day at work. It is probably not outlandish to say that many of us who work on a computer during the week spend more waking hours in front of a screen than we spend away from it. Secondly, new technology allows firms to record what we are viewing on these screens. This data can be used to determine patterns and then predict what we are likely to be interested in. This is a rough equivalent of knowing that popcorn is available in most movie theatres: it gives advertisers some idea of what images they should be bombarding the audience with. In effect, many of us now live a good portion of our lives in something resembling a Skinner box.

In light of these circumstances, surely the moral panic currently taking place over behavioral advertising is justified, no? Yet while the hype is everywhere, decent studies are few and far between. One of the few with a remotely serious approach to the topic is by Ayman Farahat and Michael Bailey of Yahoo! and Facebook, respectively.6 They estimate that targeted advertising is around twice as effective as nontargeted advertising. Most corporate customers certainly think that doubling the effectiveness of an advertising strategy represents a big gain in efficiency—and, from their perspective, it does. But should this doubling of effectiveness really convince us that the behaviorist advertisers were right after all—and that our society is facing a grave threat from the hidden persuaders? Not really.

First of all, the effectiveness of targeted ads may be double that of nontargeted ads. But they are only doubling a fairly low base. Advertising of the sort that just bombards people with messages such as we see on the internet is not very effective. Most of us just scroll past the ads, rarely clicking on them. They are at worst a minor annoyance. Second, is it really that surprising that we are twice as likely to interact with an ad when it is geared toward something that we have searched for recently? If we are searching Google for a new car, an engagement ring, or a mortgage, is it really a shock to learn that we are then twice as likely to interact with ads that are related to those products, rather than a randomly generated ad trying to persuade us to buy, say, a T-shirt with an “ironic” slogan on the front?

The more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that targeted ads are more like follow-up phone calls than they are a new system of totalitarian mind control of the sort that Skinner dreamed of. If a salesperson cold-calls someone out of the blue, while another salesperson follows up on a phone call with a customer who was previously interested, who is more likely to make a sale? Surely we do not need a sophisticated study to work that out. The follow-up call is obviously a better sales tactic—ditto for the targeted ad. Advertising is not an industry engaged in magic.

Help! I Got Roasted by a Woke Megacorporation!

In reality, marketers have not changed the game with targeted online advertising, bots, and so forth. But is the rampant paranoia about behavioralist advertising diverting attention from another, more important phenomenon? Just as panics over the behavioralist methods of “hidden persuaders” may have disguised—or even made audiences more vulnerable to—new trends in psychodynamic advertising in the 1950s and ’60s, the focus on repetitive, targeted ads today may be obscuring more profound developments in advertiser tactics, not to mention the social implications of these methods.

One advertising trend that has received relatively little attention from talking heads is the increasing willingness of large corporations to interact with social media users in new and strange ways. This latest trend can mainly be seen on Twitter, though it is probably also happening on other platforms.

For most of social media’s short history, marketing folks could be expected to keep a corporation’s social media profile fairly drab. They mainly wanted you to know how committed the company was to “corporate social responsibility” and the like. For the most part, the image that companies wanted to convey was one of a “trustworthy dad”—the corporation cares about you but in a fairly detached way, signifying dignity and restraint. But, more recently, some new young marketing “rebels”—as they no doubt see themselves, and as many slaves to power have seen themselves throughout the centuries—are taking a different approach. Instead of interacting with people on social media in a restrained and dignified manner, they try to get very pally with the masses. This is less “Honest Abe” Lincoln than it is Anthony “Call Me Tony” Blair.

For example, one user decided to voice an opinion about Hot Pockets by saying that “Hot Pockets are so ~%^&ing stupid.” The clever wags in the Hot Pockets marketing department asked, “Did someone hack your account?” Hilarious. Another user asked Wendy’s where they could find the nearest McDonald’s; the folks in the Wendy’s marketing department sent them back an image of a trashcan. Rib-tickling, right? Some of the responses go further, veering into issues of “political correctness.” For example, someone tweeted that “Knowing how to mix Hamburger Helper doesn’t make you wife material,” to which the comic geniuses manning the Hamburger Helper account responded, “And this makes you husband material?”

On other occasions the creepiness of this inherently creepy mode of communication becomes so obvious that it provokes widespread disapproval. In mid-December 2017, presumably when people were watching a lot of Christmas movies, Netflix tweeted, “To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: who hurt you?” When a large, unaccountable corporation reveals in this manner that it collects data on your habits, being pally by “roasting” users does not exactly tickle the funny bone—or anyone’s sense of decency. Many people complained, and many media commentators tut-tutted.

Nevertheless, marketing mavens seem to think that this sort of trolling is an altogether fantastic new strategy. Articles with titles like “Why the Smartest Businesses are Turning to Troll Marketing” and “How Brands Turned Trolling into a Marketing Strategy” are not hard to find. And in many ways, this is not a completely new development. It is firmly in the same vein as the “ironically self-deprecatory” Volkswagon ads that baby boomers lapped up so readily. But in other ways it is new. In some fundamental way it does change the way that consumers and their corporate puppeteers interact.

Let us step back and reflect a little. When is “roasting” or “friendly teasing” acceptable? Most people would not start roasting a potential new boss during a job interview. Nor would you roast a stranger who asked you for the time on the bus. Roasting appears to be reserved for intimate acquaintances. It seems particularly prominent in groups of men, who never seem to tire of teasing each other. In such groups, roasting does appear to function as some form of hierarchical behavior—the best roaster gets to rule the roost. This sheds light on the psychodynamics of what these new marketing techniques are all about.

Corporations are inserting themselves quite deeply into the online social chain. Companies used to portray themselves as detached yet caring father figures. Now it seems that they want to jump in the mud and be “one of the boys.” They then engage in, for want of a better term, “alpha male” roasting techniques, replicating some sort of pack leader dynamic. When we talk about the pack dynamics of small groups of males, we are typically dealing with the most primitive, lizard-brained aspects of human sociability. It certainly could be argued that this sort of advertising reflects and accelerates the entropic decay of institutional authorities experienced in recent decades. It preys upon the savage aspects of our minds, coaxing our collective Id to the fore and pushing our collective Ego to the rear.

The Tightrope Walk of Corporate Social Engineering

In order to understand the manner in which corporate advertising techniques impact the social fabric, it is important to grasp the techniques used and how they work or do not work. But it is also interesting to consider, as a peripheral issue, just how far corporations can go in undertaking social engineering without alienating consumers. Since the beginning of modern advertising in the 1920s, corporations have piggybacked on social movements to both sell their wares and reconstruct society in order to make it more amenable to corporate consumer capitalism. At its most successful, advertising plugs into emerging social trends and bends them to its own ends. Sometimes advertisers can even get in front of these social trends and help move society in a given direction. For this reason, it is often better to look at advertising and marketing as a sort of compass for where society is headed. Advertising walks the line between bandwagoning and leadership in social and cultural changes. How far can it go in driving such changes?

Nike’s recent decision to support the controversial football player Colin Kaepernick offers an interesting case study. Kaepernick became a source of controversy by refusing to stand for the national anthem during NFL football games. Kaepernick did this in protest against what he saw as a corrupt policing system that targets African Americans. Some supported Kaepernick while others saw his protest as unpatriotic and out of place in a national sporting event that is meant to unify rather than divide. When the NFL dumped Kaepernick—because he had become too divisive for their brand, according to many commentators at least—the whole thing became a national issue.

The case is interesting to us in that it shows the double-edged nature of politicized advertising. This type of advertising is either done for moral reasons—because the people doing it truly believe in whatever cause they are promoting; or it is done for instrumental purposes—because it is seen to be in the long-term financial interest of the company; or perhaps both. At best, from a corporate self-interest point of view, this sort of advertising-cum-social-engineering, which is bound to annoy some portion of the audience, is a longterm play; at worst, it interferes with profit maximization.

In August 2018, the polling firm Morning Consult released a fascinating survey showing what people thought of this sort of politicized advertising.7 The most interesting question surveyed was whether corporations should stick to providing goods and services or whether they should get involved in social and political issues. Of those polled, 60 percent said that corporations should stick to providing goods and services while only 22 percent of people said that they should get involved in social and political issues (with 18 percent having no opinion). Younger people were more likely to want corporations to get involved in social issues than older people—36 percent of 18- to 22-year-olds said that businesses should get involved in these issues—but they were still outweighed by the 42 percent of that age group who thought they should not. Whichever way you cut it, people really do not want corporations to get involved in social engineering.

Interestingly, the survey then went on to see which issues were the least divisive. The phrasing of the document, which is obviously aimed at marketing departments, was particularly interesting. Rather than presenting the survey as a balanced evaluation of whether corporations should get involved in social engineering or not, the document simply assumes that they should—the section title is “Where to Take a Stand.” Given the empirical evidence, however, this is bizarre. After all, the survey itself has just shown that only 22 percent of Americans want corporations to “take a stand” on political issues, and yet the document then goes on to explore where the corporations should take a stand. This insistent approach can only be explained by the fact that corporations actively want to engage in social engineering in spite of what the general public wants—something attested to by their history in this regard.

When reading this part of the survey, one gets the sense that the person doing the polling is really pushing the person being surveyed on these questions. “OK, I get that you do not want corporations weighing in on these matters,” we can imagine the surveyor saying, “but if they were to get involved, which of these issues would you prefer they get involved in?” The survey results that follow look pretty much like the opinion polls on various hot button issues in American politics. Around 42 percent of people would prefer that, should corporations weigh in on anything, they weigh in on gay rights; with 20 percent against. Affirmative action is similar, with 44 percent of people in support, 19 percent against. Stricter gun control polls positively at 44 percent and negatively at 28 percent, while stricter immigration policy polls 39 percent in favor and 28 percent opposed. On and on it goes.

What is far more interesting than the results themselves is the fact that they are being reported at all. If your job as a marketer is to sell as much of a product as possible, or to boost the brand of a company as much as you can, then why consider weighing in on any contentious issues? If even 20 percent of the population does not want a company weighing in on social and political matters, then why alienate this 20 percent? Why not just do something that has 100 percent support? When 60 percent of people polled say that they do not want corporations weighing in on these matters, it seems completely counterproductive to even have it discussed. But to think so would be to mistake the trees for the wood.

There has always been an active desire on the part of corporations to engage in social engineering, and there always will be—contrary to the liberal narrative that consumer markets are neutral spaces. Consciously or not, corporations not only attempt to use political movements to expand their markets and to attach their brands to popular causes, but they inevitably seek to push society further in the direction of liberal-individualist consumer capitalism. This is why every politicized advertising campaign at some level promotes a highly liberal society, with as few moral and social barriers to acquisition as possible. Advertisers will adopt the protest aesthetics of Black Lives Matter but never its economic program; they will appropriate patriotic imagery but never associate with the sizeable segment of the population in favor of restricting immigration. The role of psychodynamic advertising is to turn desire for political change into desire for a consumer product, whether a Kaepernick Tshirt or a pickup truck. Even environmentalism, as it has become more fashionable, has been transformed from a movement about buying less into one about buying more—like an expensive hybrid or a carbon credit. “Signaling” one’s participation in a trend substitutes for real collective action.

Hidden in Plain Sight

If advertising poses a threat today, it is not because people are incapable of resisting crude behaviorist techniques. Rather, it is because more and more of political and social life is being subsumed within the consumerist-liberal paradigm at the expense of any other social attachments. The new “troll marketing” and social media roasting campaigns are evidence of the strange intimacy of today’s corporation-customer relationships.

It should not be surprising that boycotts, protests over corporate sponsorship, etc. have become more prominent features of the political landscape at present than they were in the past. Nevertheless, this phenomenon is often misinterpreted. The common lament is that “shopping has become political,” but the truth is the opposite: politics has become shopping. Just as more and more power has been ceded to corporations over the last several decades, more and more of politics has been coopted and reduced to a consumer choice between competing “lifestyle brands.” And while these brands may seem sharply differentiated and audiences increasingly fragmented, at bottom they all thrust in the same direction: Equality is consumer equality. Freedom is consumer choice. Agency is exercised solely by the consumer.

The current paranoia over behaviorist advertising ultimately boils down to the concern that politics is interfering with the operation of markets—specifically, that devious political actors are interfering with the “market of ideas” on social media (or, in the conservative imagination, that progressive activists at corporations are privileging political concerns over business interests). But the far greater concern should be that consumer capitalism is warping politics. As this consumer society develops, social ties become more fluid and people become more atomized. Power flows upwards to the social engineers and the technocrats who rule over an increasingly primitive dystopia. Meanwhile people become more depressed, less socially integrated—and less civilized. The fact that neither Left nor Right seems capable of recognizing this situation or offering an alternative is itself a sign of the advertisers’ success. Instead, earnest social conservatives wave their little flags to the free market, while self-described progressives show off their branded tote bags. A sad sight to behold.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume III, Number 1 (Spring 2019): 210–24.


1 Quoted in Lorraine Greaves, “Smoke Screen: The Cultural Meaning of Women’s Smoking,” High Culture: Reflections on Addiction and Modernity, ed. Anna Alexander and Mark S. Roberts (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2003), 266.

2 Noam Chomsky, “The Case against B. F. Skinner,” New York Review of Books 17, no. 11 (December 30, 1971).

3 Noam Chomsky, “Psychology and Ideology,” The Chomsky Reader, ed. James Peck (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), 180.

4 “1960s Creativity and Breaking the Rules,” AdAge, March 28, 2005.

5 “1960s Creativity and Breaking the Rules.”

6 Ayman Farahat and Michael Bailey, “How Effective is Targeted Advertising,” March 31, 2012.

7 “CSR and Political Activism in the Trump Era,” Morning Consult, August 2018.

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