A Short Piece

Advertising and Force, Choosing Before Experience, and Sharing Risk

O.G. Rose
7 min readMar 24

Most of us are fooled, but we perhaps speak too monolithically if we claim we are always fooled.

Photo by Stephen Isaiah

Noam Comisky notes that though markets claim to operate according to rationality and thus efficiency, the entire advertisement industry exists to persuade people into making irrational choices. Thus, Capitalism is full of itself: it actively undermines its own legitimacy.

There’s truth to what Comisky says, but I hesitate to completely agree, for as Deirdre McCloskey points out, the alternative to persuasion through advertising is force. Also, we must be careful to discuss advertising like consumers never gain wisdom with time. Though the first time I buy a Pepsi I might be subconsciously tricked, I would argue that the likelihood of these subliminal messages working the second time are less (even less the third time, etc.). I contend that if I keep buying Pepsi, it’s because I discover that I like it, and though this will look like I’ve been subconsciously manipulated, perhaps instead I’ve only been persuaded to like Pepsi. Only I can know, which corporations could use to defend themselves with plausible deniability, yes, but on the other hand if someone were to argue I’ve been “too subconsciously manipulated” to make a good choice, then we’ve started down a road of unfalsifiable paranoia that no one will win (“On Trust” by O.G. Rose elaborates on this, for more).

Featured in “Thoughts” by O.G. Rose

If I was subconsciously tricked to buy a Pepsi, it’s possible for me to recognize this and not fall for the same trick again. Perhaps this could be a valuable learning experience where the costs are low so that I’m ready for intense situations where the costs are higher? It’s perhaps not all bad that I am “subconsciously tricked” in this example: the “small failure” then could teach me to be prepared so that I don’t find myself brainwashed by the State or a Corporation. Also, how could anyone say for sure if I was “subconsciously tricked” or only persuaded to give something a try? I think we can only meaningfully say that advertisers are actively trying to undermine the rationality of the market if we can find advertisers who genuinely believe that their product is bad and yet still try to figure out how to convince consumers to buy it. Otherwise, we cannot meaningfully define manipulation from persuasion (we have a “Schrodinger’s Cat” problem), and conflating these terms could put us at risk of removing mechanisms that train us on “a small scale” to watch out for control on “a large scale.”

I should take a moment here to mention algorithms and the work of Ontological Design by Daniel Fraga, which articulates how governments and corporations increasingly study us to manipulate and “design” us according to their agendas and whims. For me, this is an entirely different ballgame from traditional advertisements, and there are strong arguments to be made that we must regulate the use of algorithms. Regardless, I would be careful that we don’t conflate all methods of advertisement with “algorithmic manipulations.” Advertisement has a role, I think, and I will even admit that drawing the line between “advertisement” and “algorithmic manipulation” is not easy to draw, but the point I want to make is simply that we shouldn’t make our goal the removal of all advertisement in general: that would be too overshoot and perhaps set us up for a world where “persuasion” is replaced by “manipulation.”

It is not easy to identify “persuasion” from “manipulation” and not have the distinction serve our ideology. For example, we might argue that oil is bad for the environment and that corporations are hence “manipulating people,” but I would argue that most people engage in self-deception regarding the negatives of fossil fuel, and so genuinely believe that oil is good and/or worth the trade-offs. Maybe this isn’t even self-deception but a basic “cost-benefit analysis,” but regardless the point is that if we oppose fossil fuels and hear someone discussing “the pros and cons” of oil, we’ll easily think the person is “being manipulative,” when really the person might just be engaging in “persuasion.” How can we be so certain that what we call “manipulation” isn’t in service of our mind manipulating us to feel right?

Anyway, my point is that to say advertising “manipulates” and “subconsciously tricks” is too simplistic. Sure, advertising can threaten the rationality of the market, but how else are we going to learn about products we might like and benefit from? I personally dislike commercials, but have I never benefited from an advertisement? 90% of them have been a waste of time, but 10% have taught me about goods that have directly improved my quality of life. Is that worth the risk of being manipulated? I think so, seeing as the cost on me of watching or seeing an advertisement is low (in my view), and seeing as a world without advertisements might prove totalitarian.

But what about big purchases or life changing decisions that could ruin me? That’s very different from wasting a dollar on a Pepsi. Fair enough, but I would argue that “the subliminal effectiveness of advertising” weakens as prices increase, precisely because higher prices tend to motivate people to think harder about what they are about to buy. Not always, but I believe advertising that successfully “tricks” people tends to work on “lower levels” where the damages of being tricked is less. Also, what is the alternative? If the choice is between living in a society where I might be subconsciously manipulated to buy Pepsi, or a society where Pepsi doesn’t exist at all, I’d prefer to risk subconscious manipulation (though feel free to disagree).

Alright, but aren’t elders manipulated by big banks to invest their hard-earned money into the stock market? Aren’t young adults tricked into buy expensive cars they don’t need? Absolutely, but I don’t know how often, and the alternative would seem to be a world where there isn’t the option to buy an expensive car at all, or where people are forced to buy either a cheap vehicle or expensive vehicle, or where people are forced to use public transportation. There is no perfect world, only worlds which fail differently, and I prefer the world where I have options but might be manipulated compared to the world where I don’t have options but can’t be manipulated. Choose differently, if you like: a world of advertisements is a world where televisions can be disposed.

A problem with rationality is that it needs experiences to know what it likes, and even then, we often still don’t know what we like. If I need experiences to be rational (if I need to try both Coke and Pepsi to decide which I like, per se), then that means there must be options available, and that means there has to be an infrastructure that makes those options available. Someone must buy a truck that transports the drinks; someone must build a warehouse that stores them. And so on. And all that takes money. And to garner money, companies must convince consumers to purchase products even before the consumers have tried the products and know they like them. Options require infrastructure, and that infrastructure must be financed before the options so that they might be available, creating a difficult problem.

No one can find it rational to try something they’ve never tried before on experiential grounds, so by what standard can they decide that it would be worth their time to try something? Well, that’s the roll of advertisement: to provide us reason to try something before we know it’s something we like (experientially). Is this manipulation or persuasion? Again, it’s a Schrödinger’s Cat problem, but the point is that for my rationality to be informed, I have to make mistakes, and even making those mistakes requires money both on my side and on the side of the infrastructure-makers. If I’m a smart consumer, I won’t spend big money on something that I’ve never tried before, even if advertisers do everything in their power to subconsciously manipulate me to do otherwise. Are dumb consumers possible? Yes, but that’s a risk we must live with, at least until a viable alternative arises.

Business owners need money to provide us with options and experiences so that rationality can be informed, but rationality can’t be rational about options and experiences it hasn’t had yet, so providing money to these businesses ahead of time is irrational. It’s a chicken and egg problem: who must shoulder the risk? The business owners are in a way irrational to provide options and experiences to consumers that they don’t know yet for sure consumers will like, as consumers are in a way irrational to try them. And yet if the products are loved, it will suddenly be as if the business owners were always rational, and if consumers try something they love, it will suddenly be as if the consumers were always rational to try the new things. And vice-versa: if a product fails, it will be like the businesses were always irrational, and if the consumers dislike the product, it will be like the consumers were always manipulated (a “flip moment”).

If businesses owners shouldered all the risk, it would often be too much for new entrepreneurs to bear, and the major corporations would stand unopposed. Entrepreneurs need consumers to take on some of the (initial) risk alongside them, but that means business owners need ways to convince consumers that they should take risk alongside them, hence the need for advertising. And yes, businesses are going to use every trick in the book to convince consumers to buy from them: using the color red to stimulate the appetite sections of the brain; drumming up celebrity support; trying sex appeal; etc. I personally don’t like any of this, but I don’t know the alternative. Rationality must have reasons to make decisions before it is justified by experience, and if persuasion isn’t that mechanism, force seems to be the only option left. “Subconscious manipulation” is a great risk, and perhaps algorithms will make it too much of a risk to bear — but at that point “persuasion” and “force” will be one, a point at which worrying about our freedom in buying a Pepsi will seem like a luxury.




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O.G. Rose

Iowa. Broken Pencil. Allegory. Write Launch. Ponder. Pidgeonholes. W&M. Poydras. Toho. ellipsis. O:JA&L. West Trade. UNO. Pushcart. https://linktr.ee/ogrose