Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A stroll through power... Part 2

...continuing from Part 1, where we left off with a biographical sketch of Edward Bernays, Godfather of public relations, and the connections between state propaganda and advertizing.

Ask yourself throughout the day if what you are doing and saying, or what others are doing and saying, is manipulative.  From Part 1:

Contemporary moral experience... has a paradoxical character.  For each of us is taught to see himself or herself as an autonomous moral agent; but each of us also becomes engaged by modes of practice, aesthetic and bureaucratic, which involve us in manipulative relationships with others.  Seeking to protect the autonomy that we have learned to prize, we aspire ourselves not to be manipulated by others; seeking to incarnate our own principles and standpoint in the world of practice, we find no way open to us to do so except by directing towards others those very manipulative modes of relationship which each of us aspires to resist in our own case.

-Alasdair MacIntyre
Total honesty precludes manipulation.  By manipulation I mean "exerting shrewd or devious influence especially for one's own advantage."  It is not the same thing as honest persuasion.  Honesty in persuasion presupposes that nothing pertinent and known (like disadvantages to the other) is concealed, and that nothing untrue or intentionally incomplete is added.

I write this with an intent.  My intent includes sharing ideas, soliciting discussion and criticism, informing. and persuading.  My intent is not to make money or ingratiate myself with an institution or powerful person.  By putting these intents and non-intents in front of everyone, I hope to avoid being guilty of manipulation.

There is an ad on TV.  It is promoting a home security system that also gives you the ability to turn various electrical devices on and off with your cell phone.  In the ad, there are actors who are portraying a family.  This notional family has the home security system, and everyone in the family smiles... a lot.  In fact, hey smile all the time.  They are good-looking without being intimidating, they smile a lot, and they all seem to get along with each other perfectly, presumably because they have purchased the home security system.  The ad cuts back and forth between the smiling family and the safe, secure, clean, and well-appointed house, which is equipped with gadgets that alert the police and turn on an obnoxious alarm if someone breaks in while you are away, and gadgets that can turn the lights on and off.  A voiceover, from a mellifluous sounding yet confident male - which reassures me that this is a person who knows what he is talking about - tells me, as I watch extremely happy, smiling people touch their cellphone screens and turn the lights on and off, that this product will (a) keep me safe, (b) keep my loved ones safe, (c) keep my house and stuff safe, and (d) "save me money" (presumably because I can turn the lights on and off).  The subtext is that (a) I am not safe, (b) my family is not safe, (c) my house and my stuff is not safe, and (d) I am somehow losing money.

Being unsafe makes me unhappy because I am afraid, but this bitter medicine is safely wrapped in a sugary capsule, happiness (see them smiling) because I am one step away from all this danger and waste.  That step is never represented in the ad, where no money changes hands (God forbid!).  But we know what that step from unhappiness to sugar-coated happiness is, and that is this home security system.  We are not now that smiling, handsome, well-adjusted family that can turn its lights on and off while on a lovely vacation; but we can be.  Get the home security system, and shazaaam! we shall be transformed.

Alright!  So I go to the website, and (whoa!) this thing costs $850.  Take a deep breath.  Maybe I'm not that unsafe after all.  Oh wait!  It says I get the $850 system with six major components for free.  And there is a pretty, wholesome-looking young woman on the banner, with her earpiece in ready to personally receive your toll-free call, where she tells you (in the same banner) that your initial cost is only $99 (not $100, because the extra integer matters), and you can pay the rest for $36.99 a month (not $37, and less than $40) for a "24-7 alarm monitoring service from... the number 1 security monitoring company in America (you'll be among many others, join the smart crowd, and this service is "number 1" in [God bless] "America").  Holy shit, it says I can have six major components ($850 worth) for free, but ALSO!!!  I can have a spare keychain remote, AND a $100 Visa gift card (no such thing as $99 gift cards).  So it's really not costing me any outlay, I pay $99 and get $100 back, then for less than $40 a money, just over a dollar a day really, I can take that step from unsafe unhappiness to safe happiness, and I can turn my lights on and off from five states away.

"The peace of mind that one achieves knowing their family is safe in invaluable [making the $39.99 a month quite a bargain!].  Why wait for disaster to strike?  [DISASTER!]  Protect your family today [or you are a cheap, negligent piece of shit]."

P.T. Barnum would be proud.  Edward Bernays would feel positively warm and fuzzy.

Of course, we've all had our senses blunted by relentless exposure to advertizing, which is forced by competition to force-feed us, which ends up inoculating us to some degree, because we tune this crap out.  Most of it.  Most of the time.  But it becomes a kind of environment in which the bald manipulation of ad-speak, which shouts at us from television, radio, billboards, print ads, labels, packaging, ink pens, refrigerator magnets, etc., actually normalizes manipulation.  We breathe manipulation.  We drink manipulation.  We swim in it.

MacIntyre, quoted above, noted that modern society has achieved "the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and nonmanipulative social relations."

We need to return to this theme more specifically later, but for now it serves as the entrance point into a kind of "media literacy" (a bloodless term yet again), that is, into a greater critical understanding of manipulative speech and practice in the fields of advertizing and state propaganda.  Rather than allow ourselves to be bored into silence by the manipulative speech that assails us, we can begin again to pay attention to that speech, but for what it is, not the "messaging" (more stupid institution-speak) that overwrites it.

At this point, however, I wonder if anyone else would like to unpack a television ad.  It's kinda fun. be continued...


  1. "At this point, however, I wonder if anyone else would like to unpack a television ad. It's kinda fun."

    ...used to be fun, but I've cut down my TV watching a whole lot. Now the ads are repulsive, in a DIABOLICAL way.

  2. Wow!! I too can be you and good looking! It only takes a 12 pack of Budweiser!! Subtext: I'm old, fat, inactive and dateless. Yes, it is kinda fun in a strange sorta way.

    Thanks for the insights, Stan.