The Big Lie – the complete book online - 9 Involvement

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Chapter 9

I can make a new man of you
in just 7 days


We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are. Anaïs Nin

As the consumer strolls through the global bazaar, past hawkers, heaps of baubles, and gaudy attractions, often his mind is elsewhere, but his nervous system is alert to sensations. While many stimuli are screened out, a whiff of frying onions may set the nose quivering, the sight of a cold glass of beer may lubricate the throat. A strip show stirs the loins, but if the consumer has a headache he may head first to the drug counter. Hunger, thirst, sex, the avoidance of pain – basic biological drives demand urgent satisfaction and the appeals for these products and services are direct and easy to comprehend. Other pitchmen – the shell game manipulator, the fortune teller – are more subtle, but they too tap powerful forces. While physical needs can be sated, at least temporarily, our psychological drives of curiosity and self-regard seem to be constantly engaged in gear. Curiosity is an absolute: we always want to know which shell the bean is under. Self-esteem is a relative measure: one’s status is determined in relation to a group, the need to belong to it or to dominate it. As Gore Vidal said, “It’s not enough that I am successful; my best friend must fail”.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that much modern human angst arises because we have never outgrown a prehistoric mentality:


Our minds [as well as bodies] are also still languishing, in some respects, in the Palaeolithic . . . Football is a substitute for the hunt, combining the elements of male bonding, adrenalin and the prospect of reward. And when we shop, we sublimate our need to comb the hedgerows for ripe and interesting foodstuffs.1


In 1995, researchers from Georgia State University carried out research on two groups of men while they watched the World Cup final between Brazil and Italy. Before and after the game, which Brazil won on penalties, they took saliva samples which they analysed for testosterone, the male sex hormone associated with virility and aggression. They found that the average testosterone levels of the Brazilian fans increased by 28 per cent, while there was a 27 per cent decrease in the Italian men. The psychologists concluded, “Testosterone, and the feeling of power associated with it, increases as subjects bask in reflected glory and decreases as they experience vicarious defeat”.

In the modern landscape, just as in the caves we once lived in, the overriding instinct is self-preservation. The Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins describes a biological basis for this: the law of total genetic proliferation. Ultimately, he says, it is the survival and propagation of our DNA which matters; we are only temporary vehicles for our genes. Even our species is just a conduit. There is no logic to a gene for altruism; instinctively, we always favour Number One. Nevertheless, natural selection appears to have enabled us to benefit from social experience. Everywhere, man has created civilised social environments which work, more or less, although we need to maintain millions of offenders in prison and occasionally indulge in genocide. In his book, The Moral Animal, Robert Wright suggests that conflict arises because social development has outstripped the pace of natural selection. The struggle for dominance has shifted from the savannah to urban amphitheatres; while our mores and institutions have been devised for a civilised model of Homo sapiens sapiens, our genes are still churning out hunter-gatherers. A savage breast beats beneath the pinstriped suit. Our envies, our mating instincts, our competition for money, power, and status – all are re-enactments of the pecking-order rituals programmed aeons ago among lower life forms. We can observe these any day on our television wildlife programmes or in a farmyard. Because a female human can reproduce only once a year, while males ejaculate frequently, men have always competed for a scarce resource. Our instinctual drives mimic those of our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees. Male promiscuity and the feminine quest for the security offered by the most successful males are strategies which aim to ensure the survival of our genes.

The basic needs common to our species – for food, clothing, shelter, and sex – have natural limits imposed by our individual capacities. But they are intimately linked to psychological desires: self-esteem, our need for love and for recognition by the society we live in. In the 1950s the depth psychologist Abraham Maslow theorised that beyond these social goals there is yet another level of striving: “self-actualisation”, which is our need to give a meaning to life, through spiritual activity, aesthetic achievement, creating empires, or selfless service to others. Self-actualisation is the extra carrot that motivates artists, poets, craftsmen, some demagogues and tycoons and, perhaps, some advertising people.

These desires are limitless and hierarchic. Higher levels drives cannot be indulged until all those beneath have been satisfied. The struggle to establish and maintain our self-identity is never-ending; we need constant reassurance. It is the satisfaction of these limitless desires which drives the engines of production beyond the levels necessary for subsistence, and creates a role for advertising. Like peacocks, men continue to compete for status – and available females – by means of intimidating displays, and career women are discovering ways of adapting to join the fray. A century ago, rivals duelled to preserve their honour. Today, in politics, business, and everyday life they spar with other weapons for the same reason – to save face. In offices the better-educated clash verbally. Out on the street, the less civilised demand visible manifestations of “respect”. Winning these conflicts reinforces a sense of personal worth, creating both ambitious leaders and violent murderers. For the rest of us, learning to modulate our self-esteem is Nature’s way of helping us to accept the ceiling of our social ambitions.

Many of our decisions – the sports young people play, the deals businessmen make, the postures politicians adopt, the friends we seek, the lovers we take, the goods we buy – are influenced by a desire to strengthen our own feelings of self-worth by signifying our status to others. In modern societies, status signifiers are a kaleidoscope of shifting incongruities. Keeping up with the Joneses is a bewildering task if you don’t know where Jonesy’s at. Or coming from. We extract clues from the confident images which marketing and the media push at us. There are whole emporia, from Harrods to The Body Shop, devoted entirely to products which burnish our personal image, and entire media, such as the New Yorker, in which every advertisement is an exercise in snob appeal. In the past, rich people knew how to behave; manners, like wealth, passed through the generations, and were so institutionalised that arrivistes were quickly enlightened. The wasteful strategies of “conspicuous consumption” which were evolved to flaunt an “invidious comparison”, as identified by the American economist Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class, were apparent to all: great mansions and lavish entertaining. The much more numerous affluent classes which have emerged in the late 20th century don’t know how to be rich. Today successful men and women are uncertain about how to affirm their social position in a way which clearly distinguishes them from the less fortunate. With increasing democratisation the strategies of “invidious comparison” have become far more complex: what you wear, where you go out to eat, which trends you are aware of, even whether you get the joke. A 1999 advertisement in the New Yorker for Virtual Vineyards paid obeisance to the power of social conformity (and may have set a lot of teeth on edge amongst the gullible) with the faux rebellious headline, “Feeling naughty? Have red wine with fish”.

All advertising preys on these social anxieties. No one is immune. While his kids feel ostracised if they’re wearing the wrong football strip, the striving businessman is fearful of not having the right opinions. The long-standing campaign for the Financial Times, “No FT . . . No comment”, portrayed him squirming in embarrassment because he has failed to read the acceptable newspaper. A 1998 advertisement for The Economist probed social insecurities by demanding, “Would you like to find yourself sitting next to you at dinner?”, while its television version showed a man luxuriating in his business class airline seat until he discovers that his conversational partner for the next few hours will be the intimidating presence of Henry Kissinger. For modern man, as for his ancestors, the danger of a bigger ape swiping your banana means you have to be careful where you sit:


The psychological origin of inequality, as Rousseau brilliantly sketched it in the Second Discourse, comes when “solitary” man begins to assemble and finds that the strongest, the handsomest, the best dancer and the best singer get an undue share of the goods. Envy begins to show its face. In order to be like the handsomest or the most artful, the others begin to dissemble, cosmetics are used to mask the rough and the ugly, appearances begin to count for more than reality. If consumption represents the psychological competition for status, then one can say that bourgeois society is the institutionalization of envy.2


However artificial the social games we play, the rewards to be gained in such competitions are real, and may even have a biological effect. In a 1950s Canadian experiment, rats pressed a lever to spark electric stimulation through electrodes attached to their brains. Some pressed it thousands of times, until dropping from exhaustion. Like rats, we have a primitive section of our brain which rewards certain actions with pleasurable experiences, activities such as eating and sexual reproduction, which are too important to leave to conscious control. Some drugs work by hijacking this system, training brain cells to learn new behaviour. This adaptation works in the same way that pumping iron will habituate your muscle cells to make more protein and thus build up muscle bulk. Addiction is a form of adaptation. Alcoholic addiction, for example, is the result of chronic changes in the brain’s circuitry effected by bombarding it with the chemical ethanol. By rewarding the unthinking primordial brain, the process circumvents the higher reasoning power of the cortex. The theory behind Alcoholics Anonymous, is that good habits, such as abstinence, become established in the same way. By habitually offering a compensating reward, such as feeling good about oneself, they chemically change the molecular structure of the brain. If this is so, is the same true of shopaholics? If the constant feel-good stimulation offered by subtle status rewards affects our brains, it explains shopping as therapy and we may conclude: consumerism is addictive.

What is the best way to communicate to this anxious bundle of primitive urges that is the human beast? Unless the recipient of the message has been deprived of free will – a helpless child, a prisoner, a soldier, or the inhabitant of a totalitarian state – a command, an injunction, or an exhortation will have little effect. Free people do not absorb dogma like dry sponges. The mind is not a blank mental slate waiting for an inscription. It is a complex web of feelings, attitudes, and prejudices. It is cluttered with received opinions and popular clichés. It is far more likely to believe, as one memory test showed, that librarians are serious than that they are pretty.

People react only to stimuli which carry personal relevance, interpret them in the light of their experience, reject those they can’t use, and respond to those which tempt them. If they have already formed opinions, in the interests of personal consistency they will be minded to defend these views against contrary claims. It is hardly surprising that, apart from their possible entertainment value, the messages of most advertisements seem to be of little interest to most people most of the time.

Yet advertising can use the obstacle of pre-conditioning as a vaulting horse. The trick is to establish empathy with the intended recipient and then invite him to complete the message in a meaningful way from his own experience. The consumer enters into partial ownership of a fresh idea – and welcomes it into his credo. When the Democrats campaigned against Richard Nixon in 1962 he had already accumulated a reputation for deviousness. In his televised debates against John F. Kennedy he looked unshaven and ill at ease. Had his opponents launched a smear campaign claiming that Nixon was dishonest, they would have run head-on into entrenched attitudes, including a sense of fairness, and not just from Republicans. Still, Nixon clearly looked dishonest. So they circulated a photograph of the candidate appearing particularly blue-jowled and shifty with the caption: “Would you buy a used car from this man?” It was left to the voter, drawing on his past impressions – both of the candidate and of used car salesmen – to complete the message.

Personal involvement like this is fundamental to effective persuasion. Because we are so curious it is not difficult to create involvement. We love stories, we are “dying” to know how things turn out. When we hear the punchline of a joke, we laugh. Arthur Koestler attributed this reaction to the explosive release of pent-up energy created by the tension of our vicarious involvement in the situation. We share the emotional predicament of the protagonist. Koestler’s marquis (Chapter 5) escaped from the bishop’s affront to his masculine pride with a single bound, by leaping into another context. We jump with him, and laugh with relief.

An effective advertisement, like a good joke, trades on common assumptions, using a kind of in-group shorthand. Many successful ads seem incomprehensible to the outsider because they are precisely targeted on the perhaps somewhat arcane experiences of a particular group. If a brand is well attuned to its audience, it doesn’t even have to mention its name; the consumer will fill in the blanks. Visitors to London in recent years have seen posters for two famous musicals on the backs of buses. One showed the eyes of a cat and three words: “New London Theatre”. The other showed a partial face mask and “Her Majesty’s Theatre”. The tourists already knew what shows they wanted to see; by solving this little puzzle they played a part in reminding themselves.

Cigarette advertisements, constrained by strict prohibitions, were recognisable by a mystifying illustration appearing together with a warning against using the product. Many non-smokers would have been unable to identify the brand advertised in Britain by a picture of a red motorcycle, the only splash of colour in a bleak monochrome Kansas landscape, or a red traffic light and a skyline of the seedier part of Manhattan, or an overalled American with a sunburnt neck standing by his pick-up truck. The message had been reduced to its essential: the dominant colour used on the pack and some associated imagery – in the case of this brand, rough-and-ready, independent-minded, and American. The advertiser was hoping to arouse a sense of knowing personal involvement amongst those willing to try to solve the puzzle.

In advertising, as in chatting up, the first step is an effective introduction. The aim is to establish rapport – a mutual interest. And what most people are interested in above all else is themselves. Outside a shop in the Tottenham Court Road the Church of Scientology attracts young passers-by with a sign set up on the pavement. Religious conversion is the service on offer, but the sign does not mention it. Instead it offers a free “Personality Analysis and IQ Test”. Rigid conformity is advertised by an appeal to individualism. A 1996 military recruitment poster involved the same perversion: “Do you have the strength of mind to join the Royal Marines?” We are all sensitive about our age. “Over 50?” read the headline of a small 1998 press advertisement for Saga Home Insurance. It would guarantee at least a glance from anyone of that age. (The ingratiating illustration, of course, showed a vigorous couple with dyed hair, looking about forty. Conversely, if an advertiser wants to appeal to 4-year-olds, he will show kids of 7 or 8 in his advertisements.)

While observing a crowd at an airport, Marlene Dietrich allegedly remarked to her daughter, “Look at how many ugly people there in the world. No wonder they pay us so much money”. The admass – the people most advertisers are talking to – is not nearly so comely as a throng in an airport terminal. A more appropriate cross-section of the traditional focus of the British advertising industry, the young C1C2 families with rising expectations, would be the milling masses on a cross-Channel ferry. Few of them look like the people they see in television advertisements. Advertising appeals to our idealised perceptions of our own potentialities, and in this hall of elastic mirrors no image over-stretches credulity: we are taller, stronger, more attractive and confident, and forever young. Whatever the personal reality, few of us have difficulty projecting ourselves into the images which advertising sets out before us. Almost all advertising is aspirational. Models are beautiful, cars whiz down open roads or park in front of stately homes, people bounce with health and joy. If we buy those images, we flag them to others through the clothes we wear, the cigarette packs we carry, the brands we use.

Our images are self-selected to reflect our unique personality. Most people attach great importance to their individuality – their family heritage, their allergies, their star sign. However, few individuals in any culture want to stand alone for very long. Whilst insisting on our individuality, most of us, most of the time, are driven by strong pressures to conform. We have a basic need for the approval of our peers. We select our own peer group, and that’s the one that matters, whether it’s the kids in our class, the crowd at the golf club, or our colleagues at work. We construct our self-image to suit the expectations of these groups.

Persuasion must always appeal to that self-image. A small advertisement which appears irregularly in quality British newspapers offers a correspondence course to improve memory. It shows a photograph of a frowning but good-looking executive in his 40s, under the headline: “IQ of 145 and Can’t Remember?” Far less than 1 per cent of the British population meet this criterion, yet the firm has run this advertisement in mass circulation newspapers for decades. Presumably the rest of us have little trouble identifying with genius. Another coupon response ad, from Royal Insurance, knows as surely as we do where blame always resides. Its headline: “I’m a careful driver but I keep getting hit by other drivers’ mistakes”.

As the consumer’s perception of himself is irrational, he can have his cake and eat it too. A noble self-image can provide excuses for self-gratification. An American advertisement for a new Chevrolet swiftly twisted political correctness into self-indulgence without a trace of shame: The headline avowed, “Even in the caring, sharing ‘90s, you can still use a little personal space”. The copy continued, “After all the time you’ve spent raising your sensitivity to the needs of others you could probably use some time for yourself . . .” The headline in a UK press ad for the sybaritic paradise Club Med stressed, “It’s time you spent some time with your children”, and showed a loving Dad cavorting with his young daughter. The copy went on to extol the child care facilities, while the illustration showed an empty tennis court waiting for Dad in the background.

Some advertisers risk a bare-knuckled confrontation with the self-image. Since the 1920s, when “Charles Atlas” began to run ads for body-building correspondence courses which offered you a new body in seven days, a red-blooded vein of advertising has aggressively tapped the American passion for self-improvement. As foot-in-the door encyclopedia salesmen have done for years, a 1994 press advertisement for a CD ROM, the Microsoft Encarta multimedia encyclopedia, hawked its wares with a personal challenge verging on ridicule: a little girl chirped, “C’mon Dad, tell us about Sartre and existentialism”. Daks of London advertised its traditional English sports jacket by showing the conventional handsome model posing with a classic Purdey shotgun and the headline: “If you don’t like it you’re obviously a pheasant,” clearly a play on “peasant”. What are the effective limits of mockery? British self-esteem is tightly bound to class status, which is expressed through the appropriate choice of clothing. If an advertiser takes the mickey out of the conventions which underline class and classical fashion, the whole in-group comes under attack.

Nevertheless, advertisers are fond of making fun of the consumer (though less inclined to make fun of themselves). It may not be the behaviour recommended in their sales training manuals, but it’s good for a laugh. In the mid-1990s the fashion turned to ridiculing aspirations. In an effort to ingratiate themselves with the presumed prejudices of their target consumers, television commercials took the form of mini-dramas poking fun at the kind of person their product was not intended for. The suburban middle-aged couple got a drubbing: the dreary folk who got up the noses of the liberated Maxwell House Coffee lovers, the jealous frumps who disturbed the idyll of the cavorting Häagen-Dazs ice cream lovers by banging on the ceiling with a broom handle, the mouldy oldsters whose vegetables marched out of the fridge because it was the wrong make. Audi was particularly particular. Its 1996 colour supplement campaign featured an aspirant lower-middle-class family of six in their lounge furnished to 1950s tastes, with the headline, “They don’t fit in”. The text made clear that it was not the size of the family the car couldn’t accommodate, but their lack of adventurous style. In 1994 Volkswagen jeered at acutely felt status concerns in arch commercials fitting various of its models to social stereotypes. The economical Golf Match was paired with a fat, northern sales representative who attempted to justify to himself the value of a company car which cost only “ten measly grand”.

Exploiting presumed prejudices is a dangerous business. The intended consumer may not be as opinionated as the advertiser believes, or his self-image as a fair-minded person may resent the sneering attitude of the presentation. Other consumers may identify with the reviled stereotype, yet nevertheless be in the market for the product. They will be offended, or at least highly confused. And for anyone else not immediately in the market, the advertiser is creating a reputation for gratuitous intolerance.


Persuasion must in every case involve the self-interest of the consumer. He or she will usually define this with reference to his or her peer group. Most advertising fails because the self-interest of the advertiser patently gets in the way. And often, because the people who create and approve advertising are too self-referential, and mistakenly assume that the experiences and attitudes of the target group – particularly an alien group – say, toffs or businessmen or suburban couples – are much like their own.

Effective advertising must always appeal to the consumer not as you think he is, nor as he actually is, but as he thinks he is.

1 Gustave Milne, British Archaeology, No. 13, April 1996.

2 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, Atheneum, 1961.


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