001B. A Conversation on Unethical Advertising

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Key Quotes

• “Unethical advertising takes advantage of people’s deepest hopes and fears, manipulating them to line megacorporations’ pockets with ill-gotten gains.” – Wesley Jackson

• “We can’t let our habits be shifted by the manipulations of unethical advertising; you must recognize where your habits and ideas come from and transcend the previous errors you have made.” – Andrew Gilley

Episode Summary

• Unethical advertising is a form of manipulation that has been around since the Industrial Revolution and has become more effective with the advent of the Internet, allowing it to reach a far wider audience.
• Children seven and younger are particularly vulnerable to being manipulated as they lack the cognitive structures necessary to understand when they are being persuaded.
• Unethical advertising taps into our emotions such as guilt, shame, or fear in order to make us buy something we wouldn’t have otherwise.
• Social media exacerbates this problem by making it harder to distinguish between an ad, post, or recommendation.
• Unless action is taken, the effects of unethical advertising on our psyches will continue to grow worse as advertising capitalizes on new mediums such as augmented reality and virtual reality.
• Advertising companies are collecting vast amounts of data which are then used for targeting specific demographics in increasingly predatory ways.

Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Andrew Gilley: How do you think unethical advertising is related to habits? In today’s self-help podcast episode, we explore why advertising is worth revisiting today in the context of our personal habits.

We then examine the nature of unethical advertising and how it’s an important factor in our lives.

Lastly, we share insights we have compiled on how to effectively handle the difficulties we all encounter with unethical advertising.

Welcome to Surviving Humanity: A Self-Help Podcast, where we shift your perspective to help you overcome the obstacles in your life.

We are Wesley Jackson and Andrew Gilley, and we hope to foster a sense of connection and community over our common struggles while providing you with tools to overcome them.

As always, our FacebookSubreddit, and Twitter are the best places to go for community, connection, and support. Links to these are in the show notes. Let’s get started.

[00:00:42] Wesley Jackson: So what is unethical advertising exactly, Andrew?

[00:00:46] Andrew Gilley: Well, I’ll start with what advertising itself is, and I think it’s a little more specific than just informing somebody that you can buy a product, that’s just regular communication.

Advertising as an industry came into its own about the 1860s alongside the Industrial Revolution, where it became an industry in its own right.

Due to the rapid expanse of products and people looking to tap into new markets, there had to be new ways to set apart 12 different kinds of canned peaches, so advertising was the solution here.

Psychological manipulation techniques are what kind of lead things into unethical territory. You can see this very early on in the 1860s, with medical advertisements essentially trying to scare you into taking the pills.

This hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last 160 years. By this first World War, people were advertising things that pulled at your heartstrings and your masculinity – a little girl asking her dad, “Daddy, what did you do during the Great War?”. Then by the 1950s, we’re getting housewives being advertised drugs like Quaaludes to make their lives more bearable and things like that. We’ve incorporated fully undermining your emotions to make you buy something.

Because fundamentally, it’s to buy something you weren’t going to otherwise buy, so they have to convince you to do it somehow, and gender roles, guilt, anxiety, fear, all of these things are ways to get you to buy more.

[00:02:05] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, it’s really deceptive and manipulative, isn’t it? Instead of using the truth to persuade people to buy these products or services, they’re just using things like hyperbole, misleading data, or, unfortunately, in most cases, just outright lies.

According to brafton.com, ethical marketers sympathize with emotions, while unethical ones exploit them, and so, kind of like what you were saying, they exploit these negative emotions that we experience as just your average human on Earth – guilt, shame, fear – those are the big three, I think in particular, would you agree?

[00:02:44] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, I think a lot are offshoots of those particular three strong points.

So, why today though? I just talked about how it’s been along roughly since the industrial revolution. So, Wes, why are we talking about this today? Why is unethical advertising relevant?

[00:02:58] Wesley Jackson: With the advent of the Internet and social media, the average person is now seeing thousands of ads per day. We may not even realize it, but those are the numbers.

Being exposed to something like this at such a large scale on a daily basis inevitably has an effect on the way that we think, feel, and even perceive the reality around us.

For example, the UN published a report on misleading and aggressive baby formula advertising. The report examined how the marketing of formula milk actually influences our decisions on infant feeding. Advertising’s no joke. It has an undeniable effect upon our psyches.

[00:03:44] Andrew Gilley: Social media’s just exacerbating that problem too.

You’re scrolling your Facebook feed and you’re seeing ads in there too, and maybe your eyes are just glazing over, but sometimes they’re ads that look just like posts, or even worse, they’re posts that are secret ads. It’s like a stealth marketing tactic.

So, social media’s made this even less clear, the differences between an ad or a recommendation or just sharing something all gets kind of blended together then you just scroll your phone. That’s the new form of advertising now because most people aren’t watching TV.

The industry updates and adapts and they have to social media in ways that are more effective than at any point previous in history.

[00:04:24] Wesley Jackson: Frighteningly effective.

So, how is this important to our lives?

[00:04:30] Andrew Gilley: Well, a big issue is children. Children are looking at ads a lot by themselves, basically. It’s a very easy strategy to park your kid in front of an iPad and put YouTube on and let it go, and the YouTube algorithm will just keep serving them videos.

There’s YouTube Kids, but more often you’re just on regular YouTube, and when that happens, you start getting a whole bunch of advertisements that are not at all appropriate for children.

There’s a lot of difficulty surrounding that, because research from the American Pediatric Association says that children seven and younger can’t tell when they’re being manipulated.

Literally, they have no cognitive structures in place to understand that somebody is trying to influence their actions and change their behavior. You literally can’t comprehend this before seven, so that’s already a big problem.

From the same report: throughout the 2000s, you saw increases of what the article termed “adver-games”, that just advertised to the children, essentially. Like 95% of these games had ads in them, and the characters in the game encourage you to buy things. It’s perfectly designed to manipulate children.

Because when we were growing up, we had all the sugary breakfast cereals and stuff advertised to us, and that was manipulative, but it’s nothing compared to how personal this can be and how accurately they can target specific demographics.

[00:05:49] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, the personalization’s a really big one. So, unethical advertising is really insidious, like you said, it’s hard sometimes now to tell the difference between a post and an ad and vice-versa.

It works really slowly and secretly, so if we want to take more control of our own lives and the decisions that we make, we really need to arm ourselves against things like this.

Which means learning the tactics that are actually being employed here so that we can be mindful when an ad is trying to manipulate us past the age of seven.

[00:06:22] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, and Elaine Heiferman, an authored social critic, also makes a good point here: if you can’t find self-worth in the workplace or family or any other personal sphere, then you could try to buy it, or at least the illusion of it.

And that’s still very important today, the fact that since we’re so fragmented as a community, – just speaking generally as Americans right here – but, you know, communities that we used to have in school or work or churches or anything like that a lot of the times were just going to work and going home and not talking to anybody.

So, then commercialism as a strategy for improving your mental health becomes more and more appealing. And ads just sit there and reinforce that you need to buy things in order to feel better.

So, we touched on this already, but there’s a little more to say. What reason is there to act now? It’s relevant today, yes, but what’s knocking on the door here? What reason is there for urgency?

[00:07:15] Wesley Jackson: So, if we don’t do anything, this is only gonna get worse.

The more we let unethical advertising influence the way that we think and feel, the deeper this proverbial hole is that we are digging for ourselves, because no one’s gonna help us out of this hole that’s being dug deeper and deeper as unethical advertising worms its way deeper into our psyches.

Each time a new content format emerges, advertising is soon to follow, or advertising is even the one that’s catalyzing these new content formats, because they’re oversaturated in their current content formats as it is.

So, you know, we’ve got augmented reality, virtual reality, advertising’s gonna be there before we know it if it isn’t already. So, this hole only gets deeper as time goes on if we don’t do anything about it.

[00:08:04] Andrew Gilley: Absolutely. It’s important to remember the source of a lot of these advertising problems are from social media and tech companies themselves.

Google, Facebook, these are the biggest ad sellers in the world, and the algorithms they make are incredibly efficient and incredibly good at finding exploits in human behavior.

You could exploit certain demographics to make them do things. You can make 15-year-old girls click on more pictures by suggesting that they should be thin and pretty, and then you’re exacerbating eating disorders. Or you could suggest certain levels of status for acquiring a new product or something like that.

It becomes incredibly effective at doing all of this, at collecting all of your data, and we don’t know what the algorithm says, it’s a black box. We don’t really know what’s going on there, and I think relying on so much of our lives for something we can’t and aren’t allowed to see is dangerous.

So, that’s why we need to be aware.

[00:08:58] Wesley Jackson: Where do you feel this problem comes from, though?

[00:09:01] Andrew Gilley: Well, it’s always been sort of a problem, at least since industrialization. But, things are ramping up even more due to both cultural shifts and technology. Now you’re on your phone all the time while you’re in public and you are always ready to see an ad because any second you’re on your phone a program is going to try to make you watch an ad.

So, now your potential uptime is way higher. You can advertise in more places, in more different ways, and this combined with general social trends of isolation and intensifying pressure on the most vulnerable groups of people as targets of predatory advertising, like kids and young women and minorities in the United States, the effects of advertising are even more intensified upon them and then this is just a feedback loop from that point.

It uses stereotyping and guilt and manipulation to create the ads that create the attitudes that further that kind of consumerist idea. It’s not just the ads themselves, it’s the looping effect that the constant barrage of advertising has on us.

[00:10:03] Wesley Jackson: It’s kind of like payday loans, right? It’s this predatory practice that is taking advantage of people who are already vulnerable and disenfranchised. It’s just sad that things like that exist and things like unethical advertising still exist.

I bet people, you know, 40 years back, 60 years back, 80 years back, probably would think that things would be better by now in this regard, that we would not have let advertising run so rampantly throughout the world and throughout our lives.

I think that – this is my American perspective here again – it’s largely due to this hyper-competitive nature of our capitalistic society. It propels people to use any means necessary, basically, not just to survive, but to ascend the rungs of the class ladder. Even if it means climbing upon the backs of one’s fellow humans, and it’s just really sad.

[00:11:00] Andrew Gilley: It is, it is. And ultimately online is a big help with doing that, because when you’re online collecting mass data, you’re not interviewing people at the mall, seeing what their shopping preferences are. Everybody’s reduced to numbers and lines on a spreadsheet.

Once you’re at that point, it’s too abstract, and you don’t care what you’re doing to the numbers on the spreadsheet, that’s just the thing you need to do to make more money.

[00:11:23] Wesley Jackson: That’s so true. I was working in advertising and digital marketing for six years, and that was the number one factor that caused me to leave. It was just this complete lack of human connection, and they were just numbers.

For example, I never once met client’s customers, not once. Never even saw them. Never even talked to them, because I already had all of this data on them. I had a picture, an idea of who they were, and that was enough for me to target them with advertising that worked.

It’s just scary, the effect that this has on people, it’s very dehumanizing.

[00:12:04] Andrew Gilley: Yeah. It’s literally what stereotyping is. And from the paper I cited earlier about advertising to children, more fast food and sugar beverages are advertised to African-American, Hispanic, and low-income communities.

Nearly 40% of ads targeted toward them are for fast food and other restaurants. You’re advertising these things to people who already don’t have access to healthy food because they live in a food desert. Something like that reinforces existing inequalities in American society.

Advertising just compounds these effects because compounding these effects is profitable. It’s the cyclical nature of the changing perceptions that are brought about by advertising. It’s not one-to-one.

It’s not that I see an ad for Tiffany’s and then suddenly go out and buy a Tiffany’s ring. It’s now I’m thinking about Christmas shopping. Oh, well what would my wife like for Christmas?

Now, I’m thinking about shopping and now they’ve already won, if they already get you to think about shopping and consuming, because that’s the real goal. It doesn’t have to be as specific as ” advertise X product, sell X product”, it’s sometimes just “create the conditions in which the product will sell”.

[00:13:07] Wesley Jackson: It’s kind of like the concept of agenda-setting in mainstream media news, right?

They’re not telling you what to think per se – even though a lot of the time they do – they’re telling you what to think about, and in your case, it’s shopping for Christmas. It’s priming you to get into this buying mode.

[00:13:24] Andrew Gilley: Yep, absolutely. So this all sounds very bad, so just kind of to sum it up here, why should we care?

[00:13:33] Wesley Jackson: Because we’re taking advantage of the disenfranchised, the disabled, the mentally ill, the children, the elderly.

Unethical advertising preys upon people’s insecurities and anxieties, which these groups in particular have a lot of, because they live upon the “fringes” of our society, so to speak, and they lack the social support that most of us take for granted.

For example, Juul, the vape manufacturer, had to pay a 438.5 million dollar settlement because it was marketing to teens. But this is practically just seen as, you know, like the cost of doing business. What does this fine actually do to the company? Why do we still let companies like this exist after knowingly doing things such as this? It’s messed up.

And I know that they are currently still proposing a ban, but that’s in the process of being appealed already as it is. So, why should we care? Because this is just flat out wrong. It’s inhumane.

Unethical advertising, it takes advantage of our deepest hopes, and more often than not our deepest fears.

It manipulates us to line these megacorporations’ pockets with ill-gotten gains. This is unfair. There’s no consent here. It’s a completely one-sided transaction.

I don’t remember signing a contract when I came into this world that agreed to being inundated with ads every single day of my life. It’s time we arm ourselves against this.

According to Forbes, only 17% of consumers believe that personalized ads are ethical. So why isn’t much being done about this?

[00:15:18] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, there’s just not really a route for us to complain about it, because the people selling the ads have all the power here.

There’s one additional angle that I do wanna talk about here, and that’s the aesthetic one. You can see posters, videos, literally every single medium comes with a corresponding adaptation for advertising.

There’s not really a way to out-think that, but what it does is it waters it all down. When you see the absurd Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad for Black Lives Matter or something like that, that was just total performative nonsense, that was so bad. It was one of the worst things I’d ever seen.

Or you’re looking at the Tiffany example I said earlier; Tiffany’s will display a happy family inside a great home, filled with warm Christmas music, it’s a return to a past that never really existed, basically.

So, that’s the kind of feeling they kinda want to drug in you and this kind of effect, this is what brings up, like I mentioned, the consumerist idea. If you buy these things, you can return to that past that never existed.

It’s the art in advertising that convinces people that these fake paths exist, but they never did, and they’re selling you a lie.

[00:16:26] Wesley Jackson: That just reminded me of comments I see on YouTube videos of Japanese city pop music, where these people have nostalgia for a time and place that they were never even a part of.

It’s weird, isn’t it?

[00:16:39] Andrew Gilley: It’s a very powerful force and not just for actual stuff you’ve seen in your life. Nostalgia can be fueled by almost anything.

[00:16:46] Wesley Jackson: So, how does this all tie back to the larger topic of habits then?

[00:16:51] Andrew Gilley: Well, the fundamental goal of advertising is to modify your behavior – you’re supposed to do something different, you’re supposed to buy the product when you wouldn’t have bought the product before.

Essentially you wanna make sure that you’re doing things for the right reason. I’m not saying don’t buy anything that’s advertised, that’s not a thing you can actually do.

I’m not even saying that you need to ignore all advertising when you’re shopping, but you need to be aware of the ways that this gets in your head and undermines you.

I feel this a lot whenever I see the psychiatric medication ads on TV. Every time, they’re just like, “you’re a burden on your friends and family” if you’re not taking, I don’t know, Abilify or something. I’m just like, “oh man, could I be better if I was on these med-” and I just have to snap myself out of it, because this is a lie.

It’s one of the most insidious forms of it because it’s about your health. And when you’ve got those forces, it’s gonna put you into bad habits. It’s gonna make reaching for a beer seem like the better option, because you’ve been thinking about beer all day because they advertise beer all day.

It’s gonna make you spend money you don’t want to, to try to impress people you don’t like, because you think it might work because of a vague idea. You start to not be able to pin down where these ideas are coming from, right? And they’re just kind of trickling into your brain through ads, and this happens to literally everybody. Nobody is immune to it.

But, it doesn’t really have to be this way. It doesn’t have to be that advertising serves the social function of getting you to spend more on bad products, it could be something genuinely informative; but that’s not what we have right now.

We gotta chuck the whole thing out.

[00:18:14] Wesley Jackson: The psychiatric medication one is a good one. Do you feel bad? Well, guess what? You’re making your friends feel bad too. Yeah.

It’s “take this medication” – super manipulative -” so that you stop ruining everything for everyone.” (laughs). Oh, oh, yeah.

Unethical advertising at large, you know, it’s acting upon this thing that’s called the habit loop, right?

So, there’s a cue, there’s a routine, and then there’s a reward. This is the three parts of the habit loop. So, in this case, the queue is a problem. The routine is a solution, and then the reward is a benefit. And this is all product-centric.

These advertisers aim to subliminally affect people’s psyches at this fundamental level, you know, the emotional level, so that their products or services are ultimately invading the home and becoming a nearly inseparable part of people’s lives.

I’ll take myself for example, I refuse to use any other brand than Heinz for my ketchup, and that’s because that is the brand that was inside my house as I was growing up.

[00:19:23] Andrew Gilley: Yeah, those things just kind of stick around and it’s mostly just inertia, cuz like you have to have a reason to switch, but you don’t have one, because other varieties of ketchup don’t really taste any better, or at least to you. I can’t speak for all ketchup lovers.

[00:19:37] Wesley Jackson: I’m a ketchup connoisseur, Andrew. It’s Heinz or bust. (laughs)

[00:19:41] Andrew Gilley: Sorry to spoil the next episode. That’s what it’s all gonna be about is ketchup.

So, on an individual level, what can we do about this problem? We’re not going to overthrow Google’s near monopoly on advertising at this point, so, how do we help ourselves and our friends and our communities?

[00:19:59] Wesley Jackson: We have to learn to identify when unethical advertising is being employed. Whether it’s photoshopped images, misleading facts, data without sources, or more often than not nowadays, this subliminal grey area of influencer marketing.

Unfortunately at this time, the responsibility lies on our shoulders to do the research necessary to see through this.

[00:20:26] Andrew Gilley: Summed up quite well. Also, you should get an ad blocker if you haven’t already. But yeah, it really comes down to making sure that you are having the correct ideas.

And where do correct ideas come from?

They come from social practice, they come from community, they come from interacting with your fellow people, learning from each other, talking to each other, and lifting each other up.

Advertising is antithetical to that. It wants to do anti all of that.

So, what we need to do is to learn to form these kind of connections, to have an alternate evaluation path. Because even Google at this point, if you Google products, it’s just a page of ads.

So, one data that isn’t controlled by these big companies, which is good, and two, the recentering of things that aren’t advertised around. Community, uh, compassion and acceptance there. And not in the fake, bad pandering way that many corporations are doing and will continue to do well in the future.

But a real authentic attempt at understanding and an attempt at recognizing when people are being undermined, not just by ads, that’s just our example here, but forces outside of their control that you can help them understand and get away from.

I think ultimately that’s really the goal.

[00:21:41] Wesley Jackson: Yeah, these companies really just need to figure out a way, a business model, that does not include advertising. I know with the myriad of human minds that are being employed at these corporations, I’m pretty sure they can come up with a better model than one that is completely centered around advertising.

[00:22:02] Andrew Gilley: Like I said, it doesn’t have to be this way, but as long as the goal is to make the most money as possible, sadly, I’m not sure we’re going to see that.

[00:22:09] Wesley Jackson: Well, luckily we can do things to stop it. We gotta band together, not just on the individual level, but we need to start movements essentially against this.

It’s nice to see people or organizations like the UN, doing things to try and stop some of this. But, like you said, it’s about community, we need to approach this at the grassroots, ground level.

[00:22:30] Andrew Gilley: Right, and movements like body positivity against the immense amount of Photoshopping that happens on social media; these things all tie together too, because these are the images that are being used for advertising.

You know, being against racism, this is the same thing – racial stereotypes are used in advertising to greate effect. All of these different things compile and create a force against this kind of community, a false division.

[00:22:55] Wesley Jackson: Yeah. Not all is lost, we can do this.

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