001D. Newsletter Highlights: February 2023

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Key Quote:

“Advertising exists to sell something. And to sell something, you need to have a problem. And if there isn’t a problem, you need to invent one.” – Andrew Gilley

Episode Summary:

• Episode 1: Wes discussed his experience of feeling trapped in the toxic environment of the advertising industry, where people were reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet.
• Episode 2: Wes and the interviewer discussed the unethical nature of current advertising that’s prevalent on social media, such as undermining people’s self-esteem and taking advantage of racism and sexism.
• Episode 3: Kyle Golding was asked to produce an advertisement for a calcium supplement claimed to cure cancer, which he refused due to ethical reasons. He learnt that taking shortcuts does not lead to long-term success and that relationships with genuine value exchanges should be prioritized.
• Unethical advertising uses emotions to manipulate individuals into buying a product.
• Online advertising and social media have caused people to become more callous, exhibited by treating people as numbers and analytics.
• Confirmation bias can trick people into buying something without thinking it through and should be mitigated against by staying vigilant and making sure that decisions align with our own interests.
• It is important to be aware of these tactics in order to make choices that empower us, rather than hold us back.

Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Andrew Gilley: Welcome to Surviving Humanity: A Self-Help Podcast where we shift your perspective to help you overcome the obstacles in your life. I’m one of your co-hosts, Andrew Gilley, and today I’ll be reading to you highlights from this month’s newsletter focusing on unethical advertising and habits, as well as looking back at the last three episodes.

You can sign up to get these newsletters straight to your inbox from the homepage of our website at survivinghumanity.net

So, let’s get started.

Looking back at the last three episodes that we’re releasing, our first episode looked at Wes’ experience working in the toxic environment in the advertising industry. Wes was finding success in the field, but ultimately was becoming more and more unhappy because of the toxic attitudes of his partners and the dehumanizing nature of the work that he was doing.

Wes was dealing with people reduced to spreadsheet numbers all day, and he felt this was having a negative impact in his life. It was an emotionally tricky situation. What do you do when you’re good at something but you aren’t happy with it? And that’s always one of those things because we don’t always get to choose what we do.

We’re often reduced to our jobs or reduced to our roles in that kind of context. And as such, you can’t really break out individually in that kind of environment. There’s some times you have to do it, but it can have really serious effects, and Wes talks about those on that episode. How depressed that sort of thing can make you, if you’re living a life that really doesn’t feel like it’s living up to your values, especially if you’ve got toxic people inside that environment trying to keep you in one spot for their own reasons or just because that they think this is the way things should be.

This is why knowing what your values are and trying to home in on them is so important. We can’t always avoid being a victim of circumstance, like getting trapped in a job you hate for some reason or another.

But we can do our best not to get, too wrapped up in it and try to remain focused and look for ways that we can do things that are better for ourselves and better for the world. I think that’s a really key thing to take out of Wes’ story there is to figure out what ways you can line up doing something that aligns with your values and making the world better, and also that you enjoy.

And that’s a balancing act. You’re not always going to get it. You’re not always going to be working a job that you like. And sometimes things are gonna be really bad, like in Wes’ story, in a very toxic environment.

We can see that advertising as an industry has a technique where they’re undermining your self-esteem. And even if you know about it, like people working in the industry, it still affects you. It’s still going to have that kind of psychic toll on you every time that you’re treated as a mere number on a spreadsheet.

Because ultimately when you’re looking at advertising, it’s that kind of pyramid structure of different kinds of data and analytics about how good your ads are, and then you forget the human element entirely and it leads to an industry that’s both bad to work in and bad for people.

So, Wes’ experience there really informed his view on unethical advertising in general and the feeling of working there. He told that story and I’m glad he shared that because it sounds awful and it’s a good way to demonstrate how you could lose yourself if you’re not careful in that kind of environment; could be very cutthroat.

Our next episode was Wes and my conversation about unethical advertising. We focused a lot on the technological origins of our current problems, as well as who’s most impacted by unethical advertising. We talk about social media a lot in general, and I think it’s a very important factor here, because now you can’t really unplug from advertising.

There were still billboards everywhere and ads on subways and any TV looked at, but there was a point I can remember in my life where you didn’t really see advertising all the time. It was limited to what your attention was on: the TV or the movie you’re watching.

There was a medium for it that was separate from daily life, but we don’t have that here anymore. Social media as an activity isn’t really separate from our lives. It’s intertwined with it.

So, social media being the focus of advertising now makes things very difficult on that level because none of these social media websites, they’re not after your best interests, they’re advertising platforms. Their goal is to get you to buy and click ads and algorithms are a good way of doing this. And algorithms decide who needs to look at these ads.

It’s gonna be the most effective things you could do here, which are generally pretty unethical.

You’re going to be undermining people’s self-esteem. You’re going to be taking advantage of racism, sexism, any already entrenched prejudices and dialing them up to make people feel bad.

You have to be undermined in some way by an advertisement. You’re being told “you are not whole unless you buy this.” Because advertising exists to sell something and to sell something, you need to have a problem.

And if there isn’t a problem, you have to invent one and you can invent a problem very easily. There’s a lot of ways to do it, and we see that reflected in advertising, like with beauty products, for example, things of that nature, there was not a need that existed before some of these things were created and then pressured onto people.

Products that do nothing head on exist purely to have something to buy. And social media allows this to get very targeted. And children and teenagers, and even most adults don’t know what’s real and what isn’t online, sometimes. It can be difficult.

They disguise ads as regular posts in both influencers and regular companies. So, we can see the downstream effects of this plenty – young people, girls in particular, face increasing rates of body image issues. We can see the effects this kind of advertising has and it’s only getting more and more intense.

And the problem is that when these experiences aren’t separated, you hanging out with your friends is the same space that you’re getting advertised to. So, it’s hard to extract that because your experience is always suffused with ads. And then it seems like it’s coming from your peers too, because it’s all in the same space.

And that’s a way to get everybody believing something, even if nobody does, because it’s presented as a common idea in the spaces you’re in online. And unethical strategies for advertising fit this extremely well because they allow you to cut right to the chase to twist the knife a little bit so that you’re forced to buy something so that you can feel better, or you can fit in or improve your life in some way. But it doesn’t have to actually improve your life, all you have to do is buy it.

So, I think social media and technology is a really important facet of this, and we’ll talk about this more. It’s a big influence on all of our lives, even if you aren’t on it, and most of us are. It controls the ways in which ads are directed and targeted at this point, and it’s becoming increasingly blurred, the line between ad and post.

And a place where you get ads versus a place to just hang out. It’s like plastering advertisements all over the coffee shop. Social media really lets ad companies take it to the next level, and we have to be wary of that.

Our last episode was an episode that Wes did with Kyle Golding, an interview episode. Kyle Golding had to stand up for his personal value of ethics when his boss asked him to produce an advertising campaign promoting a calcium supplement as a potential cancer cure.

After looking into it, Kyle discovered the evidence his boss was basing the claims on had been debunked in 1935. Not exactly ideal.

Confronting the marketing director and head of legal yielded no response, they wanted to move ahead with it anyway, and when Kyle confronted the CEO, he refused to budge.

So, this left Kyle with two options. Go down with what he surely saw as a sinking ship, or stay true to his values and quit the company.

He quit.

Luckily, within 24 hours he found a new job working for what ended up being one of his best bosses ever, one who taught him a lot about business ethics. This whole experience was a powerful lesson for Kyle to continue prioritizing ethical decisions over taking shortcuts for quick financial gain, which led to him emphasizing building relationships and mutually beneficial value exchanges moving forward.

This has helped him realized that doing the right thing, even when it’s hard, is always the right choice. And that taking shortcuts typically leads to unsustainable success and failure in the long-term.

He urges us that society needs to slow down and that we all, not just advertisers, need to focus more on building relationships and creating more value as opposed to chasing quick fame or money. He ends with the statement that working with others and sharing value will ultimately benefit everyone in the long run.

I really like Kyle’s point here that we have unsustainable success and failure because that’s a key point that isn’t appreciated enough, is that success can also be a stress point in life.

A long time ago, I remember looking at a worksheet in therapy that was talking about the most stressful things somebody could go through.

At the top was divorce. Second is the death of a spouse. That does make sense to me. And the third one was marriage, which I found very interesting. But, I am married and it is true. Weddings are very stressful. So, it’s not just negative stress that really has that kind of impact. It’s also good things that could shake up your life.

A lot of addicts relapse after good things. It’s that powerful shock of emotion that sends you off balance. When we take shortcuts we’re also creating something that really can’t stand up. You can see when you build something on shaky ground, it’ll always fall over. It happens every time.

And a lot of advertising industry has been built on this concept of getting yours and getting out. Most industries are built on this, see the tech bubble and everything like that.

But going slowly and deliberately, like Kyle says, leads to better results because it builds something strong from a foundation versus a get rich quick scheme, which are really far more prevalent than we care to admit in the US.

So, when we look to unethical advertising as an example, we can see an instantiation of a general truth – that shortcuts usually don’t work, and trying to cheat your way into a victory will often in the long-term lead to a defeat. If you continue to participate in unethical advertising behavior, for example, you’ll get left behind as more people realize what’s happening and object to it.

So, if there’s any hope in advertising at all, it has to be through some kind of sustained way that promotes honesty. If this is even possible or manageable, I have no idea. But what I do know is that this situation can’t really continue the way it is because of the profound influences it’s particularly having on children.

If advertising’s around all of us all the time, we can’t remove ourselves from that environment.

It wires our brains in ways that wire up dopamine with purchasing, even more than it already has been. And that’s going to make us all profoundly unhappy if our happiness is based on buying something.

Three quick key bullet points from Kyle’s interview there: sometimes the decisions we’re most afraid of are the ones we need to make. Every decision that we make that really impacts our lives is gonna feel scary no matter what.

Two, a habitual focus on making quick money can lead to making unethical choices, but too much focus on perfection can also be detrimental.

This is a good point and one we’ll explore more in our habits episodes, when we talk about daily routines next week.

Three. Acting out of self-interest is ultimately counterproductive as the successes that result from this are ultimately not sustainable.

And I think this is roughly right. Like I said, you need strong foundations to keep moving forward and to build on something as opposed to building just another link in a chain that’ll disappear as soon as you look away.

For our last segment here, I’m going to talk about a couple highlights from our blog. The first one is from our article “A Look into the Secret World of Unethical Advertising”.

Unethical advertisers are desperate and cunning enough that they won’t hesitate to stoop to the lowest of levels. By being conscious of signs of unethical advertising practices, you can protect yourself from organizations that may attempt to exploit or mislead you into buying something. The easiest way to do this is by being mindful of how an advertisement makes you feel. If it’s angry, alone, disliked, sad, afraid, or embarrassed, then it’s worth a second look.

These emotions are key to getting you to do something as opposed to just feeling something when it’s on TV. You have to be undermined in some way. As I mentioned earlier, you have to feel that some part of you isn’t whole and what emotions you’re feeling are a good way to keep track of this in the moment when you’re getting your heartstrings tugged by, usually for me it’s the sad animal shelter commercials, those always get me.

When you’re feeling something in an advertisement, especially if you feel left out of a social group, that’s a lot of the time something trying to sell you something specifically to make that feeling go away.

But the ad isn’t really the source of the feeling. It’s the starting point, but the real source of a feeling like that is broad. It’s the way society’s taught you that you do or don’t belong in other contexts. It’s how you learn to express emotion as a child. It’s whether or not you’re in a relationship.

All of these things are going to make each individual person react differently. Their life stories lead up to the moment where they see an ad and then they feel sad about it and they wanna buy something to make themselves feel better. But when we reduce ourselves to this and we avoid our emotions through the act of purchasing something, then we’re really doing ourselves a disservice.

And that’s not anyone’s fault. That’s what advertising is supposed to do. That’s what commerce is supposed to do, and they’re really good at it. And even better with social media. So it’s not anyone’s fault, but mine those emotions and make sure that you locate what you’re feeling in you and in your life and you know why you feel the way you feel after an ad triggers that emotional response.

You don’t wanna stop at the ad. If you stop at the ad, then buying something seems like the solution, but it isn’t. What the ad’s getting at, that’s the thing they want you to focus on. But the thing won’t solve the issue. What solves the issue is introspection and analysis of the feeling and talking to people and expression, and pretty much anything but buying new shoes or whatever they’re trying to sell you.

Next, we have “The Surprising Impact of Online Advertising on Our Behavior” . Quote, before you know it, you’re knowingly lying in all your ads. You’re advertising e-cigarettes to kids. After all, children, seven years old or younger, can’t even tell when ads are manipulating them. You’re making the algorithmically sorted teenagers with eating disorders see your bikinis. You’re lightening your model’s skin.

You’re doing all of this to make the number go up. You’re not thinking about people anymore. You’re thinking about those precious seconds of attention, those eyeballs, those numbers. You’re only really thinking about yourself.

This is a key demonstration of how you can get really callous online. Advertising and social media both play a role in this.

Advertising in general is about those analytics and numbers and has been since its inception. But social media really lets you get an almost infinite amount of data, so much data that a lot of it is useless. And the things that are effective aren’t going to be the things that are ethical.

You’re making sure that the most vulnerable people are seeing it. That’s your goal. It isn’t to prevent harm, is to do as much harm as possible so that harm is solved with a product. It becomes an ultimately very self-centered act because you’re just another person in a long line of people, it’s just another link in the chain.

If you weren’t advertising this way, somebody else would, and that’s true. Once you start doing this, one, it’s bad for you as a person. It makes you a worse person to think of people as numbers and analytics. It makes you less likely to think of yourself with compassion, because the way you treat yourself is the way you treat other people and vice-versa a lot of the time.

You’re going down a rabbit hole where you’re seeing trends and not who those trends are affecting and why. And a lot of this relies on, as we mentioned, children who can’t even tell when they’re being manipulated by advertisements. It’s a rough battle and it’s starting at a very early age now, so it’s important to pay attention and to recognize when our children are being manipulated too.

It’s all around us, unfortunately. So that kind of vigilance is important to see these patterns and to not only rescue ourselves from them, but try to rescue others from this kind of media manipulation.

Finally, we have “How Confirmation Bias in Advertising Tricks You Into Buying”. And here I quote, ” Confirmation bias causes people to think they’re making a choice rather than being influenced by outside forces that led them to buy something without thinking it through. As a result, confirmation bias can be very dangerous, especially when considering financial decisions. Thus, it should be both acknowledged and carefully managed.”

It is very easy to sell somebody something they already want. It’s very easy to tell somebody what they already think. It’s easy. We love to hear our beliefs confirmed, every single person. We love hearing what we already think.

So, if we’re already primed for that, then we have to watch for it. It’s like with habits, anything too easy is bound to have some baggage with it. And here, if you’re just reaffirming your own beliefs over and over again, that’s going to leave you in a spot that’s too comfortable, because a lot of times our daily actions are mostly habit.

Our actions are automated throughout the day. So, with that, we’re mostly doing things we’ve already done, getting up, brushing our teeth, going to work, eating, what have you. Most of those things are automatic and a lot of our exposure to things like social media, TV, movies, all those sources of ads, all are automatic too.

So, if we’re engaging in confirmation bias when we’re buying things, then we’re not critically examining other aspects of our lives either.

Our confirmation bias makes us think we’re making an authentic choice every single time. But sometimes we’re just doing it out of habit, and that’s not necessarily bad. I do lots of things out of habit that don’t really matter.

Putting my toothbrush on the right side of the sink inside of the left doesn’t matter in the long term, but it starts mattering when I’m buying, a computer because of preconceived ideas I’ve had since I was a child.

Or, I’m buying stock or I start investing, and I don’t know where these ideas are coming from, and now suddenly we’re talking about big issues like what’s ethical to invest in. These things get much wider, and confirmation bias is just as strong there. Even when we’re making important decisions or less important decisions, it’s always present.

So, make sure you’re making your own choices. Because a lot of the times we just live on autopilot, and next week we will talk about how autopilot can be a very bad thing. We can make it work for us, but overall, our habits really run our lives.

And if we’re looking at how our lives are run by our routines, then it’s important to stay on our toes for advertisements as well as to work out alternate solutions to figure out, “Okay, how do I make sure that I am doing what I want to be doing?” And that’s what we’ll talk about next week.

Thank you so much for listening. Tune in next Tuesday to hear that story from me for the first part of our best daily routines for a healthy life and their relation to habits.

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You can find links to our Patreon and the challenge in the show notes and we’ll see you next week.

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