Messing With Our Minds: The Ever Finer Line Between News and Advertising
Kingsley Dennis, Truthout | News Analysis
The manufacturing of consent is endemic within modern societies. Throughout history, the need to "persuade and influence" has always been manipulated by those people in power as a means to maintain authority and legitimacy. In more recent years, the overall manipulation of the mass public mind has become less about making speeches and more about becoming a pervasive presence within the lives of each individual.
Edward Bernays has often been called "the father of public relations," as it was his teachings and research that spurred the postwar years of propaganda. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, utilized psychological and psychoanalytical ideas to construct an informational system - propaganda - capable of manipulating public opinion. Bernays, apparently, considered that such a manipulative apparatus was necessary because society, in his regard, was composed of too many irrational elements - the people - which could be dangerous to the efficient mechanisms of power (or so-called "democracy"). Bernays wrote that, "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society." Bearing in mind that Bernays was working in the early 1920s, we can expect the mechanisms of propaganda - mass manipulation - to have progressed to a very advanced degree since then. Within the context of our modern mass societies, propaganda has morphed into a mechanism for not only engineering public opinion, but also for consolidating social control.
Modern programs of social influence could not exist without the mass media. Today it exists as a combination of expertise and knowledge from technology, sociology, social behaviorism, psychology, communications and other scientific techniques. Almost every nation needs a controlled mainstream media if it is to regulate and influence its citizenry. By way of the mainstream media, a controlling authority is able to exert psychological influence upon people's perception of reality. This capacity works hand in hand with the more physical components, such as enforcing the legal system and national security laws (surveillance and monitoring). State control, acting as a "psychological machine," instigates specific psychological manipulations in order to achieve desired goals within its national borders (and often beyond). Examples of these psychological manipulations include the deliberate use of specific cultural symbols and embedded signifiers that catalyze conditioned reflexes in the populace. These triggers have included the words "red" and "communist" during the United States' 1950s McCarthyism, and "Muslim terrorist" during the currently constructed war on terror. Targeted reactions can thus be achieved, making the populace open to further manipulation in this state. This is a process of psychic re-formation that works repeatedly to soften up the people through continued and extensive exposure to particular stimuli. These are the symbols, artificial and human-made, that we live by in order to allow for the construction of a compliant society.
 Advertisers are aware that a person's consciousness passes on messages indirectly to the body in the form of galvanic skin response, pupil response, electrical nerve response, etcetera, and so every element of the screen promotion must elucidate the correct conscious reception. In order to achieve this correct set of attractor patterns, all elements of the advertising package are deliberately worked on: the music, the visuals, the script, the voice. Interesting, symbolic strong attractors that have the most impact to persuade the audience include visuals such as smiley faces and cute animals (dogs wagging their tails and kittens purring). In terms of voiced attractors, they include words such as "honesty," "integrity," "freedom," "hope and change," "friendship," etcetera. From here, it is clear how politicians use a great deal of these attractor patterns in their speeches and promotional material.Today's media, which includes the dominant presence of advertising, extensively uses the notion of "attractors" and "attractor patterns" to target audience consciousness. This type of symbol manipulation is often referred to in the business as neuromarketing. Mainstream media corporations are using the huge growth in global communications to further shape their science of targeting human consciousness. In the case of neuromarketing, many advertisers first audience-test their commercials using brain-scanning techniques in order to know which part of a person's brain is being activated by the specific strong attractors. For example, it has been discovered that specific attractors can bypass the logical part of the brain and impact the emotional part. In such cases as the film industry, the advertisers place an award symbol (such as an Oscar or Golden Globe) which has proven to be an effective "strong attractor" which influences the emotional part of the brain. The philosophy here is to adjust the level of consciousness of an advertisement in relation to the measurable level of consciousness of the consumer.
Other methods of blatant propaganda include governing bodies using what can be called the "reality of truth" by releasing seemingly accurate statistics that tell of plausible situations. This is the expert-in-the-white-lab-coat tactic. For such propaganda/information to be effective, it cannot be too far from the truth; in other words, it must have the appearance of reality. Trade, employment and financial figures are an example of this. And which members of the general public have the knowledge and/or resources to check and confirm such figures? Those people who do know are usually those who have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion, such as traders and financiers. And when a nation releases its unemployment figures, do the numbers really include the many who are jobless but not signing on, or are dispossessed or immigrants? As a norm, statistics of a negative connotation are usually drawn from the smallest possible pile. Once a false or doctored claim is disseminated and accepted by the public, it becomes established and hard to deconstruct or invalidate, unless persuasive anti-propaganda is just as effective.
Modern societies are set up to accommodate both individualism and the mass collective. Yet the forms that the accepted individualism takes are often a sheath to hide the workings of a mass psyche. It is what might be called the "allowed liberty" that is provided to the modern person in pursuit of material gains, as long as there exists a contribution to the overall plan of the ruling authority. Liberty, then, is an expression of mobility within a pre-described system: it does not denote liberty external to the system. Examples are the rock star clichés that the mainstream media love to promote and publish to adorn their front pages. Notable examples are the raging antics of performers destroying hotel rooms and throwing televisions out of the window - behavior which later got morphed into copycat corporate rock PR. In essence, such hotel-trashing "rebels" are allowed, and even encouraged, because their antics sell records. Rebelliousness in these forms is thus another contribution to a consumerist society, albeit through a different lens.Today, there are many forms in which individualism is allowed to manifest.
The display of diversity in the information coming from the mainstream media gives the illusion of independent reportage and news. Yet the mainstream media of any given nation or nations is owned by only a small handful of corporate entities with high-level state relations. An individual is thus attracted to a particular newspaper, for example, relative to their views, beliefs, lifestyles, etcetera - all of these being "diversified patterned behavior" within the system. The mainstream media caters to these needs by operating a variety of newspapers that support these mythical standpoints, whether they be politically left, right, left/right of centre, liberal, independent, this, that, or any other of the positions available for the "diversity within the unity" of the mass mind. Yet the shift toward propagating banal reality lies at the heart of the ever-increasing centralized control of the media. It is somewhat worrying to learn that most Western media organizations are owned by only a handful of giant corporations: News Corp; Viacom; Time Warner; Disney; Vivendi Universal, and Bertelsmann. For example, The Walt Disney Company is the largest entertainment and media multinational in the world. Disney owns the TV networks ABC, Disney Channel, ESPN, A&E and the History Channel, as well as publishing, merchandising and theatre subsidiaries. Disney also owns Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Miramax, Dimension and Buena Vista International, as well as 11 theme parks around the world. News Corp comes in next as the world's second-largest media multinational, with an incredible range of TV and satellite channels, magazine and newspaper holdings, record companies and publishing companies based worldwide, with a strong presence in Asian markets.
Similarly, Time Warner owns more than 50 magazines, a film studio as well as various film distributers, more than 40 music labels (including Warner Bros Records, Atlantic and Elektra) and several TV networks (such as HBO, Cartoon Network,and CNN). Viacom owns TV networks CBS, MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Paramount Pictures and nearly 2,000 cinema screens, as part of their media empire. Likewise, Vivendi Universal owns 27 percent of US music sales via labels such as Interscope, Geffen, A&M, Island, Def Jam, MCA, Mercury, Motown and Universal. They also own Universal Studios, Studio Canal, PolyGram Films, Canal+, and numerous Internet and mobile phone companies. Then there is Bertelsmann, which, as a global media corporation, runs Europe's second-largest TV, radio and production company (the RTL Group) with 45 TV stations and 32 radio channels, Europe's largest printing and publishing firm (Gruner + Jahr), the world's largest English-language general trade book publisher (Random House), the world's largest book and music club group (Direct Group) and an international media and communications service provider (Arvato AG).
In our media-saturated environments, people are allowed to live out their fantasies in what is considered a less harmful way to help alleviate the so-called "drudgery of repetitive lives." This construct also provides people with a conversation space and stalking point among friends and work colleagues, or offers a buffer zone to cover up the embarrassment of a non-communicative family. And if all hell breaks lose at work, at least you have "True Blood" or "Friends" waiting for you on the home screen!
In terms of mainstream news reporting, it is always important to check the source when reading a news item; that is, is it from an independent source or is it, "according to a government source," etcetera. The mainstream media is largely fed via global news services, the two largest being Reuters (now Thomson Reuters) and Associated Press. This again constitutes a centralization of news information. While both organizations do much fine and accurate news reporting - which, valuable as it is, may unfortunately be taken by some as adequate proof that the news is not manipulated - when such sources (especially through PR offices) disseminate information as "truthful news," they are doing nothing more than was parodied in Orwell's "1984" as Newspeak. Independent media, such as is now coming of age and maturity on the Internet, has served to counterneutralize some of the overwhelming persuasive power of the mainstream media propaganda. For this reason, there are concerted efforts underway to curtail the supposedly "wild" and "uncensored" nature of the Internet. In other words, this means that there is considerable corporate and political will to rein in the Internet under the umbrella of corporate and governmental/state control, or at least, to surveil its use.
What has changed the game plan over the past two decades has been the rise of distributed and decentralized global communications between individuals. The Internet in particular, as well as other forms of social media, have spurred the growth of individuals seeking information between and among themselves, a process which is often external to the consensus of various nation-states. This has had the effect of shifting people away from conditioned patterns of propaganda and belief systems. This bottom-up intervention has seriously compromised the patterning techniques of ruling authorities. There are now efforts underway to censor information sites that are critical of the state. It is therefore imperative that our independent media be protected, our social networks of free speech preserved, and our right to seek and speak the truth defended. Messing with our minds has no place in a truly democratic and egalitarian future.
This article is a Truthout original.
Kingsley Dennis PhD is a sociologist, freelance researcher and writer. He worked in the sociology department at Lancaster University, UK (2003-2008) and is the co-founder of WorldShift International. He currently lives in Andalusia, Spain and is working on new book material.