It’s one of my favourite lines from Tyler Durden in Fight Club: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”. Most of us nod our heads in agreement, however, like drug addicts, we find it hard to stop.
“We believe we are the consumers, but we are the consumed.”Bryant McGill
It’s not just advertising that plays havoc with our senses. It’s media in general. In fact, traditional adverts are the least of our concerns. Our attention drops when we’re shown an advert and given the option, we skip it. Google’s search ads are more of an annoyance, but hardly a threat, and if you’re like me, you’ve adopted “banner blindness”. The bigger problems are adverts we don’t know are adverts, Netflix, social media, and peer pressure from friends and family. These are situations where we drop our guard and give our attention which opens our minds to suggestion and manipulation.
I find the argument that humans have free will to be naive. It’s well documented that the radio was instrumental in the brainwashing of the German population by the Nazi party, radios were ubiquitous back then as is today’s brainwashing device the smartphone.
Those of us that live in countries without dictators have corporations and advertisers to contend with instead. Advertisers started in print, moved into radio, and then TV. The Internet was a tougher nut to crack as advertisers struggled with poor-performing banner ads. After years of evolution, the advent of smartphones and Web 2.0 (“The Social Web”) it morphed into a powerful and seductive formula that advertisers and dictators around the world love today.
With all the information we foolishly share online, hyper-personalised messaging is now possible, and the influencers we follow are prepared to dupe us into buying anything that makes them a quick buck.
The household brand I work for pays hundreds of social media influencers whenever a new product is launched and in exchange, they pretend to like the product. We used to watch shopping channels on TV, now we scroll social media, and celebrities working as gloried sales assistants sell us shit we don’t need.
“Kim Kardashian has promoted everything from appetite-suppressing lollipops to melon-flavored liqueur to toilet paper, but it was her foray into the murky world of cryptocurrencies that got her into hot water.”Reuters — “Kim Kardashian pays $1.26 million fine for paid crypto ad, SEC says”
We’re bombarded with disingenuous content. Even the funny viral clips we see and share online aren’t what they seem. In an Economist podcast (you can listen below), they describe how “content factories” make a “fortune” by producing “addictive videos for social media”. Which “on a good day […] could earn […] enough to buy a Tesla”.
I had assumed these viral clips were made by the general population as most appear to be filmed in the home and lack professionalism. But this is part of the ruse, as the Economist reports: “I spent a day filming […] at Anna Rothfuss’s rented condo. Lax’s team often shoot in each other’s homes, to give videos the authentically amateurish feel that Facebook’s algorithms favour (the professional lighting rigs are just out of shot)”.
You could argue that no harm’s done, so what if professional teams are producing video content for our amusement? I’d argue that it’s deceptive, it’s just not as funny when you realise it’s staged by actors with professional film and production crews.
We’re constantly being tricked by the media we consume, we have to be skeptics and question what we see and hear. But for those that don’t, they’re part of a technological brainwashing and advertiser paradise.
Dopamine is often thought of as the naughty hormone but it’s needed for our survival. We need a reward to take action as is described in Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke. “Genetically engineered mice unable to make dopamine will not seek out food, and will starve to death even when food is placed just inches from their mouth”.
In today’s world, our dopamine reward system has been hijacked, nothing else explains why “buying shit we don’t need” makes us feel good. Being rewarded with dopamine helped with our survival as it was a motivator to gain surplus supplies to survive the winter. Today we accumulate surplus money and shoes instead.
Another part of the genetic explanation is conspicuous consumption which is when we buy things we don’t need to increase our social status and mate potential (regardless of whether we’re single). When we boil it down, we’re often buying shit we don’t need (at a subconscious level) in an effort to propagate our DNA.
Working jobs we hate
According to Gallup and YouGov, disengaged employees make up about 60% of the worker population. The way I see it, this is good for consumerism. If your work lacks purpose then you’re more likely to need a dopamine rush from shopping. Imagine if everyone had jobs they loved and couldn’t wait to start work. Amazon’s sales would plummet. Bored workers (especially those in an office) make great shoppers.
The same applies to social media as bored populations make great social media users. The more media we consume, the more brainwashed we become. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, brainwashing is “the process of making someone believe something by repeatedly telling them that it is true”. That “something” on social media is who to be as a person via numerous micro-comparisons. Many of us consume, hundreds if not thousands of TikTok, Facebook, and Insta posts every week, all of which help to form our “free will”.
The way Putin goes about brainwashing might seem crude with government-owned TV stations. Those of us that live in countries not run by dictators might think we’re too smart and aren’t susceptible to being told what to think. But our brainwashing machines are subtle. It’s not a tyrant we have to contend with, it’s self-learning algorithms instead.
The English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley was born in 1894 and his well-known quote has never been more apt than today. It helps explain why we’re chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.
“People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”