It was an innocent age where the major threats to freedom were mustachioed men with hydrogen bombs and the monopolistic tendencies of big business. In the paradoxical world of Clive Hamilton, the free market liberals of the 1950s never realised that the most serious threat to freedom would turn out to be people trying to sell things. Today marketers are probing our brains, gathering data on our buying habits and targeting our pre-teen children with manipulative campaigns they are ill prepared to resist.
But then again, it’s possible that a liberal like Hayek might have picked up a copy of Vance Packard‘s 1957 best seller, The Hidden Persuaders. If he had he might have read about how advertisers and public relations experts were drawing on the emerging sciences of the mind to probe our hidden weaknesses and shape our behaviour according to their wills.
I can’t help wondering what Clive would make of Burger King‘s Subservient Chicken — a website where visitors can issue instructions to man in a chicken suit and see them executed on screen. (Of course the chicken won’t comply with every request. If you tell him to ‘Go Vegan‘ he’ll march up to the camera and give you the finger.) According to the ad’s humble creators it was: "Quite possibly the most successful marketing website of all time. Over a billion hits. One hundred million unique visitors. Sales of Burger King’s chicken sandwiches doubled in a matter of weeks."
So if Clive, Vance and the creators of Subservient Chicken are right, what hidden weakness did American consumers succumb to when their attempts to dominate a virtual chicken-man ended with a burger purchase? Did the chicken violate their inner freedom?
While Clive complains about deception and fraud in advertising, it seems to me that if this campaign did have an impact on sales, it would probably have been through a relatively weak agenda-setting effect.
Here’s what Clive has to say in his latest book:
From his 1950s viewpoint, Hayek could not have imagined the extent to which the neoliberal revolution he spawned would lead to the emergence of societies where fraud and deception are endemic to the reproduction of the system — where pre-teen children without incomes are targeted by corporations in an attempt to build lifelong brand loyalty; where teenagers declare that the brands they wear and otherwise consume determine ‘who they are’; where both popular and classical culture are systematically mined for icons and images that can be used to sell products; where the intimate details of our personal lives are secretly collected and sold to marketing organisations; where sporting, artistic, literary and educational institutions have become the playing fields of advertisers; and where the essential data of our actions are provided overwhelmingly by a handful of media corporations. Hayek would be shocked to discover that his assured free sphere is no longer protected but has itself become the domain of the most powerful form of coercion, the psychological techniques of modern marketing. Even the neurochemical functioning of our brains (the mechanics of our thought processes) — perhaps the most private aspect of each of us — is being mapped by marketers so that they might manipulate our responses for commercial benefit (p 53).
And here’s Vance Packard:
Certain of the probers, for example, are systematically feeling out our hidden weaknesses and frailties in the hope that they can more efficiently influence our behavior. At one of the largest advertising agencies in America psychologists on the staff are probing sample humans in an attempt to find how to identify, and beam messages to, people of high anxiety, body consciousness, hostility, passiveness, and so on. A Chicago advertising agency has been studying the housewife’s menstrual cycle and its psychological concomitants in order to find the appeals that will be more effective in selling her certain food products.
Seemingly, in the probing and manipulating nothing is immune or sacred. The same Chicago ad agency has used psychiatric probing techniques on little girls.