Think about how many commercials vie for our attention. 150 years ago there were billboards and weird young kids yelling on street corners to sell papers, but if you chart the amount of advertising in the world you’ll notice an exponential upward swerve so severe it is hard to comprehend where we will be in another 150 years.
Billboards crowd our urban highways and city streets, radios run commercials as often as music, and television programming seems almost to be entirely dictated by advertisers. But an interesting thing has happened to television commercials in recent years.
The PVR, or DVR, has given the audience the ability to skip commercials. Provided one isn’t watching live TV, I see no reason anyone would consciously subject themselves to commercials when they have the opportunity to ignore them.
But I don’t like using the “Skip” function on my remote; I like to come back to a program clean after a commercial break, not accidentally skip twelve seconds into the show and then have to rewind. So I use the fast forward function and zoom through commercials until I know I’m close.
So instead of seeing the commercial narratives and hearing all that noisy advertising, I hear nothing and see a flash of images that usually culminate in some logo or slogan. I sometimes wonder what effect this has on me. After all, these images have been carefully selected by professionals to produce results, and it’s well documented that the subconscious responds to imagery even if we don’t consciously notice it. Could I be accidentally making commercials more effective by circumnavigating my conscious mind?
When I see a commercial normally, my guard is up. Nobody likes to be manipulated, and we all know this is what commercials intend to do. So generally we can watch a commercial and feel like it won’t have any coercive effect on us. Naturally we don’t have any idea what effect the commercial will have on our unconscious, but with the conscious mind mediating the commercial, we at least feel like we’re making our own decisions when we’re shopping.
When I hit fast forward I shut my conscious critic off (unless I notice something hilarious or outrageous, in which case I usually rewind to watch the full commercial, as is often the case for drug commercials). So if a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m cramming my subconscious with millions of words without tempering them by logic or common sense. Because my subconscious was exposed to a pretty, smiling girl eating a Big Mac, I might be more inclined to “spontaneously” feel like one. Plus, I might be more inclined to rationalize that behavior; if I haven’t noticed the external influence I might assume my McWhim came from “me”. (In case you were worried, I haven’t eaten a Big Mac in about fifteen years.)
Social forces like Adbusters or Mad Men have made us hip enough to recognize that advertisers specifically target our unconscious wants. Usually our only conscious want while we’re watching television is to be entertained, so commercials are meant to be entertaining to keep us on our couches. The real intended effect, where the money comes from, is often a combination of images, sounds and specific words meant to embed in our unconscious. They hope when we experience something related, we will correspond it to their specific product. So when we’re hungry we think of a specific burger chain.
Those unconscious desires are insidious because they rarely come with a list of pros and cons. Consciously I can deliberate a cost-benefit analysis and outsmart the charlatans. But the unconscious doesn’t seem to argue with itself like the conscious mind does. The unconscious mind seems to wait until the conscious mind is off guard before it goes after its desire. Otherwise our unconscious desires manipulate our conscious minds into justifying that want.
So when we think about the amount of commercials we see, and the ever-increasing skill with which they manipulate our wants, we should expect our society to consume more and more advertised products, to become more and more conflicted in its wants, and to fall more easily into the consumer lifestyle that is dictated by media images. Does this seem to be happening?
Fortunately we have reason, which gives us higher-order thinking and veto power over urges. I thank reason for the fact that I’m not buying Lunesta sleeping pills or Geico insurance. The other thing I have going for me is that I almost never buy products, outside of the ones I eat and drink while watching television…
“Lunesta is different, it keys into receptors that support sleep. When taking Lunesta, don’t drive or operate machinery until you feel fully awake. Walking, eating, driving, or engaging in other activities while asleep without remembering the next day have been reported. Abnormal behaviors may include aggressiveness, agitation, hallucinations or confusion. In depressed patients, worsening of depression, including risk of suicide may occur. Alcohol may increase these risks. Allergic reactions such as tongue or throat swelling occur rarely and may be fatal. Side effects may include unpleasant taste, headache, dizziness and morning drowsiness.” – Lunesta commercial