The success of an advertising campaign is predicated on cynically exploiting psychological loopholes through cheap behaviorist trickery, and also on trust. This paradox, comparable to the mystery of the holy trinity or a zen story, (a sublime truth packaged as a blatant contradiction or absurdity), inspires a great deal of meditation and transcendental reflection on the extra-logical character our big dumb universe.
The currently fashionable response to this contemporary mondo is to simply ride piggy-back on communications which are trusted inherently. Agencies are now developing schemes to break into the economy of trust that now exists only in casual conversation between acquaintances. This long-ass New York Times article offers a grim vision of the present, in which this awful project of commodifying conversation bears fruit.
The ad industry has always been devoted to setting up lifestyle models for imitation, and is now agressively targeting the twin impulse: desire to be imitated. Perhaps people wear Brand X not only because of the instinct to imitate others, but because when they see others with the same brand, they feel they themselves are being imitated. Branding as multi-level marketing scheme.
We suggest that the mechanisms involved in infant imitation provide the foundation for understanding that others are ‘like me’ and underlie the development of theory of mind and empathy for others.
BzzAgent is just a systematic way of convincing people of their high position on the cultural downline. The free sausages they receive from Santa Fe Sausages for being double-agents are not just juicy and delicious, they are also tokens of the consumer’s value as a prototype to be emulated. Their meaty payola marks them as cutting-edge early adopters, innovators, original sources of imitation and cultural value. This is the psychological payoff.
In exchange, the product receives their complete trust. In social situations, it’s pretty easy to tell when someone is honestly communicating or if they’re making a sales pitch. Honest enthusiasm is hard to fake and is exhausting, thankless work. Ad agencies have cut the Gordian knot by getting a small number of people to trust the product for reasons, (and this is the important part), that have no tangible connection the actual comparative quality or usefulness of the product. Everyone else hears the message from a trusted source, or at least a source more trusted than paid advertisement. The psychological manipulation is effectively hidden from view.
I wonder where this behavior would fall under the usual classifications of imitation: no problem was being solved, no goal was being copied, and no reward was procured. Manifestly fascinated by the infant’s predicament, the juveniles’ imitation seemed emotionally charged.
In order to get along with our fellow humans and successfully communicate with them, we simply have no choice but to assume that other people are mostly truthful. A language in which most statements are lies is not a language at all; this is a truism whose ramifications were thoughtfully explored by David Lewis, among others.
Now, I don’t really think the situation is as desperate as all that. We won’t end up all lying down on the sidewalk like in that Radiohead video just because people endorse products for ill-considered reasons. It’s just yet another inexplicable source of baffling idiot-static, like the New Age section at the bookstore: mostly harmless yet disproportionately obnoxious, for reasons that are difficult to articulate but seem to circulate around a vague feeling that stupid or naive people are being manipulated for cash, and that I would like some cash too even though I think angels and lovemarks are dumb.
None of this is to imply that I’m somehow above this banal imitation-game so popular among the hoi polloi. Certainly not! It’s merely the systematization that I object to. If you glance to the right, you will see my current choice of music and reading material. The implication, of course, is that you should read and listen to these things too. Trust me.
(Thanks to William Gibson for the link.)