With Christmas just around the corner, brands and retailers are keen to make the most of the holiday rush, blasting ad after ad of children opening presents, families eating together, and similar moments that tug at people’s heartstrings.
But make no mistake. Advertisements are never as innocent as they seem.
In this week’s episode, Dylan unwraps the truth about advertising, the ways they evoke emotion, and what we can do about it.
- [04:34] What advertising is
- [09:08] What advertisements are designed to do
- [09:56] How advertisements play on fear to sell products and services
- [12:07] How advertisements exploit our sense of community
- [14:10] On advertisement as emotional manipulation
- [16:22] The type of people advertising doesn’t work on
[00:00:00] Intro: Forget the civilized path. It’s time to break the chains of debt and dependency, take control of our financial lives, and live free. This is the Fiscally Savage Podcast.
[00:00:15] Dylan Bain: Hello and welcome to Fiscally Savage. I’m your host, Dylan Bain. And today on our last regular episode before Christmas, I’d like to share with you a Christmas story. When I was a little boy, I wanted a G.I. Joe helicopter. It was like the most exciting thing. I had sat at the television and watched commercial after commercial show me the big G.I. Joe helicopter with the little toggle on the side that you could push and you would make the rotors go round and it showed me all of these pictures of boys smiling and showing off with their friends and playing with it. And all I wanted for Christmas was that G.I. Joe helicopter because if I had that G.I. Joe helicopter, then I too could play the Epic War games with my friends and my friends would come from around the neighborhood to see my G.I. Joe helicopter. And when Christmas morning arrived, I opened the box and there it was: the G.I. Joe helicopter with the desert camo and two new G.I. Joe action figures to boot. And I could not wait for my friends to come over and see my G.I. Joe helicopter. And when the day came that they came by, I pulled it out and held it as if I had finally arrived in this world. And my friends didn’t care. They didn’t care at all. In fact, I played with it a few times and it was never nearly as much fun as I had seen on TV. And even as a little boy, I felt such a great sense of disappointment. And I couldn’t understand why my friends — had my friends not seen the same advertisements on Nickelodeon as I had? Didn’t they understand that this was the G.I. Joe attack helicopter with the toggle on the side that made the rotors go round? But really at the end of the day, my friends came over to see me and they just wanted to play in the sandbox in the backyard, the one that my father had built and was the deepest sandbox in the neighborhood. And so, I put down that piece of plastic manufactured in China and went out in the backyard and played with my friends. And by the time I came in to have dinner, I had forgotten all about the G.I. Joe attack helicopter.
[00:02:44] I bring this up because with Christmas right around the corner, you are probably being bombarded with advertisements. And I, today, want to talk about how the advertisement industry gets you because it’s insane to me — all the Christmas-targeted ads that start I believe the year in advance at this point. You know, it used to be that they were in December, then they overtook Thanksgiving, then they over — Now, we see Christmas stuff before Halloween. And for any politicians that listen to the Fiscally Savage Podcast, if there’s one thing that you could do that would help redeem your station with the American people, it would be banning Christmas advertisements until the day after Thanksgiving. I digress though. Advertisement industry is out to get you and there, this is not a new thing, but I kind of wanna break it down today.
[00:03:34] Now, let’s just start off by pointing out that advertisement is as old as commerce. And really it’s hard to imagine what the old markets used to be in ancient civilization without people quite literally advertising their wares. In my mind, it’s like you walk down the street and there’s the fishmonger and the guy selling beans and the goats and they’re all haggling and they’re, they’ve got the, you know, a song that they’re singing to try to get people to come over by their booth. And we actually do have some examples of flyers from ancient Egypt that we found in trash dumps written on papyrus that were handed out to advertise particular food carts or particular weaving establishments, places where you can buy cloth and garments. It’s crazy and it makes sense. I mean, the word advertisement has its root in Latin for a word that means “to turn toward.” So, you’re advertising so people turn toward your booth, turn toward you in order to make the sale.
[00:04:34] The advertisement industry, as it stands right now, is worth $530 billion worldwide. And with that amount of money at stake, you gotta believe that there’s a lot of different tips and tricks that people in the advertising industry use to get your attention. Because — make no mistake — that is what advertising companies are actually selling to the companies that employ them. It’s your attention. And before I get started on this, I wanna make a disclaimer that I’m an accountant. I’m not a marketing guy. I don’t fully understand the advertising industry. As I was doing research for this episode, I was shocked to discover that unlike my beloved accounting, there aren’t agreed-upon rules, concepts, theories, methodologies, or anything else like that. That is to say, advertising is way more complex than I originally gave it credit for. But in general, advertising is a practice designed to bring awareness to a product or service and induce a consumer to buy.
[00:05:44] One thing that I think is worth noting, particularly in our modern world, is that advertising is not a single point of contact. And I think this is where advertising gets really, really complicated. Advertising in its current state is an ecosystem. It’s multivectored and it’s multipurpose. Let me give you an example. There is an auto insurance company out there that uses a particular animal in order to get your attention. And then, they also dub it with a very simple catchphrase. Now, if you do not know which insurance company I’m referring to, well, that would make sense because the big three auto insurance companies that typically use this tactic, which is GEICO, liberty, and Progressive, to a certain point, but they don’t use animals. They use their people with the aprons, okay? The point of that — and this is multivectored because you can see it, you’ll get it on billboards. You get it on the radio. You get it through podcasts. You get it on TV. You get it on the internet. So, multi vectors. And there’s multi purposes. The jingle is designed to stick in your head, right, with a simple catchphrase. You know, 15 seconds could save you 15%, right? Only pay for what you need, etc., etc., etc. You see how this works.
[00:07:02] But then it’s — all their purpose is to normalize the idea that car insurance is something you should be constantly thinking about; normalize the idea that car insurance is super important to your day-to-day activities; bring you in this idea that you’re a part of an exclusive club and that exclusivity actually drives an emotional response that you wanna be part of it. What they’re doing is they’re creating a recognition, an identification, and a trust: recognition for you, the consumer, to understand what that brand is and what it does; identification of where it fits into your life and why you want it; and trust so that they can part your dollars from your wallet and into their hands. All of this requires your attention.
[00:07:47] And it’s worth noting that in the good old days, we had — all the families would gather around the radio and they would listen to these radio programs. Well, if you’ve ever watched the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you are familiar with the subplot that was the governor’s race where the incumbent was Pappy O’Daniel, and he had the Pappy O’Daniel Flour Power Hour where they would tell stories on the radio and then they would talk about the flour. The point of that wasn’t to get people a good story. It was to get their attention to tell them about flour. So, radio as a form of mass communication and entertainment was driven by advertising. It was fueled from the beginning by this idea of we will tell people a compelling story that will get their attention, and then we will sell them a product. This is exactly how TV came up and the internet came up. These things were done with intention. Anytime that you are benefiting from something that is free, understand that you are the product, not the consumer. Whether or not it’s a TV show, like Friends or The Office, those TV shows are successful because the advertisement that was attached to it, and that’s what actually drives the money. Your entertainment sells your attention because you are the product.
[00:09:08] But these advertisements are not just innocent things. They’re designed to invoke emotion. And this is where we kind of can get into some of the discussion of the fallout of World War II. If you’re familiar with your history, you might know something called Operation Paperclip, where we took all the German rocket scientists and brought them over to the United States and they founded an organization known as, well, NASA, because we wanted to bring that talent. There were some other people that came along with that, and that were specifically propagandists. A lot of propagandists and techniques that were used by propagandists in the World Wars became advertising executives in the 1950s and ’60s, which is why when you see these advertisements, a common thing that you’re going to see quite a bit is something like fear.
[00:09:56] So, let me give you an example of where you can see fear and let’s just see if we can pull it apart. Why do I care that this wipe gets rid of 99.9% of all bacteria? Just stop and think about this for a second. You might be a germophobe and you might have squirmed in your seat, but like let’s be real for a moment. In my conception of the world, I try to live as close to what I would consider a human state. So, my area is relatively clean of debris and trash and things that might make me sick, but I don’t sit there and wipe every surface down with an antibacterial agent. Why? Because that bacteria was never bothering me in the first place. So, why do I care about killing all those bacteria? When was the last time we got deathly ill because of something we picked up on our hands? Ladies and gentlemen, we have quite literally been dealing with that stuff and way worse for the entirety of our human existence. But that advertisement is designed to invoke fear. And you can also see this where they have like the little baby who’s going around on the floor, but you wanna keep your kids safe. And if you’ve ever been a new parent, you know how often those kids get sick and you’re like, oh my God, if I can just sterilize the counters, then Little Billy is not gonna be snot-nosed with pinkeye and have to stay home. And so, now, they’re preying on that as well.
[00:11:20] Don’t get me wrong. Car insurance companies do the same thing with like, oh, that insurance company was totally there for me. And don’t even get me started on pharmaceuticals. All the different things of like, oh my God, you’re, this thing is gonna come kill you, but if you get this pill, you’re gonna be just fine. The other ideas that they bring into these advertisements are relatively irrelevant in the scope of fear. If you go look at a lot of them, I will be willing to bet you that almost two-thirds of them are going to have some sort of fear element underneath them. And especially this being in 2022, like there isn’t a whole lot of difference between your advertisements for products and your advertisements for political candidates. And don’t even get me started on how fear-inducing those are designed to be.
[00:12:07] Other elements that you see in advertisements quite frequently are this idea of community. So, some of the nontraditional rental places have been, you know, advertising this where like, oh, this is gonna help bring your whole family together. If you just book on our platform, it’s gonna be more than just a vacation. It’s gonna be a bonding event. And ladies and gentlemen, the idea of vacationing with my extended family? I mean, if I had a choice between that and taking a beating, well, bring on the guy with a stick. Because as much as I love my extended family, no way I wanna spend a week in a house with them. And yet that idea is really alluring to me, even though I know it doesn’t make sense. Why? Because the advertisement is meant to invoke this idea of emotion. And in this case, they’re using community. And you see this all the time, even in auto insurance ads, which quite frankly are the majority of the advertisements I get because I’ve created a world for myself where I don’t have a lot of vectors in which they can advertise to me that aren’t through the internet. But car insurance seems to be the thing like that the internet has decided I need. And so, I get a lot of ads that are fear-inducing, but I also get a lot of ads that are like, oh, look, there’s a community. If you join this insurance company, you too can have this community. You can go to restaurants and you have good pool parties and you’ll go bowling and whatever else it is that they’re trying to show me.
[00:13:33] A third way that you can see that they invoke emotion is this idea of relief, like, ugh, I need to get a used car, and these guys will show up at my door. What a relief! Or, ugh, I need to order a new car. And on my phone, I can see all the information, and I could do this in my underwear. Aren’t I relieved? And you see that over and over and over again. Pharmaceutical ads are really big in this where they try to educate you and then show you that if you only were to take this product, then you too will have this relief, this sense of community, and the fear will go away because we’ve solved your problem.
[00:14:10] The bottom line here, ladies and gentlemen, is that you’re being emotionally manipulated. That is what advertisement is. It’s emotional manipulation. And there is literally nothing that we can do about it, not on a macro level. Then part of this is because we’ve made the bargain. We’ve made the bargain over and over and over again to allow companies to advertise to us, and you might be thinking to yourself, well, I don’t remember making that bargain. Sure you did. You did it when you turned on the radio in the car. Well, but joke’s on you, Dylan. I use Spotify. Well, you forgot that data about you is the oil of the digital economy. And if you think Spotify isn’t gathering a whole lot of your data, including locational data, contact data, browsing data, you would be wrong. Same thing with internet browsers. Same thing with social media. Have you ever bothered to read the terms of service that you agree to whenever you download, you know, insert-app-here on your cell phone? So, don’t tell me you didn’t agree to it because you quite literally did. And if you really wanna not sleep at night, go read TikTok’s terms of service because that shit’s just absolutely terrifying.
[00:15:24] But we’ve consented to this. We made this bargain with the internet. We paid for access to the internet, but the content is all driven by ads and data. If you wish to be able to be free of the system, ladies and gentlemen, you need to face that fact. These people do not have your best interests at heart. They’re emotionally manipulating you, and you have agreed to it. Another thing that you need to come to terms with: they’re actually trying to drive you insane. Social media is a doomsday device pointed at your brain. And I use social media for this podcast and for my business. It’s an inescapable part of life. And I also must understand that the content that I consume on social media is hand curated to advertise a certain message to me, and that message might be designed to drive me over a cliff. This is why there are so many angry people on Facebook.
[00:16:22] There is no money to be made from a well-adjusted human who loves themselves and their lives that also lives in community with other well-adjusted humans. You can’t advertise to those people because they have a community, they’re already free of things that they would need relief from, and their unity alleviates their fear. Ladies and gentlemen, I will repeat that: there is no money to be made from well-adjusted humans who love themselves and their lives that live in community with each other.
[00:16:53] And so, it’s important to understand all the different ways that advertisers are coming at you from multiple different vectors with multiple different messages all designed to drive you insane so they can part you from your money. They’re not evil, but they are self-interested. There’s not a whole lot that we can do about it, but we can start by being aware of it.
[00:17:15] And ladies and gentlemen, just like you, I have been in this Faustian bargain space in a Kafkaesque environment of constant bombarded advertisements coming at me from every different direction. And I remember the day when I really realized it was getting to me because I had seen so many different ads for paper towels. And right after my oldest daughter was born, I was going through the grocery store. I had to buy some paper towels. And I caught myself thinking, what kind of paper towel do good fathers buy? And I stopped right there in the aisle at the grocery store catching myself thinking exactly what the advertiser had wanted me to think: afraid that I wouldn’t be a good father if I didn’t make the right paper towel choice; being caught up in this identity crisis of what kind of man am I communicating I am with this purchase of this particular paper towel. And I’m struggling because, on the one hand, I’m horrified of having these thoughts. But on the other hand, I’m also really afraid because I want to be able to get it right.
[00:18:26] And so, I just stopped and I took a deep breath and breathed into my body and thought about my vision of how I wanted to raise my daughter and what our home looked like in the most ideal, most pie-in-the-sky version of that reality. And then I realized exactly what I had to do. I put the paper towel back on the shelf. I went and I found cotton hand towels, and I bought a whole bunch of them because the house I wanted to raise my daughter in was one where we reveled in very human experiences where things had permanence. And so, these hand towels were what we were going to use to clean up all the wonderful little accidents that happen when you raised kids. And as I’m saying this into my microphone, ladies and gentlemen, I have one of those towels sitting here on my desk that I use to clean my face after I ate my dinner. I still have them to this day, and my daughter still use them. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what can happen when you are aware of what is being advertised to you and what you can do about it. And this is how you can start breaking free and living with far more intentionality.
[00:19:46] And with that, ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t tune in on Friday for our discussion about FTX, I wanna wish you a very merry Christmas. Happy holidays. Be safe. Go have a wonderful human-centered celebration. I love each and every single one of you, and I will talk to you very soon.
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