Monday, 2 February 2015

Gaslighting in advertising

Gaslighting is the process of manipulating a person’s sense of reality, often by denying or re-framing shared experiences.  A crude example is that of a person denying the existence of a (real) noise that another person can hear.  If several people – or a sufficiently trusted individual – were to deny the existence of the noise, the victim might doubt her sanity and would be considered gaslighted. Gaslit? 

Anyway, it’s a way of manipulating people, usually for some gain.  It is frequently used by abusers of all kinds to cause victims doubt their memories.  And it seems to me that it’s increasingly used in advertising.

It’s a less harmful form of gaslighting than many, but it bothers me nonetheless.  Here are some examples that are representative of the kind of thing I’m talking about:

  1. Remember how difficult vacuuming your home was before Brand X vacuum cleaners?  Well with the new Brand X model it’s even easier! No, we don’t remember how difficult it was because, for most able bodied people, it wasn’t difficult at all and neither the old nor the new model of Brand X made it significantly easier.  The advert is trying to fool us into accepting a premise that a new product is better by manipulating our perception that the product we have isn’t as good.  Is it really that difficult to vacuum round corners without special wheels? Did our old vacuums really leave such objectionable mess on our carpets?
  2. Take two bottles into the shower? You idiot. You could cut that effort in half by using Shampoo P. It’s not significantly more difficult taking two bottles into the shower.  And besides, I’m yet to be convinced that hair conditioner does anything worthwhile or that Product P is anything but ordinary shampoo.  Here we’re (perhaps) first being manipulated into thinking that conditioner is essential and secondly (by the same company) being manipulated into thinking that due to some remarkable innovation, we no longer need to waste the effort of moving one light bottle from one place to another. But… don’t we keep both bottles in the shower anyway? Who stores their shampoo somewhere else and carries them to the shower, which is the only place they use those products?

We’re being… I’m going to go with gaslit.  The perceived need for a product is predicated on something we’re encouraged to think is true but actually isn’t. And the practice is all over the place.  Note that this isn’t quite the same as creating a perceived but non-existent need for a product (as in the conditioner case). It’s instead telling us how bad the old (possibly unnecessary) way to solve that (possibly made-up) problem was when it wasn’t really bad at all.

This vexes me and it sets my privacy-sense tingling. Bear with me.

Gaslighting (even in this relatively benign form) is a kind of assault.  It’s a literal confidence trick.  It’s a confidence trick we seem wired to walk into without question. It takes conscious effort to avoid the trap and actually assess the supposed benefits of the new product over the old. I’m a sufficiently enormous geek to pay close attention to what adverts say as opposed to what they say they say but I have my blind spots too. I’m by no means immune. The practice is exploiting things we think we’re in control of but actually aren’t. 

I don’t think adverts should be doing this. It’s a subtle sort of lying but it’s lying nevertheless. It’s on one of those dicey lines between salesmanship and dishonesty and any attempt to legislate against it would probably be futile. It would probably also be unwelcome; there are times we want to be lied to, after all. Who hasn’t yearned for an excuse to justify buying something sniny?  But neither do we want to be manipulated into buying products we don’t really want or need.

So we need to be teaching children how to spot the signs of manipulation. If advertisers want a war, let’s equip ourselves to make it an arms race because in the long run, the consumer’s going to win. If we’re collectively smart enough, we’re more difficult to fool.  Much of how we can protect ourselves from gaslighting comes from the bottom up, while advertisers would assure us it comes from the top down.  Perhaps that’s the most pernicious form of gaslighting there is.  One of my main points about privacy is exactly this.

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