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Ethics and media advertising: manipulation of perception


The abundance of products that the industrial revolution brought with it, and the need to transport them to larger numbers of people, was an important milestone in the development of today’s advertising industry.

However, from time to time morally questionable marketing techniques have been used. The most preferred technique is perceptual manipulation, which first appeared as a military term.

Perception manipulation operations, which are often performed in various fields from politics and security to the media and the advertising industry, pose some serious ethical problems.

In this article, however, I am going to address the ethical issues of perception manipulation in the advertising industry, where companies and brands would resort to any type of advertising to sell their products.

The evolution of technology, particularly the freedom and branding opportunities that the Internet offers to individuals, is leading to the formation of environments that allow the diffusion of morally questionable methods.

The advertising industry is moving as far as possible from traditional marketing methods and has an indispensable goal of strengthening the theory of persuasion by individuals with their own consent. They do this based on the vast amount of consumer behavior data available to them.

Natural connections

The inner reflections of an individual show from time to time that the human disposition always tends to believe in something.

In a highly competitive environment, brands think they need to be able to offer products to consumers and get them to buy in order to survive.

Over time, this need to promote their products and get people to adopt them, coupled with the support of advanced media tools, has created a snowball effect in the advertising industry.

Since the competition as well as product quantities and ranges were not crisis-ridden at the beginning of the 20th century, the brands adopted the guiding principle: “I can sell what and how much I produce”.

By the late 1930s, however, advertising and its derivative instruments began to be used more effectively or even more provocatively – which must have been a consequence of the increasing diversification of capitalism.

The revolutionary theories of the famous Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud and his nephew, PR consultant Edward Bernays, have influenced product and content producers from the early 1940s to the present day.

Because the media, especially social platforms, have made advertising more visible and accessible, such auxiliary tools have almost become a living space for the advertising industry.

With the collection of consumer data and technological developments, manufacturers’ understanding of marketing has changed.

The manipulation of perception then spread to other sectors and was actively used when the effects of such manipulation on individuals were felt.

Competent authorities have at times applied various controls and restrictions on perceptual manipulation. Due to the growing scientific data and technological developments in recent years, they cannot prevent such advertising from reaching the consumer without controls and restrictions.

Advertising aimed at the subconscious of the individual is just as important for children as it is for adults. Manufacturers can advertise to children who are too young to read and write and even make them aware that they need these products.

While adults can sometimes resist giving in to these advertisements, many of them, from the most conscious to the unconscious parents, get emotional when it comes to their children and think that their children will be put at a disadvantage if they lack these products. So they are forced to buy them at the insistence of their children.

The brands, which are aware of this and mainly appeal to small consumers, organize children in order to convince their parents through various perception and manipulation techniques in their advertising.

Let’s take a look at the history of perceptual manipulation to see how it affects its addressees in the hands of today’s advertising industry.

Soft power vs. hard power

Before the Cold War era, wars generally centered on the concept of hard power. However, the frequent use of the radio as a propaganda tool by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and the scientific and technological competition between them, accelerated the transformation of the means of communication of our time.

So we can argue that the ideological infrastructure of social media, which is the most common means of communication today, was laid then.

As technology developed further and mass communication with auxiliary tools was possible without any problems, the concept of soft power continued to develop in the early 1990s.

The concept of soft power focuses on directing and manipulating every unit of society, from public diplomacy to public opinion.

This is based on the theory of psychoanalysis developed by Freud in the 20th century and the theories of Bernays, which laid the foundation for today’s advertising and PR perspective.

Bernays is one of the major historical figures who aimed to manipulate the masses into pushing them to buy things they don’t need. He identified the mass production of goods with the hidden sexual and aggressive personality of the individual and made a name for himself through his propaganda on the subject.

One of the most important attempts by Bernays was to encourage women to smoke in public, even though social taboos prevented women from smoking. He hired some attractive women to walk while smoking their cigarettes. This was an attempt to break down social barriers for women smokers – which he linked to women’s freedom.

Eventually, this trend of women smoking evolved into what newspapers at the time referred to as the “Torches of Freedom”. Now women began to think that “the woman who smokes is free and strong”.

The correlation drawn between products and very different objects led to an ethical problem that is still discussed today.

Products that are offered to consumers today are distinguished not only as a source of income, but also by the meanings assigned to them. Based on this view, manufacturer brands have developed a sales and marketing tactic that they use most often.

In the 21st century, the advertising industry began perception manipulation along with social media platforms.

The founders of the sector do not address the moral aspect of the situation as they see it as an important way to market their products.

Advertisers see the power of social media to create awareness and manipulate public opinion as an opportunity. Based on the concept of a spin doctor put forward by the New York Times during the 1984 US election, today’s advertisers have further complicated the concept of ethics.

A duo comparison

Ethics is a concept that the ancient philosophers pondered. In ancient Greek, the term “ethics” is derived from the word “ethos”, which means personality and character.

In fact, ethics is one of the oldest disciplines in philosophy that urges thinking about what is good and what is bad.

The most fundamental difference between ethics and morals is that the former aims to determine universal values, while the latter is specific to societies, beliefs, regions, or even individuals.

In ancient times, many philosophers such as Socrates, Pythagoras, Epicurus, Aristotle and Plato pondered and asked questions about ethics, morals and virtue. Each of them gave answers to the shortcomings and priorities he observed in society and put forward principles in their own way.

The thinkers like Socrates, Plato and al-Farabi, who with their thoughts and works laid the foundations of the modern world and control it to this day, argue that morals and ethics are universal and objective, while other great thinkers of the history of philosophy argue like Henri Bergson that morals and ethics are subjective and not universal.

In return to today’s understanding of capitalism-oriented morality and the relationship between advertising and ethics, the concept of utilitarianism, ie the utilitarian moral approach, has taken over the 21st century.

As a result, the idea that “if something is for the benefit of the majority, its harm to the minority can be ignored” has been consciously or unconsciously incorporated by brands into today’s advertising sector.

Practical ethics in today’s advertising industry is reflected as follows: We strive to be helpful to the customer with the products we sell; Our goal is to make most of our consumers happy, whom we can convince to buy our product.

Although we strive to make the majority happy in marketing our products, some people can be excluded from that happy majority because they are not satisfied with our products. Ignoring this segment does not pose an ethical problem for advertisers.

Advertisers can be helpful through their promotion of specific segments that need their products and tend to make them happy, but they can also convince those who do not need those products in an unethical way. This utilitarian approach tells them to ignore the damage they are doing to the other segment.

Generation Z

With the change in media instruments, the subject of ethics in advertising has become more and more important. Traditional advertising media such as television, print newspapers and magazines are out of date in many ways. With the advent of internet technology, advertising channels have been shifted to social networks.

The brands that have promotional activities through social media because this type of media is able to reach a wider audience, aim for social media users between the ages of 18 and 24 to increase their brand value through perception manipulation techniques.

We can say that time spent on social media is generally considered a leisure activity. With the development of technology, postmodern theory has occupied a larger space in our lives.

Given the tremendous amount of time young people, especially Generation Z, spend on social media, we can say that they are more exposed to postmodern-style advertising.

The main goal of postmodern advertising is to convince the individual, through the means of communication at his disposal, to realize a lifestyle that is normally inaccessible to him. So the distorted youth identity they created leads to serious questions about advertising ethics.

What to do?

We are currently facing a major problem of the dynamic competitive environment and its advertising needs, as required by capitalism. These deceptive and manipulative attacks drive us to pretend we are who we are not and threaten all audiences, from children to adults. Against this background, it is essential to introduce precautionary mechanisms. Content, goals, target group and market of advertising should be searched for and evaluated. Otherwise, manipulations and threats to perception will continue to harass us in almost all areas of our daily life.

* Multidisciplinary designer, PhD student at the Graphic Design Institute of Marmara University, Istanbul


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