Spotting Those 'Hidden Persuaders'

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The other day my daughter Francine, who's in the fifth grade at the local public school, brought home a worksheet that seems to be part of a "media awareness" unit (overseen, naturally, by the gym teacher as part of "health" class). The worksheet instructed her to analyze a magazine ad for "a toy or an athletic shoe," looking for what the worksheet called "hidden persuaders." I've got no problem with teaching kids to be skeptical of advertising (though a subscription to Mad magazine might be more cost-effective than spendng classroom time on it). But I object to the mystification and exaggeration represented by terms like hidden persuaders, which suggest that advertising is both more sinister and more powerful than it really is. According to the worksheet (though not according to Vance Packard), "hidden persuaders" include humor, the use of celebrities, the implication that a product is fun, and the suggestion that it is popular. I pointed out to Francine that there really is nothing "hidden" about these techniques. It's obvious that manufacturers use celebrity endorsements, for instance, to enhance the appeal of their products. "Like when Britney Spears did that ad for Coke," Francine said. Actually, it was Pepsi, which sort of proves my point about the limits of advertising.

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  1. I think you might be a tad oversensitive.

  2. I owe Mad Magazine for my cynicism and my Qwerty Fonebone. Ecch!

  3. That’s right joe, who could ever question the motives or competence of those tireless public servants that administer our public education system? Especially when there are monsters on the loose, stalking the pages of magazines and the screens of TVs, trying to fool people into buying dolls and sneakers.

  4. Jacob, have you taught Francine to be on the lookout for tiny obscene images in the close-ups of ice cubes in the whiskey ads?

  5. A brilliant takedown of paranoia, Mitch!

    Except you left out the ritual sacrifices that take place in the teachers lounge.

    I think teaching kids what to look for in ads is part of Hillary’s plot to make them all drones in Mao suits.

  6. They’re meant to work on a level you aren’t aware of – hence, “hidden.”

    They’re meant to pesuade you of something – hence, “persuaders.”

    Perhaps “Happy Fun Helpers” would have met with more approval. “Can you spot the Happy Fun Helpers in the shoe ad?”

  7. Except that a celebrity endorsement is, by definition, intended to work on a level that you’re fully aware of. If you don’t consciously recognize the celebrity, then the ad hasn’t accomplished anything.

  8. It’s a shame when someone has posted so much bunk that they are dismissed when they’re right.

    It strikes me as being over sensitive to object to using “hidden persuaders”. The fact is advertising will use any method short of flat out falsehood to get people to buy a product. It’s their job, and they do an excellent job.

    I’m also saddened that it took me 15 years of drinking Buds to discover that girls just don’t fall all over themselves for a lush. I wish I had paid more attention in 5th grade.

  9. As far as the celebrity endorsement goes, does Tiger Woods actually drive a fucking Buick? And what the hell does Arnold Palmer know about motor oil? Does Arm & Hammer deodorant actually keep Giambi from smelling after he “…fuck[s] like a porn star”?

  10. Although the “hidden persuaders” as outlined here may not be much to worry about beyond some basic critical thinking skills…and there’s no evidence that “subliminal” advertising techniques, like whispered words, or obscured imagery work…but I think there are some interesting issues here. There is a world of scholarship towards understanding the cognitive development of youngsters, and the application of this research is the development of children’s programming that employs narrowly age-specific narrative structures, editing, and framing composition to maximize rugrat attention. The justification is that it helps “educational television” be more successful…or on the other hand, it helps condition one to greater screen-staring endurance (certainly an important skill for the 21st century economy). Helpful or creepy?

  11. I agree that the term “hidden persuaders” misses the mark – though it seems that it stimulated a discussion with your daughter in which she “got it.” Most persuaders in advertising are not hidden, but it takes a great deal of awareness to recognize the ways advertising is used to manipulate us. When I was in college a long time ago, I took a mass persuasion speach class, and read a little paperback book that influences how I view advertising to this day. The book title is “I Can Sell You Anything.” It’s out of print, but used copies are available on Amazon and half.com. I particularly remember the discussion of the use of weazle words like “virtually”.

  12. “Except that a celebrity endorsement is, by definition, intended to work on a level that you’re fully aware of. If you don’t consciously recognize the celebrity, then the ad hasn’t accomplished anything.”

    But the thought process that occurs between “Cosby has a Coke” and “I want a Coke” is subconscious. No one actually decides, based on the celebrity endorsement, that buying the produce will imbue them with the positive features the appreciate in Bill Cosby (the mumbling, the gawking…) But subconsciously, something similar to that happens.

    It is good to make people aware of the process by which their purchasing decisions are influenced. It is good to make it clear that those attempting to influence their purchasing decisions use techniques whose function is not obvious (ie, “hidden). It is good to make people aware of how those techniques function.

    Good, from the pov of individual autonomy, and good, from the pov of consumer rationality.

  13. true. (on the teaching people part)

    but “hidden persuaders” is still overblown, severely.

    generally speaking, it’s used as an example of a mechanism to describe why people buy products we don’t like in the first place.

  14. “but “hidden persuaders” is still overblown, severely.

    generally speaking, it’s used as an example of a mechanism to describe why people buy products we don’t like in the first place.”

    toys and athletic shoes? Huh-wuzzah?

  15. Jacob, I think you really need a better cause to get worked up about. With the faith-based cult of standardized testing forcing teachers and schools across the country to focus on memorization skills, rather than developing thinking skills, efforts to teach critical thinking should be encouraged. We need much more of it.

    Perhaps if kids grew up with more critical thinking skills and knew WHY we have a Bill of Rights, rather than just learn to recite them, they might better guardians ofliberty.

  16. There was a large portion of the recent movie The Corporation (which I still think Reason needs to review) talking about kid targeted advertising.

    Basically the left wing argument is that kids are blank slates that used to be filled with traditional values. But since parents work more and more and corporations get better and better at psychologically designing brand imprinting from an early age, parents can’t compete. And with billions of advertising dollars designed to make Ronald McDonald more recognizable than Jesus (a la Supersize Me), these “consumerist messages” are actually a cultural threat.

    A lot of people think this way. And while it strikes me as stupid, it’s not, perhaps, completely stupid.

  17. It’s just a term. The negative value will attach itself to any term you create no matter how friendly you make the terminology. It’s not the “hidden” part of the term that really gets objections, it’s the “persuaders” that really ticks people off.

    Rest easy though if you eliminate all “persuaders” people will find a way to blame somebody else for their own unreflective actions. If people really wanted to accept responsibility for themselves why would they need religion?

  18. People say this kind of crap constantly, but everything I’ve heard and read about advertising says that it is effective only in creating brand recognition, whatever its design, and that as far as anyone can measure, people choose rationally from the choices they are aware of. Is there any evidence beyond lefty psychobabble that “hidden persuaders” have any effect beyond feeding the fever dreams of people who need to think that no one else thinks?

    (I mean actual evidence, double blind studies, etc.)

  19. No studies that haven’t been challenged, and there will never be any that aren’t challengeable.

    Of course the right isn’t free of this sort of spongy thinking either. Decrying the decline in traditional values in the face of pop cultures influence ignores the possibilty that people don’t hold those values quite a dearly as the right would wish. Or, it could just be the devil.

  20. I don’t know what you people are losing your hair over. Our public schools are just preparing our youngsters for careers in advertising!

  21. I have identified bad luck a hidden persuader for the existence of evil in the world and by extension the existence of Dog. Really, along with archangels and cherubs there are advertisement executive angels who think of ways to trip us poor humans up, and make us believe that there is an evil power that is trying to destroy us, forcing us to believe in a good power to counter that evil power and that by extension we need to go to church to keep the boogie man away.

  22. Despite the overblown TERMS such as “hidden persuaders”, your daughter is learning the classical subject of rhetoric. What’s wrong with that?

    Good old Aristotle. Sold with his own techniques! After all, would the kids even wake up to hear about “logical fallacies”? Probably not. But anthromorphization of the fallacies – in itself, a rhetorical technique – as invisible monsters puts them on the level of a child of 5. And I’m sure she’ll benefit from the education.

  23. Despite the overblown TERMS such as “hidden persuaders”, your daughter is learning the classical subject of rhetoric. What’s wrong with that?

    Good old Aristotle. Sold with his own techniques! After all, would the kids even wake up to hear about “logical fallacies”? Probably not. But anthromorphization of the fallacies – in itself, a rhetorical technique – as invisible monsters puts them on the level of a child of 5. And I’m sure she’ll benefit from the education.

  24. JDM,

    Would $billions in advertising spending each year, and significant changes in consumer behavior following the release of good or bad ad campaign, be convincing?

    I think you’re showing remarkable contempt for your fellow capitalists.

    Hmmmm…most successful businessmen in the world…obscure political columnist…most sucessful businessmen in the world, making decisions about how the spend their money, and seeing it pay off…obscure political columnist with an ax to grind against public schools and those who complain about corporate manipulation.

    That’s a toughie, but I’m going to go with the people who have actually put their money behind the idea that advertising works, and been proven right in the marketplace.

  25. It is good to make people aware of the process by which their purchasing decisions are influenced. It is good to make it clear that those attempting to influence their purchasing decisions use techniques whose function is not obvious (ie, “hidden). It is good to make people aware of how those techniques function.

    I agree. But these exact same techniques and processes are used in loads of other forms of persuasion, not just consumer advertising. In fact the use of “hidden persuaders”, or “lies”, is more common in the political arena. I have no problem with gearing up a kids bullshit detector, but this gets close to the “evil corporation” mantra which, though it has its merits, is mostly used to distract from the more common bullshit spewed by the public sector used to create coercive policy.

    I’m pretty sure the gym teacher’s next lecture will not be about finding the “hidden persuaders” in Bush and Kerry ads.

  26. Hmm, obscure political columnist mildly objecting to silly terminology…political website commenter ranting about how corporations are controlling your minds, man…

    I vaguely remember the second-grade lessons I had on this sort of thing. Even some of the terms – “glittering generalities”, “get on the bandwagon”, etc. I seem to recall this being applied to politicians as well as corporations, which makes me wonder how it made it into the curriculum. 🙂 (But then, it was ~20 years ago, and my memory may be mistaken.)

  27. “That’s a toughie, but I’m going to go with the people who have actually put their money behind the idea that advertising works, and been proven right in the marketplace.”

    Maybe this is too nuanced for you joe. Advertising works, but you need to show that
    “hidden persuaders” advertising costs lots more than any other type of professional looking advertising for your last argument to make any sense. The research, and numbers, I’m aware of show that brand recognition is all you get out of advertising.

    There are plenty of people in the private sector who think it’s a waste of time to go after celebrity endorsements, major market acceptence, or any number of other ideas, none of which have anything other than hand waving to hold them up.

  28. Sorry to interrupt the pile-on, but there is no paranoia here. Public schools stick you with Stalinist re-education before you can get educated the first time:

    A recent question in AP Biology class:

    What should the Ecuadorian government do to stop the overfishing of sea cucumbers?

    One can make a reasonable arguments for: Nothing, who gives a fuck about sea cucumbers? But you can’t say that, becaus ethey’ll ram some vaguely mystical ecosystem crapdown your throat.

    Other highlights include diversity day, when we’re are taught that every race has its own unique perspective. (Actually every individual has a unique perspective, but if people found that out they might not vote in racial blocs.)

    The evil, greedy corporation stuff never ends, either. I like evil, greedy corporations. They provide quality, affordable consumer goods.

  29. See JDM, I knew you could do it! A post with actual content, and a point that can be discussed. Keep it up!

    Anyway, I don’t think there are enought non-hidden persuader ads in the media to actually compare the two.

    There used to be, but they failed, and hidden persuader ads took over their niche.

    The market can be so Darwinian.

    Russ D., everything you learn has to be taught in some context. I learned what “enough” meant by reading a book about bunnies or something, and now I know what it means when reading urban planning studies. Teaching kids to recognize media manipulation when done by people selling shoes gives them the skills to recognize those techniques wherever they come across them.

  30. sure…if you discount ideological blindness.

    so the hidden persuaders are so hidden as to be…visible only to those they’re not hidden from?

    which happens to be people who, largely, are ideologically inclined to see hidden persuaders?

    i’ve actually heard people say that using attractive men and women in ads is a hidden persuader. apparently they’re not familiar with Our Lady of Guadalupe, or BVM statues in more old school italian areas.

  31. “so the hidden persuaders are so hidden as to be…visible only to those they’re not hidden from?”

    You do remember we’re talking about school teachers and 8 year old children, right? Yes, I’m operating from the principle that a 45 year old woman with a masters degree is capable of looking more critically at media than a third grade girl. Sue me.

    BTW, pointing out that religious icons were sexed up to make the religion more appealing doesn’t exactly prove that sexual imagery is not a “hidden persuader.”

  32. Uh, oh. Joe, you made the logical fallacy of assuming that a 3rd-grade teacher is smarter than a 3rd-grader.

    There are really some things so dumb that you have to have at least a master’s degree to believe them. “Anti-consumerism” is one of those things, though this seems like a pretty mild version of it, and thus fairly unobjectionable.

  33. “A post with actual content, and a point that can be discussed.”

    Hmmm… and then you go onto say,

    “Anyway, I don’t think there are enought non-hidden persuader ads in the media to actually compare the two.”

    Which is obvious nonsense. So what’s the point?

    There are tons of straightforward ads, and importantly there are lots of people who do study the effectiveness of say – celebrity endorsement – in a calm rational fashion in order to make good decisions, and the conclusion is always that it is worthless in terms of buying decisions.

    The reason that poeple use celebrity endorsement is to multiply the effect of the advertisment. Signing Britney Spears or Michael Jordan to multi-million dollar deal creates publicity by itself. It also is supposed to make it easier to create a commercial which people will talk about, though this can be accomplished with humor, etc.

    In the end it turns out that no one can really tell if it is worth it or not, since if you save money on Britney, you can pay for more commercials.

    It has absolutely nothing to do with bizarre psychobabble about leading unconscious drones off to consumer heaven. That kind of argumentation only works on imbeciles.

  34. joe, what answer do you give your kids when they ask “Why do I have to go to school?”

  35. I’m operating from the principle that a 45 year old woman with a masters degree is capable of looking more critically at media than a third grade girl.

    This coming from an educated adult whose first post was simply name-calling (“oversensitive”).

  36. no, no no no no no no no no

    ok, i’ll cut you some slack for being catholic and nicely illustrating what i meant by blindness.

    the icons were not “sexxxed up” in the way you mean.

    Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (assuming he actually existed) didn’t see the image of a beautiful woman – resembling jade skirt, the only positive female image from his previous pantheon, oddly enough – as the BVM in a vision because it would help sell catholicism to nuhuatal-speaking neighbors. they come from a time when a painful death is what made the religion more appealing – there’s no choice involved nor persuasion to be made.

    it is a natural expression of what MAGNA MATER actually is. the only reason they’re “hidden” is because of the willing blindness towards the obvious sexual nature of certain religious concepts. (see heart, sacred, for further illumination on this issue as it relates to catholicism)

    but repeated exposure to these images – my house is filled with them – does not convert people to catholicism. shit, many fundie prods will look at that as just another example of how depraved and pagan the catholic church acutally is.

    what i’m saying is that this implicit understanding of an attractive human face, portrait or body is not created externally. to call it hidden is to assume that no one acknowledges physical beauty publically, or are so stupid as to not realize that there’s a reason “looks like a model” refers to one body type but not to others.

    again, i think there’s a lot of contempt for humanity built into the model of selling stuff as exploitive evil. (there’s also a great deal of willing blindness in seeing business leaders as one hair shy of being platonic philosopher kings, but i digress…)

  37. I can recall the hysterical environmentalism we were taught in school back when I was in the third grade or so (early 70s). It conflicted with my father’s view, and I consitently sided with my father’s side of the issue.

    In a sense, the teacher’s environmental propaganda was kinda like an add campaign, except it was much more up close and personal, and the person(s) pushing it were authority figures.

    But I didn’t buy the propaganda, and I thought the teachers were leftist kooks. And in my opinion, corporate advertizing is much less likely to sway a third grader. Unless the advertizing is for an appealing item. And I even think that third graders might handle left wing propaganda from their teachers better than you might initially think.

  38. Anyone who is affected by advertising is weak-minded. Such mind tricks have no effect on the enlightened. I find it hilarious that there is such concern about advertising. I find advertising distateful and annoying, but caveat emptor.

    You buy it on bad information and don’t get a guarantee, too bad.

  39. “And I even think that third graders might handle left wing propaganda from their teachers better than you might initially think.”

    Wouldn’t bet on it. Global warming, our eras apocalyptic cult, is portrayed as irrefutable science.

    I’m all for tolerance, but the constant insistance on diversity that gets rammed down our throats has serious political ramifications that are never mentioned. Try explaining to a kid who’s read about nothing but the horrors of racism why affirmative action is not legitamate.

  40. It looks like the educrats are trying to “mainstream” Naomi Klein’s advertising as hate crime school of victimology.

    Perhaps “hidden persuaders” will replace Joe Camel as the children’s rights litigation issue of this decade.

  41. I can recall my impressionable 8-year-old self buying a soft drink or candy bar or breakfast cereal because I saw it adverstized in colorful “fun” ads. Or, more accurately, I can recall whining at my mom and dad till they bought me said soft drink, candy bar, or breakfast cereal. But here’s the kicker: If the advertized products sucked, I never asked for them again.

  42. The really disgusting thing is, if the assignment had been to spot exactly the same “hidden persuaders” in political ads or leftish treatises, and referred to they by exactly the same term, no one on this site would have batted an eyelash.

    It’s merely the suggestion that profit-seeking corporations could be underhanded that accounts for Cavanaugh’s angst, as his own post admits.

  43. everyone, joe?

    can we settle at 90%?

    underhanded is one thing, super psychic spy powers is another.

  44. I think they should ban ALL advertising towards children. I’m tired of arguing with little Jimmy at the checkout counter.

  45. I think there is a middle-road argument in this issue. Yes, there is a bad smell of anti-corporate, anti-capitalisim in this school assignemnt, but I do appreciate the encouragement of scepticism.

    A friend of mine was visiting with his two small children. While we were talking, the kids stared at as blankly, but suddenly turned towards the TV like pavlovian dogs when an explosion of color flashed across the screen. It was a commericial for sugar cereal. Before, it didn’t make sense to me, but all of the sudden, it was clear. We are primates, and we are naturally attracted to bright colors as a food source. As adults, we may know this, but small children certainly don’t. This seems to me to be a bit sneaky. I certainly don’t suggest any bans, but there’s no harm in pointing out what’s really “happening” during these situations.

  46. Mr. NG,

    “there’s no harm in pointing out what’s really “happening” during these situations.”

    No, and I don’t think anyone would would have a problem with pointing out what’s really happening, which you’ve pointed out – ads need to draw your attention for you to pay attention to them.

    There is no evidence that commercials can hypnotize you into a buying decision based on unsupportable, and many times refuted, psychobabble, which joe has repeated here by rote like a dutiful leftist. Jacob Sullum took the phrase “hidden persuaders” to be evidence that the media awareness class was wandering from rational analysis to leftist mythologizing.

    He probably wants the elements of his kid’s education which teach critical thinking to actually include some sort of rational thought process. You know – logic, reason, evidence, some scientific method perhaps…

  47. JDM:

    I’m still a bit creeped out. Those tottlers’ heads turned in unison as the colors danced across the screen, and they had the exact same expression on their faces. It was like something out of a bad science fiction movie.

    I’m speculating that we are hard-coded to be attracted to bright colors as potential food sources, and this “coding” existed for thousands of years. I’m told that advertisers of child products employ psychologists and behaviorists.. I wouldn’t be surprised. I’m much more comforable with exchanges that utilize reason, evidence, etc as you point out, and not playing upon emotion or unconscious motivators, especially if we’re dealing with very young children.

    Again, I’m not saying there should be any “bans”, but I don’t see any harm in questioning the honesty of any influential group, it being corporate, the government, Jews for Jesus, etc..

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