Acceptable Neurotoxins

Sometimes these coats get confused with who we actually are.


Irony is a tricky medium. In shows that gain a wide and varied audience, like Mad Men and The Sopranos, the irony is often swallowed by the glamor of fantasizing what it’d be like to be a character like Don Draper or Tony Soprano. Larger than life.

In a conversation between David Chase and Alan Ball on the commentary of The Sopranos first season DVD, it was revealed that the original concept of a sociopathic, mass murdering gangster going to a psychiatrist because of anxiety was a joke. But the show took on a life of its own because of the talented writers and actors, and because of the hunger of the audience.

Everyone watches t.v. for different reasons. Some look for stimulation while others look for distraction, some for a combination, and others for inspiration of one form or another.

Irony is one of those things you either see or don’t see. The irony of an audience charmed by a persuasive character written, in part, to expose the dark side of the marketing industry, is both beautiful and disturbing.

When I use Mad Men as an example to lead into a discussion about the very real danger of marketing, some might say, It’s just a t.v. show, fuck off! Ironically, these are the people who will stop reading here.

On some level, we all want to be swayed. We all want to be sold. In this era lacking energy efficiency, we have, sadly, given up our responsibility of discerning between subtle manipulation and authenticity. Why? It’s a daunting task because of the sheer amount of carefully crafted, scientifically-backed manipulation sweetly stirred into our daily rhythms. Constantly questioning everything that comes at us takes energy. It can be exhausting! Especially if we’re already running low on energy because of stress. Our bodies and brains can only handle so much. The need to discern a sales pitch aside, our senses already take in way more information that we can process in real time. So our brains have evolved with these systems that automatically make some choices for us. As evolved as we are, we are still working from a lizard brain base, meaning survival is the constant and consistent priority, even when our basic survival is not at risk. As a result, the stimuli that make the fastest moves, the loudest noise, or the most repeated appearances will get noticed.

The stuff we see and hear over and over again has a great impact on how we perceive the world. Our perception of the world shapes our lives. I create my life based on what I allow to influence my perception. And if I don’t have a solid idea of who I am or who I want to be, if I’m still trying to figure myself out, I’m more susceptible to being manipulated by the media, which has rapidly become overtaken by marketing. Because I’m looking for ideas, suggestions, and socially acceptable ways of being. If there is no marker within myself to measure against what I see in the world, I am swept up into all of it. We learn through experience. We try on ways of being like coats to see if they fit. Some of these coats are more difficult to discard after wearing them. Sometimes these coats get confused with who we actually are. And somewhere in the tangle, by the time we form some semblance of an idea of who we want to be or think we are, we have unknowingly created habits, techniques, and coping skills, that have been wired into our brains. Pretty fucked up, huh?

The implications of what it means to be raised in a world where marketing is unavoidable wouldn’t be so awful if the intentions or the methods were benign. But here’s where my disgust for the marketing racket gets real: they play dirty. That sounds like an obvious statement to make. But do you know how dirty? They use sound science gathered over years of research meant to help people to manipulate consumers (aka people) into buying their products.


In Robert Plutchik’s model of human emotion (pictured above), when you combine trust and fear, you get submission.

This is the basic idea:

A brand establishes trust using techniques as varied as celebrity spokespeople, humor, falsified word-of-mouth campaigns, contests established to make you think your friends trust or like a brand, sponsorship of well-loved non-profit organizations, packaging that follows specific ‘responsible’ trends, tricky wording, coloring meant to elicit certain feelings, etc.

Once they establish the trust of a particular target market, all they have to do is suggest a message or thought or idea that instills fear, and the result is submission. In terms of a successful marketing campaign, submission is when you purchase their product because on some level you believe their message. An idea that instills fear can be as subtle as a gum advertisement suggesting that you will be socially unprepared or undesirable if you do not have fresh breath. Seems pretty harmless, I guess, as an adult who can decide if I give a fuck what some company wants me to believe. But this is part of a subtle road map that, being raised on this manipulation, becomes integrated into who we think we are, who we believe we need to be, and who we think others want us to be. We’re social creatures and marketing has taken a leadership role in deciding what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

Nature, nurture or marketing?

I’m not even going to get into the obvious and well-documented issues that come with growing up as consumers. You know, body image issues that can lead to serious shit like anorexia and bulimia, self-hatred (all on the rise for males as well). On second thought, considering a disturbing new trend in marketing, I think I’d better get into it a little bit.

For years, the marketing racket has used these methods of eliciting that combination of trust and fear to manipulate us. But I have a feeling that a few clever up-and-comers in the industry were inspired by the movie Inception. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’m referring to a dilemma the characters find themselves trying to solve when faced with the need to plant a suggestion into some guy’s mind. It is decided that an idea that leads to warm, fuzzy feelings will stick, while an idea that leads to grey, grumpy feelings might be rejected. As the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio says, “I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.”

And looking back at the Plutchik model, when you combine trust and joy, you get love. What better way to create brand loyalty, which seems to be faltering in the last several years, than to show your company doing something truly positive. For example, a company that sells beauty products using their marketing dollars to spread positive body image messages. While on the surface it appears wonderful, almost fucking charitable, and it is better than being subjected to images of unattainable, computer-enhanced beauty, it is still a company that needs you to buy their product and trust their brands to keep their investors happy. It is still about making money. And why should we trust a company to dictate who we want to or should be?

Now that some of us are numbed to the fear method, I have a feeling that the success of these new campaigns will inspire other companies to do the same. And in the end, we are still being manipulated. And if we go into this new phase of marketing blind, it could lead to a desensitization effect to a more sophisticated manipulation technique, which may complicate our feelings about love. (Like complications in love isn’t already something poets have filled libraries with for centuries.)

We cannot get away from manipulation. We cannot cover our children’s eyes and ears as they grow up being spoon fed these messages. What can we do? We can be aware. We can educate ourselves and our children. We can counter these messages with authentic alternatives. Most importantly, we can choose to take the energy and time necessary to know ourselves, and we can model what this looks like to our children.

Knowing ourselves well – what we need, desire, feel, think, believe; what motivates us and why; our fears, prejudices, preconceived notions, coping techniques, pains, triggers; our associations; our strengths and weaknesses – makes us more resilient to attempted manipulation on every level. We still might get hooked here and there, especially when a certain brand or product presses right up against our sore spots, but we will not be floating through life helplessly looking to marketing for answers.

That’s much easier said than done. But it’s a venture well worth trying. In my opinion. Of course, I’m not trying to sell you anything. I believe you can make up your own mind. And the greatest thing about being an adult is the fact that we get to choose, of the hundred of simultaneous needs we have, which gets taken care of first and how.

Author: tendrilwise

Hi, I have a diploma in Journalism, I've published a novel, and I am currently studying psychology. My odd way of viewing the world either gets me kicked out of parties or invited to them. Jenn McKay

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