Thursday, May 19, 2011

$1 Gasoline and Mental Conditioning

Glenn Beck is concerned about an incident that happened recently in California.

While he has a valid point, I think he’s missing something. This incident is actually less about honesty and more about mental conditioning, or classical conditioning, as it’s known in psychological circles.

This is an very touchy subject, understandably so. Most folks believe they’re in full control of themselves and will reject any idea to the contrary outright. I get that. But at the same time, that idea is the foundation for every form of advertising we have today.

The whole point of advertising is to make you buy a product or a service. Think for a moment of the various ways that advertising is used to make you feel a certain way about a product. Peer pressure, status, a diminished sense of worth if you don’t own a product, all these and more are used to manipulate you into buying something that you might not need or be able to afford.

How many times have you purchased something only to regret it later? If this has ever happened to you, then you are well aware of the power of advertising.

I don’t mean to criticize all advertising. There are many good products out there that serve a useful purpose and are very handy to own, saving you time and trouble.

As a guy, I’m contractually obligated to say that tools fall under that category. Not all advertising is bad. If it serves to inform you of the tangible benefit of a product, that’s a good thing. You save time to spend with your family, the producers of that product (your neighbors) make money, what’s not to like?

Back to Beck. He’s concerned that no one thanked anyone at the gas station or even mentioned it to them. He’s also concerned that the station’s owner lost some $21,000 in the span of a few hours. He’s concerned that we’ve lost something as a nation.

I don’t mean to diminish his concerns at all. They’re all valid, but they’re more symptoms of a larger problem in America today: we’re being told what to think. And quite a few of us seem willing to be told what to think.

All seven of my regular readers have heard me mention something called “healthy skepticism.” It’s merely a variation on that old saying that “you should only believe half of what you hear and none of what you read.” In my case, that came with age. With others, it’s inborn or taught to them by their similarly skeptical parents. However you arrive at this quality, be glad you have it. I sure am.

It’s a natural defense mechanism and one that used to be in abundance here in America. Missouri is the “Show Me” state for a reason. That implies that the good residents of that state need to be shown how or why anything is true before they’ll believe it. Those are words to live by.

But, bombarded as we are today with electronic messaging, we literally can’t see the forest for the trees, to coin a phrase. Even seemingly innocuous actions like clicking the “Like” button for a Facebook recommendation sends that information to a whole slew of advertising companies. It’s nothing new by any means. Google, the host of this blog, tracks your search results to pass along to advertisers. You know that happens every time you log on.

But what about when advertising strategies get used in politics? Former White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod is famous as the “Father of Astroturfing.” While you may have heard that term before, you might not know what it means. You also might not know that it’s specifically prohibited by the code of ethics of the Public Relations Society of America, according to this Wikipedia entry.

“Astroturfing is a form of propaganda whose techniques usually consist of a few people attempting to give the impression that mass numbers of enthusiasts advocate some specific cause. In the UK this technique is better known as "rent-a-crowd" after the successful "rent-a-crate" business.”

Hmm, that sure sounds familiar. Now, where have I heard that idea before? Oh, yeah, Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.

“Rule 1: Power is not only what you have, but what an opponent thinks you have. If your organization is small, hide your numbers in the dark and raise a din that will make everyone think you have many more people than you do.”

Propaganda, plain and simple. Or the use of advertising techniques and psychology to make you think a certain way. They’re the same thing.

More comprehensive is the description by Richard Alan Nelson: "Propaganda is neutrally defined as a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels. A propaganda organization employs propagandists who engage in propagandism—the applied creation and distribution of such forms of persuasion.

So, now to why I think Glenn Beck missed the point in his report. We’ve been conditioned to hate oil companies, and the incident he points to is a natural result of that conditioning. If you’re taught to hate something or someone, the natural response is retribution, and this was a classic example of the public exacting it from a perceived enemy.

Think for a moment of how many times you’ve heard the phrase “Big Oil” in a derogatory manner. Nancy Pelosi is famous for it.

She’s not alone. Turn on almost any news channel and you’ll hear the same type of derogatory attitude displayed towards oil companies and big business in general. Years of this type of message will tend to make you think that it’s true. After all, as Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and Vladimir Lenin both observed, a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth, and the bigger the lie, the more it tends to be believed.

This is why you can’t have a discussion about the details of politics with a committed leftist. These conversations nearly always devolve into emotional shouting matches and name-calling.

This is also what led to the election of Barack Obama. Eight years of the constant drumbeat against George Bush and Republicans resulted in 52% of the public electing Anyone Who Wasn’t Bush, a role that Obama happily stepped into.

To wrap up, Glenn Beck wasn’t wrong in his criticism of that gas station incident, he just missed the bigger point by thismuch.

Conditioning works.

Against you.

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