Between alternative facts and outright lies, the truth has never been more grey. For every point, there's a counterpoint on our social forums. Any while we're quick to call bias in the ways others are filtering and processing information, this does little to actually dissuade them from believing in and sharing "alternative facts.” In essence, we are drowning in discourse. The sheer volume of social chatter will not change the tide by itself, though; to be effective, we need to be convincing. Human nature is such that facts alone are not enough. As we have seen in several instances of propaganda from the current government administration, people react emotionally to information that they think they already know and actively work to protect that knowledge. Infiltrating this sort of echo chamber may seem daunting, but advertisers have been doing it for years to launch iconic campaigns and disrupt others—and the formula is simpler than you think.
People have a tendency to seek out and accept information that supports their beliefs while rejecting information that does not. This is known as confirmation bias and it’s pretty embedded in our social experience. A shared perspective helps us form cohesive groups, and in terms of our evolutionary history cooperative groups were monumental to our survival. Confirmation bias reinforces relationships as it asserts—persistently—that a specific narrative is true; it creates a boundary of identity. It works to swiftly establish and reinforce alliances, which in turn carry a host of obligations regarding access to resources and security.
In an often cited study from Lord, Ross and Lepper (1979), a sample of students were selected based on their support or rejection of capital punishment. In the former case, the students felt it deterred crime, while the latter believed there was no impact on crime. The students were asked to read and respond to two studies, one that provided data to support capital punishment and one that provided data that questioned its efficacy. Both studies were false, but each presented compelling statistics—and the students were not told the studies were false. Students who supported capital punishment found the data credible in the pro-capital punishment study and faulty in the anti-capital punishment study, while students who did not support capital punishment reacted in the opposite. Each side found their position strengthened by these studies, and reported being more convinced of their belief following their reading of this research.
Confirmation bias doesn't make us blind to critical thinking. It demands that we become highly critical of opposing viewpoints, while allowing us to soften criticism directed at our own. We bolster our own perspective while figuratively shouting loudly to turn the opposition away. We know that effective advertising works in a similar way. Good campaigns tell you what you want to hear and what you primarily already know: you—yes, you—are special, and will be made more so with this product/purchase. While advertisers are bound by legal mandates that prevent them from telling outright lies, they artfully walk the line of partial information or misdirection. And while part of the reality of this landscape is that there simply isn’t time to tell the entire story of the product, the other side to that coin is that we, the audience, don’t necessarily want to hear it. We want to know how the product reinforces our sense of self. Consequently, most marketing messaging is a variation of you need this, you deserve this, or you want this because it will make you more competitive or more current or more enviable or because a physical symbol of your success will confirm your position to others.
The best campaigns follow a basic formula: keep the message simple, repeat the message, and keep the audience from hearing anything else. These are the general rules that make lies successful too. And the rules being applied to alternative facts and the current national rhetoric are the same: say it in its most basic form, repeat the message and amplify those repetitions, and reduce access to alternative perspectives (in this case, by discrediting the media). Repetition is key here. It is the way that beliefs are established. And the thing is that repetition of any kind—even in opposition—furthers the original agenda. This is part of the reason that challenging statements that climate change is a hoax or that voter fraud is rampant—even with relevant data—is so difficult. When our brains later recall the information presented, it's the repetition of "climate change" and “hoax", or the "occurrence of voter fraud" that is recalled. Our brains emphasize what we have already heard. It is only within our circles of like-minded experience that we may get a complete message.
Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign retains longevity because it follows the formula, and uses language that is simple and meaningful to its audience. Just do it. Just do what? Well anything you want because you can. At the end of the day, we want to believe we can, and if a shoe or clothing can help us do that by providing the right kind of support, then it fits with the narrative we want to believe. Now critics may ask, well how should I just do it and how does this shoe help exactly? But the message is simple, it’s repeatable, and it doesn’t leave much room for argument: Too tired to run? Just do it. Don’t feel like cooking tonight? Just do it. Putting off writing that paper? Just do it. The far reach of this slogan makes it almost impossible to crack.
BMW’s "Ultimate Driving Machine" is another great example in this category. In three words the company has set the bar for other car manufacturers to counter, and for consumers to attain. It’s simple, it’s repeatable, and the strength of the claim strikes an emotional chord that makes it hard to unseat.
The formula is strong, but not infallible. To challenge advertising campaigns, there are three steps:
1. Test the statement by adding in what it leaves out.
Advertising selects its words carefully: "comfort" and "luxury" or "solution" play on positive associations but dance around in-depth explanations that qualify their use. Critical parties will be quick to highlight what these words don’t say. While the right words may be enough for people who are inclined to support the brand to reinforce their affiliation, the repetition of key questions can contaminate the confirmation. For example, what does “ultimate” mean? Is there really nothing comparable? How does “ultimate” equate to costs? And what does it cost to maintain “ultimate”? Who will view this as an ultimate driving machine? Your neighbors? Colleagues? How will they assess its “ultimacy”?
2. Interrupt repetition by asking questions.
Apple did this to Microsoft in 2006 with their Mac vs. PC spots. For Apple, an early question to the standing giant was “How can you better help users with non-work things?” The first spot emphasized that while PCs were great at work tasks (i.e., spreadsheets), Macs were great with photos, movies, and music, which acknowledged the computers were a larger part of people’s lives overall. A few years later, Microsoft would interrupt the Apple narrative on the question of price with a spot where a consumer was challenged to find a machine that fit her requirements for under $1,000. She was unable to find an Apple product that satisfied this need and purchased a PC.
3. Introduce other perspectives.
Sometimes, your position can be helped by acknowledging others. Subaru has a long history of encouraging charitable enterprises. A portion of every car purchase can be put toward a participating charity, which not only strengthens the brand but connects what is a large and often emotional purchase to something that is meaningful to the consumer. While this isn’t necessarily a challenging stance, it does suggest that there is space for multiple entities on a shared platform. From a broader stance, this willingness to share the spotlight—or the consumer's wallet—implies a degree of authenticity and transparency that could encourage the audience to experience or commit to other things.
As we grapple with the current presidential brand and are forced to confront very specific examples of confirmation bias, understanding both how marketing helps establish a campaign, and how that campaign may be challenged can help us have more meaningful interactions with people whose views may not agree with ours. The goal should not be conversion but doubt. If doubt exists, there is a small chance the consumer will try another brand—or in this case, another perspective. And while it may not erase more toxic ideologies completely, it may open the door to a more nuanced shade of grey.
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Scott, R. (2004). POLITICS, ADVERTISING, AND EXCUSES: Why Do We Lie? ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 61(2), 187-195.
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