Why Did The Media Fail So Badly In Its Efforts To Elect Hillary?
Yesterday in Taki’s Magazine, David Cole suggested that maybe, just maybe, Hollywood isn’t as powerful in swaying public opinion as many people assume it is.
This belief is shared not only by the “stars” of Hollywood itself — who naturally fancy themselves as great “thought leaders” — but also by conservatives themselves, including the late Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart, as Cole points out, was even rather obsessed with the issue, and harped on the need to create a right wing rival to Hollywood.
Cole, however, wonders if this all is really based on an accurate appraisal of the situation. After all, if Hollywood is so good at convincing people of its own point of view, why is it that Republicans keep winning so many elections? Cole notes:
But wait…even with all that Hollywood “interference,” didn’t we just win the last presidential election? Don’t we have the House and Senate, too? Haven’t we also won an unprecedented number of statewide legislative seats and governorships?
This doesn’t prove Hollywood has no effect on behavior and ideology, of course. But, it is entirely plausible that its power is not nearly as great as assumed.
Indeed, when it comes to discussing the effects of marketing, messaging, advertising, and propaganda, “assumed” is certainly a key word. There are a great many assumptions being made, but precious little evidence to back these assumptions up.
This appears to apply well beyond the field of mere Hollywood-created propaganda, as well. Both the legacy media and Hollywood gave full-throated endorsements to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and yet, the best Clinton managed was what can, at best, be called a tie with Donald Trump.
It seems the media’s power may not be any more far-reaching than Hollywood’s. Moreover, given than both the media and Hollywood portray media journalists in only the best possible light over and over and over again, why is it that only 32 percent of Americans report that they trust the media? If the media wants to be trusted, shouldn’t they need do nothing more than simply tell us they’re trustworthy. After all, it must be true if we see it on TV.
All it takes a slick ad campaign, we are told, and people will believe whatever you tell them to believe.
The problem is that this has never been shown to be true.
There is growing evidence, it seems, that suggests the under-thirty demographic simply doesn’t respond to advertisements, and that brand loyalty is becoming virtually non-existent in an age when consumers rely more and more on third-party evaluators such as Yelp and Amazon to provide insight into whether or not a product is worth one’s time and money.
Many of these discussions about how ads don’t work anymore, however, continue to rely on what is probably an incorrect assumption — namely that advertisements have worked perfectly well in the past.
Indeed, the evidence has always been rather sketchy as to how much advertisers can actually influence the public’s thoughts about goods and services, and consumers have never been at the mercy of advertisers as many seem to think.
Do Tobacco Companies Trick Us Into Smoking?
Nevertheless, our faith in the power of propaganda — and it’s non-political form, known as ” advertising” — has long been nearly unshakable.
An often repeated anecdote used to support this view is the one in which we are told that the whole world opposed female use of cigarettes until some advertising campaigns convinced everyone to abandon their long-held social views and embrace tobacco for all. This story usually claims that Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations” devised ingenious advertising methods that manipulated people into abandoning their own existing value systems in favor of whatever advertisers put forward.
But, as Bill Wirtz recently demonstrated, the rise of female smoking also accompanied enormous social changes brought on by the Great War and new physical and economic conditions imposed on women. Rather than revolutionizing social thought, as is often assumed to be the case with Bernays and the tobacco ads, it is also entirely plausible that Bernays simply rode the wave of social change.
Indeed, Ludwig von Mises was certainly skeptical of the idea that advertisers are able to manipulate people into doing whatever the advertisers want. Mises writes:
It is a widespread fallacy that skillful advertising can talk the consumers into buying everything that the advertiser wants them to buy. The consumer is, according to this legend, simply defenseless against “high-pressure” advertising. If this were true, success or failure in business would depend on the mode of advertising only.
However, nobody believes that any kind of advertising would have succeeded in making the candle makers hold the field against the electric bulb, the horse drivers against the motorcars, the goose quill against the steel pen and later against the fountain pen. But whoever admits this implies that the quality of the commodity advertised is instrumental in bringing about the success of an advertising campaign. Then there is no reason to maintain that advertising is a method of cheating the gullible public.
In other words, real-world conditions are a key factor in forming people’s ideas and attitudes, and simply telling them things isn’t enough.
But what about when those tricky advertisers use more subtle methods such as subliminal messaging? Bernays himself was said to use these, and the issue of control-through-subliminal messages has long been popular, and perhaps peaked in conspiracy-themed popular culture of the 1960s and 70 — as with The Manchurian Candidate and The Parallax View — when characters were controlled by implanted thoughts and subliminal messages. On the other hand, according to Randall Rothenberg:
[T]here was — and still is — little proof that these efforts to engineer action through manipulation of the unconscious led to any behavioral changes favorable to specific marketers. As for James Vicary’s experiment in subliminal advertising — it was a hoax: Vicary later admitted that he hadn’t done what he’d claimed. Several subsequent studies of the effectiveness of embedded messages have shown it to be virtually impossible to use them to produce specific, predictable responses. Still, faith in the power of the media to induce millions of people to act contrary to their better judgment or conscious desires remains profound.
Indeed, even outside the realm of ultra-subtle messaging, the evidence has been contradictory. Rothenberg continues:
Time and again researchers have found it difficult to correlate the content of advertising campaigns with long-term economic effects. Some advertising content, notably price and product information, undeniably moves consumers, but only temporarily and in limited numbers. The ability of advertising to persuade large masses of people to change their attitudes and induce action that permanently alters a company’s fortunes — no one really knows how that works. In the conclusion to his 1942 study The Economic Effects of Advertising the Harvard professor Neil Borden reached a series of judgments that must have unsettled his industry sponsors. “Does advertising increase demand for individual concerns?” he asked. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Does it affect production or distribution costs? “Indeterminate.” Does it lead to a concentration of supply and anti-competitive pricing? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.
This isn’t to say that advertising has no effect. It is fairly clear that it has an effect of some kind. But, those effects are often not what the crafters of the messages intended. Moreover, consumer behavior appears to correlate at least as much with real-world changes in physical and economic conditions as with the efforts of marketing executives. The Institute for Economic affairs reports:
[A]nother study confirmed what economists have always known. Looking at sales of alcoholic beverages in the US over 40 years, it found ‘changes significantly correlated to fluctuations in demography, taxation and income levels – not advertising. Despite other macro-level studies with consistent findings, the perception that advertising increases consumption exists. The findings here indicate that there is either no relationship or a weak one between advertising and aggregate category sales.
So, did Bernays convince women to go against their own beliefs and start smoking? There’s no more reason to look to Bernays’s alleged marketing “genius” than to changes in income levels and urbanization rates among women in the 1920s.
Now, some readers at this point may say, “well, McMaken, look at how successful Nazi propaganda was.”
In this line of thinking, the advocate often trots out the often-used line of Hermann Göring: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”
Of course, if it were really as simple as Göring says it is, then Lyndon Johnson could have easily made himself and the Vietnam War both immensely popular just in time for re-election in 1968 by simply telling the American population that the Americans were in danger of being attacked by Communists.
Now, there is no doubt that this line was used, and was believed by some in the population. But, the fact remains that many concluded that the real-world realities simply didn’t match up with what they were being told by government and media propagandists.
Similarly, when the Obama Administration was advocating for more military action in Syria, why did the White House not just tell the population that the Syrian state was coming to get it, and that immediate action — including carpet bombing of the entire country — was necessary. In fact, the Adminstration hinted at this very thing, and failed to convince.
Maybe Göring ‘s tactics do work on an impoverished population ravaged by the Great War and hyper inflation, and poisoned with generations of Prussian militaristic ideology. But clearly, Göring’s methods to not work “the same way in every country” nor do they likely work even in the same country during different time periods.
The weakness of elite propaganda was hard to ignore in 2016 when millions of voters chose to ignore the messages of Hollywood and the media and chose to not vote for Hillary — even though they were being told that the very existence of human decency and civilization were riding on their support for Clinton.
We’re Not All Helpless in the Face of Propaganda
A more balanced view of advertising and propaganda remains important today for two reasons.
First of all, keeping a more sophisticated view of how opinion is shaped is important because it belies the often parroted line by anti-capitalists that consumers are mere putty in the hands of advertisers, and that wicked capitalists can convince consumers to do whatever the advertisers say.
We are told by the anti-capitalists that everyone feels they must spend every last dime on consumer good such as expensive cars and oversized houses. The “defenseless ” consumer — to use Mises’s term — simply must spend endlessly because some Madison Avenue firm told him to. What’s more, that same consumer is even tricked into buying an inferior or damaging product against his own better judgment. The only solution, we are told, is to impose government regulations protecting us from the diabolical corporations who manipulate us.
As so much evidence shows, this view of advertising has never been true, but it is all the more untrue in the age of social media and an endless array of third-party reviewers of products and services. There is mounting evidence that advertisers are only becoming weaker and weaker, and the more evidence we collect, the more it appears that the variables that act upon a person’s choices are far more complex and unknown that we suspect.
But what of government propaganda?
Again, in this case, the power of state propaganda appears to be less powerful that we might suppose it to be. Perhaps far more important is the simple fact that governments have police and military powers that impose a high cost on refusing to go along.
Do people consider the state to be as valuable as many assume they do? There is no doubt that many do, but it is also entirely plausible that many simply opt to not oppose states because states can impose a high cost on those who disobey.
In fact, if the propaganda churned out daily by government schools and media arms were as successful as we assume it to be, then why are there so many dissidents, tax evaders, and prisoners? If propaganda can be successfully executed to force compliance so effortlessly as we’re told, should not the prisons be empty and the tax payments always be honestly paid?
It could be there are other forces at work, and it may be that saying things on TV isn’t quite the panacea many assume it to be.