The world changes, but it does so slowly. But slow changes do add up over time, and sometimes when you wait long enough and look back, you’re stunned at how far you’ve come… The same is true in manipulation: go far back enough, and the manipulations of yesterday seem increasingly simple and transparent.
Take women’s vote, for example. Women only got the right to vote less than one hundred years ago. A hundred years is not that long ago, and people like to talk about the pioneers that fought to give women the vote. But we tend to forget that, for every pioneer, there was at least one opponent – someone fighting to prevent women from getting the vote.
Who were these folks, and how did they fight the suffragettes?
Most of the folks who were arguing against women getting the vote were looking after their own interests. Democrats, for example, were mostly against granting women the vote because they were afraid of black women being able to vote (they were mostly in the South). Drinkers and pub owners were against the vote because they were afraid that women would pass laws limiting liquor (they did, asd it turned out). Some women were even against the vote because they argued that their power was one of influence, and that having the vote would paradoxically lower their ‘voice behind the throne’ power.
Either way, the anti-suffrage forces had a tough gig. After all, how do you argue that half a population can’t vote, especially after a civil war that granted blacks the right to vote?
Most of the groups decided on two approaches. The first one was to basically scare men that women with the vote would leave the home, and leave them with the babies:
That worked, somewhat, but more and more women were becoming convinced of the need to vote. And they were pushing their men – husbands, sons, brothers – to vote in that direction. So the anti-suffragette forces switched strategy, and decided that they had to make being a suffragette a negative thing:
These ads seem insulting and transparent in hindsight, but that’s because we’ve had an accumulated 100 years of learning and perspective – manipulations of 100 years ago seem so quaint….
But let’s roll the clock fifty years or so and go to the 1950’s, where cigarettes ruled the day. By then, there were rumors of cigarettes maybe being less than good for your health, so cigarette makers focused on that topic in their ads:
The idea was that if doctors were seen as supporting and endorsing cigarettes, any lingering health questions would be put to rest. They weren’t the only ones to try and use pseudo-science, by the way. Look at how butter decided to sell its health benefit:
All these ads are shamelessly manipulative, but that’s because we’re viewing them with the benefit of 50 years of distance. What if we forward the clock again?
The year? The 1980s. The world was innocent, at least by today’s standards. During the 1980s, women were emerging as a major customer segment – and so ads shifted to reflect that. Basically, women became fair play, mostly in sexually suggestive ads:
1980s ad are interesting – they nominally target women, but the ads were still being made by men, and so many of them essentially read… odd by today’s standards:
Basically, these ads are more funny than manipulative – they play off basic stereotypes, they are shameless, and the manipulation level is pretty basic, but remember that, at the time, a mere 20-25 years ago, these were state of the art ads that cost their sponsors millions of dollars.
But we’re in 2013 today, and one obvious question is what are the manipulative ads of today that will be fondly remembered 20,30 or 40 years from now in the same way as all of these?
In general, ads become more manipulative the more ‘out of synch’ they are. If you’re fighting the tide of history, or if facts are not on your side, you are fairly likely to turn to manipulation instead. Of course, identifying those without the benefit of hindsight can be challenging, but here are our picks as the ads most likely to be nominated in blog entry 893, in 2050:
Our first bet are the ads targetting gay marriage. Whether or not you’re in favor of gay marriage, there’s good evidence that the world is moving increasingly in that direction. More and more states are passing laws allowing for gay marriage, and the arguments to legislate against them are becoming increasingly manipulative.
Our second bet, of course, are the ads by the Heartland Institute and some others to fight global warming. In a world where there is an almost complete scientific consensus on global warming, and where we can actually see glaciers receding and heat records broken, it is hard to maintain that ‘everything is a conspiracy’. But the Heartland Institute does its best, with ads like these – basically, the equivalent of the “suffragetes are ugly” mantra of yore.
Our third bet is marijuana. This one is also controversial, but there is a precedent – prohibition. Again, the pattern seems clear: more and more states are legalizing marijuana, the effects of marijuana are scientifically weaker than alcohol’s, and it’s a golden opportunity for state and municipal budgets to reduce enforcement costs and get some added tax revenues. As the trend towards legalization grows, ads designed to fight it have to become increasingly strident and manipulative to have any impact. Hence our third bet.
Manipulation is context-depedent, especially when used in advertising and propaganda. Take the most innovative, subtle, manipulative ad, add in enough time and social change, and the ads look primitive at best, and insulting at worst.