The 1962 movie ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is a taught thriller and dark political satire that begins with Communist brainwashing and culminates in an assassination attempt on a Presidential candidate.
Laurence Harvey plays Raymond Shaw, a US Army Sergeant who has been awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of nine members of his battalion that were being held behind enemy lines in Korea. Major Ben Marco (played by Frank Sinatra) is one of the survivors. He is cursed by a recurrent nightmare in which Shaw kills two members of their squad. He is further confused by the fact that any mention of Shaw’s name leads him to repeat the exact same sentence: ‘Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.’
Marco gradually realises that he is a victim of brainwashing. He sets out to understand why and to foil the plot that lies behind it.
‘His brain has not been washed as they say…It has been dry cleaned.’
I began my career as a Qualitative Market Researcher. I was doing some work for the automobile brand, Peugeot, whose slogan at the time was ‘The Lion Goes from Strength to Strength.’ (Peugeot’s badge features a heraldic lion.) One respondent wanted to impress on me that he ignored all advertising; it completely passed him by; he was an entirely rational individual. Later in the discussion I asked him how Peugeot was performing in the competitive context. ‘They’ve been doing pretty well, to be fair. They’ve been going from strength to strength.’
I was subsequently researching Red Rock Cider, which had a tag line about being ‘less gassy with no strong aftertaste.’ A bloke in one of my groups turned to some respondents that were sceptical of cider’s merits and said: ‘You should try Red Rock. It’s less gassy than other ciders. And it’s got no strong aftertaste.’
In another research project I was talking to some kids about breakfast cereal and I mentioned the Honey Nut Loops brand. In unison they promptly launched into an uncanny rendition of the Honey Nut Loops theme tune: ‘Honey Nut Loops. Let’s loop together.’
I confess I retain an affection for jingles, slogans and catchphrases. We may prefer nowadays to talk of symbols, rhythms, patterns and memes. Whatever the terminology, repetition gives consumers a sense of a brand’s conviction and consistency; a handy vocabulary that explains its distinctiveness. And, yes, at their best these devices do indeed possess a certain hypnotic power.
Within the communication industry we have always denied that we were engaged in anything so sinister as brainwashing. But not everyone has agreed with us.
In 1957, just a few years before ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ hit the cinemas, Vance Packard published ‘The Hidden Persuaders.’ The book sought to alert the American public to the use by advertisers of applied psychology and sociology; and to the employment of ‘motivational research’ to determine consumers’ psychological weaknesses. Packard suggested that brands were engaged in ‘mass persuasion through the subconscious.’
‘Many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.’
As my own experiences illustrate, we cannot deny that many of consumers’ opinions of, and associations with, brands are formed at a subconscious level. We may nowadays call it low involvement processing, but there’s still an ethical question to be answered: Does advertising brainwash its consumers?
Within the industry we have consistently contended that the answer is: No.
Whilst Packard suggested advertising works in a covert or clandestine way, we sustain that its persuasive powers hide in plain sight.
Moreover, consumers are largely complicit in advertising’s seductive sell. Most are willing participants in the marketing game. In ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ even Packard conceded:
‘When irrational acts are committed knowingly they become a sort of delicious luxury.’
I should say that in my many years of attending focus groups, creative reviews and Client meetings, I rarely came across anyone so serious as a professional hypnotist, motivational researcher or psychologist. We did dabble in a little harmless semiotics, but we generally regarded persuasion as an art, not a science. We sought to charm and entice, rather than to deceive.
Perhaps this is why today’s acolytes of marketing neuroscience make me a little uncomfortable. We often assert that attention in the modern era must be earned, not hijacked. Yet neuroscience seems to take us back in the opposite direction. Talk of brainscans and emotional manipulation; of eye tracking and facial coding; of unconscious desires and subconscious triggers, would have resonated with Packard. We shouldn't be complacent about such things. Perhaps it's time to dust off our copies of 'The Hidden Persuaders.'
‘I fell into a trance,
Just watching you dance.
My world just stopped when I saw your eyes on me.
H-Y-P I’m hypnotised.
H-Y-P I’m hypnotised.’