The persuadables

When you and I were young, the theory of subliminal advertising was taught as if it were established scientific fact. Combining the scientific tools of the behaviorists with the deep symbolic language of Freud and Jung, whitecoats in the employ of Madison Avenue and the Pentagon had developed precise ways to manipulate behavior via a viral symbolism, subliminal suggestions that bypassed awareness and spoke directly to subconscious impulse, messaging thereby invulnerable to the filters of critical thinking.

The new science had been summarized for popular audiences a generation before in the popular, alarmist books of Vance Packard, a journalist and fierce critic of consumerism whose 1957 book “The Hidden Persuaders” laid out exactly how our desires and decisions were being manipulated in targeted and irresistible ways. Imagine the despair the robot feels upon discovering that she is a robot, the loss of autonomy, agency and inner dominion!

It is easy to forgive the panic of the tech-rich Fifties. The revelation of subliminal science must have felt like the psycho-emotional equivalent of the bomb.


The theory of subliminal messaging, it turned out, was based entirely on a few fraudulent clinical studies with falsified results. Practical behavioral science had not, in fact, progressed to such advanced levels of remote control. But of course the study of behavior and its manipulation has continued unabated, and with, I am sure, a fruitful yield, even if many of the ecstatic claims of the subliminalists and the CIA’s MK Ultra mind-control program turned out to be false grails and dystopian science fiction.

The subliminal control studies were retracted, the authors shamed. But that didn’t make the headlines. Most of us just went on believing, a kernel of self-distrust within.

And of course, we are being manipulated, baldly and with our full consent, as the revelation of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the many campaigns of big data have shown. What’s funny, if anything can be said to be funny about this, is how coarse and savage the process of mind control actually is. It’s purely a numbers game, a vast inefficiency of leverage that renders mass control a tool exclusively for the very, very, very rich, and only when they define suitably modest, measurable goals.

The model of subliminal control promised a 1:1 agency: Man is exposed to an imperceptible single-frame image of hot buttered popcorn, and maybe some breasts for good measure; man scurries to cinema lobby reaching for wallet. Anyone could do it!

The truth of data-driven influence in the 21st century is more like: Every person alive is coaxed into volunteering personal data at thousands and thousands of social and commercial contact points. They just put out the marked buckets, and we fill them! These abundant data fuel precise, real-time behavioral profiling and the identification of a soft segment of the population deemed “persuadables,” those who stand between you and the thing you want to make happen.

The persuadables are then treated to multi-million-dollar fireworks displays of messaging – a bombardment, a bludgeoning, a round-the-clock bath of disinformation, confirmation of biases, social engineering and data-driven emotional manipulation, all of which is intended to move them, to move us, about a half millimeter to the right, a barely measurable shift in the balance of the vox populi but enough to swing a critical election or what have you, to get Britain out of the EU (“oops” said Cambridge Anlytica’s Alexander Nix) and maybe to buy us one Donald Trump. Oops.

And it is a very different threat than the one that terrified us as children. Then, we feared that our desires and bodies were not our own. Now, we fear that we cannot ever know the truth, and if we do, we can never speak with the authority of it.

In a world where every truth belongs to an interest and a common third-party pool of fact has ceased to exist, what good is our critical thinking? Long taught as a kind of magic bullet against disinformation and emotional manipulation, critical thinking requires an epistemological foundation in which the truth – not yours, not mine – is ascertainable, verifiable, repeatable. In our current political environment in which every person is market and in which national discourse is divisive by design and conducted in kindergarten blocks, is there any individual, intellectual defense left against the will of Big Data pounding against us and reinforcing our sense of powerlessness the more aware we are of the assault?

Critical thinking is only as good as its sources, and only as effectual as its arguments.  Our futility is the product they pay for.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.