I’m not sure if they knew it was Media Literacy Week or just serendipity, but last week New York Magazine posted the fifth video in a series of videos they’re doing called Your Brain on Advertising. Each animated video, lasting no more than two minutes, explores the psychology behind different advertising techniques, like making a product pleasurable to your senses or how brand loyalty is developed.
All are worth watching but it’s the fifth video that really caught my eye, not just because it uses neuroscience to explain how advertisements impact children through various stages of development. I was also fascinated by the comments thread on Facebook, most of which defend kids’ intelligence (“Children are actually smarter than New York Magazine seems to think”) and/or advocate for turning off technology as the solution to this horrible “problem.”
Unethical advertising certainly is a problem – there’s even a recent study suggesting as much, if you need evidence. It’s the bit about youth intelligence, though, that gets me, because it reflects a sentiment I’ve heard so often: Ads don’t affect me. The subtext being, I’m not so dumb that I believe everything I read.
As the video states, in the case of young children, advertisers are taking advantage of the fact that their minds are not fully developed. This is different from whether or not a child is “smart.” For us adults, marketers tinker with a range of sensory elements, like the sound of a spray can, to get us to fall in love with a product. They can exploit insecurities, which, as humans, we all have. They can hijack cultural narratives, reappropriate social movements, sell misleading information or draw us to the conclusions that benefit their bottom lines. If you’re taken in by any one of these techniques, you’re not dumb. You may lack awareness about what is happening, but even then, part of the responsibility lies with the creators behind the advertising, who (arguably) have a moral or even business imperative to be transparent and accountable for how they communicate with billions of people.
No one is calling you dumb for being affected by ads. They’re just calling you human.