Thanks to the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election, there’s been an increased focus on just how things like social media can be used to affect the mindset of your average American voter. While some have taken a decisive stand regarding the subject, stating outright that foreign efforts to influence an election cannot be tolerated, there’s still been a sizable contingent of Americans keen to dismiss Russia’s underhanded foreign policy, citing the fact that Russian influencers didn’t actually change any votes, but rather just worked to influence Americans – after all, we’re all reasonable, intelligent adults that should be able to tell the difference between real and fake news, right?
Whether you feel that way, or are furious at the Americans who do, that means the Russian influence effect is already working.
Here in the U.S., we all grow up in an advertiser’s paradise. According to the American Psychological Association, the average child is exposed to upwards of 40,000 advertisements per year, each and every year of their young lives. This inundation likely has a number of effects, including the overwhelming need to get this year’s hot toys for Christmas, but among the others are two things that, when combined, make for a dangerous cocktail of manipulability in American adults. First, advertising clearly works, which is why American companies spent almost $80 billion on digital ads alone in 2016. The second, is that we Americans, who grow up on a steady diet of advertisements, tend to think of ourselves as pretty marketing savvy, and overestimate our ability to shrug off advertising’s influence on us.
As I studied marketing and PR in graduate school, there were a number of concepts that were readily up for debate, but among them was never whether or not it worked. Manipulating people in the digital sphere, in particular, is still a new phenomenon, meaning there are new and creative ways to get inside someone’s head discovered each day – and make no mistake about it, studying marketing and public relations is, in fact, studying ways to manipulate people’s perceptions. Often, the intent is to skew consumers toward a product or service, but occasionally, its role is to skew consumers away from a competitor’s, or simply to minimize the effect of what could be bad news for the brand.