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Below the radar: stories about subliminal

January 21st, 2010 / 3:00 pm

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about how tapping into the unconscious mind is the next big thing in marketing, thus the emerging term ‘neuromarketing.’ This reminded me about subliminal advertising, which going back to the 1950s has been a controversial and disputed means of persuasion (e.g. subliminal images are shown so briefly that the viewer does not consciously ‘see’ them). Every now and then, I stumble upon an article about this area and here are two recent ones:

  • Subliminal cues do work after all, says study: when subliminal advertising first came to the forefront during the ‘red scare’ 1950s era, people were afraid that the Soviet Union could use such surreptitious techniques to brainwash the public into supporting Communism. Later they were reassured when the results of a much-publicized study turned out to have been falsified. Now, however, with the benefit of MRI ‘brain scan’ technology, there is new evidence that “provided they were reinforced with simultaneous rewards, subliminal advertising could probably influence some of the choices we make.”
  • Subliminal messages work best when negative: so finds a study conducted by University College London, whose Professor Lavie says that “We have shown that people can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages and have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words.” She added: “More controversially, highlighting a competitor’s negative qualities may work on a subliminal level much more effectively than shouting about your own selling points.”

Hopefully this will not give too much succor to those who advocate negative advertising in politics. ‘Effective’ or not in winning elections, I think ‘going negative’ makes our increasingly fragile democratic institutions a loser by increasing cynicism and discouraging citizen participation.

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Thinking about public relations

December 14th, 2009 / 3:19 pm

I watched this BBC documentary series over the weekend, and it got me thinking about the origins of public relations, including its connection to psychology and early practice as propaganda. I suspect that many fellow PR people would be interested to watch The Century of the Self:

In watching the series, it struck me how so many PR people seem to know little about their own industry’s often wartime roots, and made me feel proud about how far PR has progressed ethically and in terms of sophistication since its early crudely manipulative origins.

I also just wrote a rambling article on this topic, much too long for a regular blog post: Thinking about public relations.

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Thinking about public relations

December 14th, 2009 / 12:05 pm

by Bob Pickard

When I worked at Hill & Knowlton in the early 1990s, I knew that there was a John Hill and a David Knowlton who founded the firm in 1927, but for most of us employees then, the history of the firm didn’t loom very large. In general, I find this to be the case across wide swathes of the PR industry. I don’t think most practitioners know enough about their own company’s past or indeed about their own occupation’s roots.

PR people have been called the ‘world’s most powerful information workers,’ so especially if that mighty moniker is true, then we have a responsibility to take more time to actually think about our profession, to consider where it comes from and where it is going, and to be less ignorant of our own history. All too often, we are just swept along in a quotidian current of disposable information with scant opportunity to survey the whole picture and map our actions against broader contexts.

PR people aren’t just suffering from ‘attention deficit’ or ‘information overload’ or ‘continuous partial attention’ (multitasking is a myth as this NPR report shows). Regardless of how media of all kinds these days are now compressing forests of information into trees and increasingly twigs (with programming edited for flea-length attention spans), we still possess what has been called an ‘executive mind’ that is able to switch between different sources of information. The main problem is that we tend to switch between too many things too quickly. Therefore, to understand concepts more complex than a soundbite, we need to make a deliberate decision to use that mind and force its focused attention for ample periods of time on important issues that should command our interest.

Especially because we are in a position through our work to readily grasp things like the fragmentation of the public mass media commons into atomized private streams, we have a unique perspective to share; we need to illustrate a deeper and more profound view. Perhaps owing to legacy factors such as the PR industry’s past modest scale subservient to advertising, a service solicitous of journalists and gratified by client praise for the resulting publicity, I think we PR people sometimes have a tendency to be too conformist, too intellectually incurious, too timid about asking bigger questions. Then there’s the tendency to parrot (or just ‘Re-Tweet’) trendy-sounding but simple rhetorical explanations about our business from glib boasters or slick sloganeers.

“What’s past is prologue” said Shakespeare, and this is an apt expression for the modern public relations industry because I sense a lack of memory and of thinking (as opposed to just saying ‘yes’ to any passing fad and reflexively ‘doing’). Some trends that are actually old seem new again, but if we don’t recall history and apply its lessons, then it seems to me that we aren’t getting any wiser.

Recently I experienced an epiphany on this. I have been giving a presentation on PR campuses (next up is Humber College on January 20th) on the ‘digitization’ of persuasive storytelling, and emphasizing how the unconscious mind (or the ‘emotional brain’) is key in marketing and how metaphors can be marshaled when content is communicated as a ‘conversation’ to make PR narratives more compelling.

I include several contemporary sources in this speech, but also cite Dale Carnegie, whose 1936 book How to win friends and influence people remains a relevant classic. I don’t include any material from Edward Bernays’ seminal 1928 book: Propaganda. Most PR people who know of it are repelled by the book’s equating of public relations with propaganda, but I think it is largely unknown to most modern practitioners. It includes a chapter called “The Psychology of Public Relations” that contains some chilling parallels — written 80 years ago — with what some depict as modern communications practice.

Recently I came across The Century of the Self, a BBC documentary that looks at the roots of 20th century mass marketing (especially things like the unconscious mind and the psychology of persuasion), and was reminded that breathless digital jargon aside, many of the concepts that are being trumpeted as ‘new’ today go at least as far back as the First World War.

I certainly don’t agree with everything this TV series says, but I do think that getting alternative viewpoints helps us gain perspective on our profession. In that regard, The Corporation and Manufacturing Consent are two classic documentaries of the genre. These videos cast PR in a pretty sinister light, in an exaggerated, misleading way relative to what I know is current practice.

Even though it makes some of us feel uncomfortable to admit it, it is pretty clear that PR shares a common history with propaganda. However, I feel that there has been a clear divergence between these concepts. I’ve repeatedly chimed in with this point of view before, in The Japan Times newspaper and in BusinessWeek some years earlier.

When it comes to PR industry credibility, it does the profession no favors to pretend that all we do is “share perspectives” or “create relationships” or “listen to stakeholders” or “engage in dialogue.” It’s true that PR people do all of these things, but we’re not doing them for academic purposes or just for the heck of it. We’re in a persuasion business, trying to get people to do or think what we are hoping they will do or think.

In that sense, very little has changed in PR since its birth. What has changed is we’re transparently letting people know what we’re doing, and while deliberately misleading and manipulating people for nefarious purposes is now seen as the province of propaganda, PR has earned its distinction as a practice of ethically sharing information openly so that people can reach their own conclusions.

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