The politics of mind-control and Mr Snaffleburger

I’ve had an email about the comparison of the Mr Snaffleburger to Fahrenheit 451. I thought I’d put what I wrote in here because similar topics often come up in emails to me.

My Mr Snaffleburger animations are a satire on corporate policies that attempt to restrict the thoughts and expressions of the general populous. By controlling the language that people use you can control the way that they think, and corporate advertising tries to do this all the time. McDonald’s current slogan in the UK (possibly in the US too) is ‘I’m loving it’. That’s not ‘You’re loving it’ or ‘You’ll love it’. By using the first person and the present tense there is the implication that a friend is telling you this information (indicated by the carefully chosen desirable people in the adverts) but also the text will be read by viewers in their own heads. The use of the present tense creates a kinaesthetic reaction in the brain, triggering a strong emotional connection to the advertised product. Think about eating a burger, now think about love, now think of product name X. The resulting combination is ‘Mmmm, tasty Snaffleburgers!’ even if you think that the food is pretty average (at best!). Every person who sees the adverts recites to themself ‘I’m loving it’ even when they know that this blatantly isn’t true.

There’s a system of positive thinking called Neuro Linguistic Programming (usually referred to as NLP for obvious reasons!) which teaches people to think good things as a way of getting the rest of the mind to believe it and make it become true. When you tell yourself something repeatedly the rest of your mind works out ways to make it happen. When McDonald’s get viewers to repeatedly read ‘I’m loving it’ they are programming the unconscious mind of the viewers to feel more positive about McDonald’s products.

The short version: corporate advertising is often pretty evil.

If you like Fahrenheit 451 then you really should read 1984 by George Orwell. It’s full of superb ideas about the use of language for domination of the masses. Books are one of the key ways that we can ensure continuity of learning between generations and are essential for our intellectual survival. Equally, we need to take control of our own media to highlight the things that are being done to us and to create our own messages. The internet has levelled the playing field a bit, so we now have a tool for mass communication available to us that we have to use to counteract messages that are not always in our best interest. We don’t have the advertising budgets to get our message out to people in the same way that large corporations do, but we are still in a stronger position to take back the media than we probably have been since the invention of the printing press!

I’m not saying that all corporations are bad, or that they are bad by their nature, only that individuals need to keep in mind their own goals and not bend to those that they don’t want. I enjoy watching films. I like science-fiction and comic-book heroes. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to go and see the Fantastic Four just because it’s been aggressively marketed at me because frankly it just didn’t strike me as being any good, but I have enjoyed the Blade films (UK link US link) so I’m happy to pay for them. We live in a society where we need to find a balance between keeping that capitalist structure running and ensuring that our own mental well-being is best served by our actions and feelings. We can’t trust everything we are told by those with interests in taking our money, but there’s nothing wrong with spending it if it’s on something that you genuinely do enjoy.

6 thoughts on “The politics of mind-control and Mr Snaffleburger”

  1. I think you overstate the power of language in the case of advertising. Any creative use of language, almost by the very definition of creative, is intended to create a reaction in the viewer. All language beyond the driest textbook is essentially manipulative. To call it “mind control” is not only needlessly alarmist, but selectively applied; in fairness, you ought to call almost every attempt at communication “mind control”.

  2. You cannot overstate the power of language, and I believe that very strongly.

    ‘Mind-control’ implies that the use of the language is negative, and I find no contradiction there with its application to describing McDonald’s attempts to make you love their fud. When McDonald’s themselves are attempting to argue that they suggest their ‘food’ should only be eaten in moderation it can only be seen as negative that they are trying to evoke great passion from their customers for their fud.

    … So basically I disagree with you completely 🙂

    Most conversations are with an essentially mutual benefit in mind, i.e. for the discussion of a topic with a view to mutual understanding and learning. Advertising can be beneficial, such as ‘don’t stick pointy fireworks in your eyes!’ but mostly it is generally attempting to convince people to buy things that aren’t as essential as the advertiser would have you believe. Language is their primary tool for doing this, and it is an astonishingly effective one.

  3. Perhaps you made a mistake, perhaps you purposely added the letter “g” to the end of “lovin'” to make McDonald’s seem a touch more coherent, or perhaps the slogan is different in the U.S.

    Here, it’s “i’m lovin’ it” with no capitals and no letter “g.” Another way to level with today’s youth.

  4. I meant that you overstate the power of language in that specific case; that is, you make advertising language sound somehow more powerful than any other persuasive speech.

    You are suggesting that it is somehow wrong for a company to try to persuade people to buy their product? I’m really confused now. What else are they supposed to do? “Don’t buy our food, it kind of sucks”?

  5. Shaner: yes, I think you’re right, I gave them too much credit. I did for a moment consider whether I was imagining the dropped ‘g’ and decided I was because it was just too trite to be real. I guess I over-estimated them!

    SeanH: how often do you listen to a speech by a politician? Once, maybe twice if you’ve had the news on all day. I must have seen the McDonald’s slogan hundreds of times by now. NLP works by repetition, and advertising hammers home the message they want to give in just the same way. In this way advertising has a massively powerful impact on our subconscious minds. What other type of ‘persuasive speech’ are you comparing this to?

    I think I made it perfectly clear in my initial post that I think a balance needs to be found between the needs of capitalism and the needs of individuals to choose freely from credible information. McDonald’s advertising is a perfect example of what I have issues with: at one point they’ll say that their food should be part of a balanced diet, but at the same time they’re encouraging people to come in as often as possible. It’s a mixed message until you look at the language used. The information about diet concerns is written in adverts with some pretty dry quotes about healthy eating (well, it was the one time I saw one of those adverts, which was a few years ago now) but their other adverts use language that evokes slang, emotions, and attempts to relate to youth culture. Clearly one message is intended to be read by critics and another seen by millions, including and especially children. As McDonald’s have famously said, get them when they’re young and you’ll have a customer for life.

    It’s not surprising that when they were taken to court over their advertising campaign that McDonald’s lost on all the most significant charges. What really puzzles me is why are you so defensive of them? Every time I write anything that is even vaguely critical of corporate business ethics you jump on me like I’ve just said we should all burn down government buildings and worship Stalin. I know as well as anyone that businesses need to sell things to make a living, but there is a difference between giving people an informed choice and trying to build artificial emotional links with products. McDonald’s epitomises to me so many things that are wrong with current business models. Their adverts give false messages and, through tricky use of language, get away with it. Why is it you have such a problem with me criticising the advertising of a company that has been proven in court to behave immorally in its approach to marketing?

    From the court case verdict: “in my judgment, McDonald’s advertising and marketing is in large part directed at children with a view to them pressuring or pestering their parents to take them to McDonald’s and thereby to take their own custom to McDonald’s.”

    In many ways I really wish advertising was more tightly controlled. I don’t blame the companies for wanting to sell their products, but as I said before, I wish consumers were given a more free environment in which to compare items rather than always going for the product with the biggest advertising budget. Perhaps it’s my inner engineer, but I think a good product should sell itself without millions of pounds spent on advertising.

    I believe we’re heading towards a mess where advertising has more say over public tastes than the public has opinions. Ask most people to buy a bottle of wine and they’ll buy Jacob’s Creek or a bottle of Gallo, even if the person in the shop tells them to buy another bottle which has nicer wine in it for less money (trust me, I’ve tried this). Advertising is making people make bad choices. I would rather the company with the best product win through, not the company with the biggest advertising budget… Or is a meritocracy too unfair for you?

  6. No. Mata is entirely correct.

    Think about it, for a minute.

    How often do you phrase a question to initiate your desired response?

    Me (to Visibly Agitated Boy): So how was your day at school? Was it another good day? What fun things did you get to do?

    Derailed Boy goes into elaborate discussion of the non-horrible events, relaxes and moves on, convinced his day was pretty good, after all.

    Multipy that by the 50K times per day that McD’s commercial hammers at you and perhaps you’ll se what Mata is getting at . . .

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