Manufacturing consent

Many years ago Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist and political thinker, co-authored a book with Edward S. Hermann entitled Manufacturing Consent. (A documentary of the same name later appeared.) In brief, the authors argued that advertising and government propaganda were two sides of the same coin. What worked to sell goods and services also worked to persuade or dissuade Americans on matters political.

Recently Google, or its new parent company Alphabet, briefly surpassed Apple as the world’s most valuable company, as measured by market capitalization. Its quarterly earnings report revealed that fully 90 percent of its $21.3 billion in revenues were from advertising. Thousands of firms paid Google $19.1 billion during the 4th quarter of 2015 to run their advertisements. They would not have done so if its managers believed that advertising was a waste of dollars. Indeed, we cannot escape commercials and advertising. They are truly ubiquitous and omnipresent. (I pay extra to ensure that no one can embed advertising on my site.)

I have no idea, from a psychological standpoint, how advertising works on the presumably malleable brain. I, myself, cannot recall making a conscious decision to buy a product advertised in a magazine or on television. But clearing millions of people must be influenced, directly or indirectly, to purchase stuff as a result of general or particular adverts.

Well, Charles Koch understands the power of persuading people through advertising, or, rather, propaganda. In her book Dark Money Jane Mayer devotes considerable space to Koch’s realization that for his crackpot ideas to gain force he would need to mass market them. She describes the mechanics and money flows in the chapters “The Kochtopus: Free Market Machine” and “Boots on the Ground.” Mayer writes that the Kochs “approached the manufacture of political change like any other product.”

Guess what? The advertisers apparently know what they are doing and so do the Kochs, when it comes to influencing people’s choices and perceptions. Among dozens of examples, Mayer writes about the Koch brothers, and their circle of rich, white men, turning public opinion against Obama’s call for action on climate change.

When Obama assumed office in 2009, even a large majority of Republicans (!) believed that global warming was real, posed a threat, and that the government should take action. Within a few short years, however, Koch’s actions, most under the media’s radar, sowed considerable doubt on the science by attacking the scientists themselves and questioning the use of models. The strategy, employed by the tobacco industry, was to create uncertainty, at least, but also to go many steps further by suggesting that carbon dioxide is a benefit, just as producers of cancer sticks pushed the positive effects of smoking cigarettes, as if there were any. (I encourage you to watch the documentary Merchants of Doubt for more information.)

I regret that so many people are so susceptible to propaganda, whether practiced by government or the private sector. Then, again, we learn this: “Just 38% of US schoolchildren were taught that climate change is linked to fossil fuels, with many teachers spending less than an hour a year on the subject.”

Golly, I wonder how that happened.