Yes, advertising works. Ads work if we love them. They work if we hate them. If we ignore them — but still are exposed to them often enough in the background — they’re still working exactly as intended … drilling their way into the back of our minds.
Don’t argue with me, please. A good share of my livelihood has been funded by those often-maligned but ubiquitous messages, which we who work in the media know keep the lights on and the fridge stocked with edibles. Ads make the wheels of commercial America go ’round. They govern our taste in toothpaste. They connect nonprofits with people who care. They keep us all in tune with what’s going on, not to mention how to make our teeth white as snow and our armpits acceptable in polite company. And without them, when would football fans ever get to go to the bathroom?
Regulators have long recognized advertising’s power, even if civilians tend to forget all about it. That’s not only why millions are dumped onto the airwaves as every election approaches. It also explains why political ads — not only broadcast, but in print, on billboards and in the mail — are firmly required to clarify who’s paying to indoctrinate us.
“I’m Glory Gesundheit, and I approve this message” — transparency and disclosure are what that familiar tag line is all about. It’s the reason broadcast spots, campaign postcards, newspaper ads and even yard signs carry that line of boilerplate in mouse type at the bottom edge: “Sponsored and paid for by the (Gesundheit committee and chairman).” They have to tell us — however cryptically — whose propaganda they’re hoping we’ll absorb.
The Federal Election Commission stands guard over national campaigns conducted through traditional media. States require disclosure, too — in Minnesota, the Campaign Finance Board; in North Dakota, the Century Code, as enforced by states attorneys. The FCC also gets into the act in open-air broadcast, mandating that all candidates for the same office pay the same rates for their airtime.
But here’s the problem. Campaign regulations have fallen a decade behind when it comes to how we really communicate in 2017. Traditional media that play by the familiar rules are fading fast. Today, most of us (seven in 10, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center) use Facebook and other social media. FEC regulations don’t apply online, much less our naïve confidence that we know who’s talking to us.
My college students — every last Millennial among them — cite Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and lately Snapchat as their main and, often, only sources of news and information. Even the majority of my well-ripened Baby Boom peers check our newsfeeds for more than pics of each other’s grandkids, hilarious pet antics and hotdish recipes. We, too, are mainlining views of what’s going on in the world.
So that deep, wide vein of golden attention was destined from the start to be irresistible to those who want to infiltrate our thinking — our understanding of how our country works, of what matters most, of who’s the villain and who’s the savior.
Trouble is, the laws that have served us in the past do not apply to the Internet. It’s the wild, wild West out there. It’s up to us to screen who’s shouting, or whispering, in our ears.
Prompted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Facebook finally ’fessed up to something political observers suspected all along. It has admitted, so far, to collecting more than $100,000 of paid advertising from unfriendly foreign sources. In rubles, yet. Reversing his fervent yearlong denials, Facebook honcho Mark Zuckerberg not only now confirms that we were (and are still) bombarded with messages, viral posts and sponsored suggestions painstakingly aimed to shape our opinions and our votes.
It would be ridiculously naïve to think Zuck’s belated admission is more than the tip of the iceberg. What lurks below? Unless Mueller compels social media records to be opened, we can only guess. Clearly revealing who’s behind the paid onslaught is — as of now — absolutely optional.
Facebook and the like know us better than our own mothers. Since 2000, we’ve gladly embraced these all-powerful media to harvest every detail revealed by our online lives … while they were busy slaying the very media that we count on to disclose the truth. Their influence, say researchers at Pew, is remarkably consistent across all the categories that ad pros term “demographics” — young and old, urban and rural, high-school-educated and college grads, lower incomes and the folks with stratospheric bucks.
And more: We’ve made a devil’s bargain with these billion-dollar corporations. We’ve traded the nuts and bolts of how our minds work for free access to their bright, shiny toys. Thanks to the Internet, the dead-serious industry now called Big Data enables interest groups that pay to play to slice and dice us into chillingly specific chunks — not only by mundane demographics, but by what we think and who we hang out with. That’s earned Facebook and Google top spots among the most valuable corporations on the planet.
Fine, fine. That’s all cool … as long as it’s confined to Google AdWords shooting pitches at my personal screens for new mysteries, luscious knitting yarn and fashions for over-50 gals. It’s also OK with me that Facebook understands I’m a sucker for cat videos and ’60s rock music.
But it’s not OK — not at all — when social media profit from clandestine foreign players who seek to secretly pave a perfect propaganda path into my psyche.
Here’s the thing about traditional advertising: We all speak the language. We recognize that ads aren’t quite the same as gospel truth. A good shake of skeptical salt seasons us against the worst abuses. Even if ad messages do possess a potent power to seep into our souls while we barely notice — thanks to the magic of reach and frequency — we get it. They’re just ads. We understand that every persuasive little gem has been concocted, whittled and glossed up with the frank goal of selling us something.
But that immunizes us, a bit, when they’re on television, newspapers, radio, billboards. Online, not so much. Paid placements blur into the rest of what we’re reading and watching. Few bother to decode every message, and so the trolls’ sly news-like messages, unflagged, get repeated, reposted, retweeted by willing conspirators and gullible readers alike. Hot, juicy falsity becomes so ubiquitous that it fogs up what we understand as true.
Advertising in old media works. (Thank you very much!) When it comes to new media, we’re learning that it works even better. Until the Federal Election Commission and public pressure demand full disclosure of paid messages on social media and their sponsors — the same rules other media live by — beware that creepy feeling that you’re being watched. While online advertisers are free to secretly apply all the Internet can tell them about us, we’re only beginning to figure out the single fact we really know about them: When it comes to what’s going on, we’re mostly in the dark.