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Defending your mental environment in the age of ads

Learning to view campaign ads critically rather than passively is the antidote to mass-media manipulation

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Your life has a price tag. So does mine.

That’s not a new concept, of course, but when did it become OK?

Apparently, it was 10 years ago, when General Motors suspected that defective parts in their Chevy Cobalt and Saturn Ion cars were killing customers, but chose not to warn drivers or issue a recall.

GM had “considered several fixes” but simply weighed “the lead time required, cost and effectiveness” of making repairs against the cost of settling with accident victims’ families. That means if you drive a GM car, the company has assigned a dollar amount to your life.

Even if you don’t own a car, how does that fact make you feel? What does it tell us about how companies can affect our human culture?

We know that for-profit corporations are obligated to “maximize shareholder value” by making as much money as they can, but GM’s priorities reveal a corporate culture that values the profitability of its car brands over human life.

What makes that a big, scary deal is that commercial advertisers hold infinitely greater sway over our personal behaviors than ever before. In fact, marketers have made advancements in fields of behavioral science that other researchers have overlooked. One of those areas is behavioral economics, the study of the psychology behind how consumers make economic decisions.

In 2011, Leo Burnett Worldwide, the Chicago-based global advertising company, created a list that classified as many as 1,800 discrete human behaviors. They compiled the data from survey results and more than 10,000 interviews. The payoff for their effort was a ring-shaped chart of “Behavioral Archetypes” that helps clients identify which behaviors of yours they want to change.

In a candid interview with AdAge, Leo Burnett’s executive vice president of research services, Carol Foley, described her company’s use of the Behavioral Archetypes model to identify and change consumer behaviors.

“What we created was a data-informed way of organizing behavior,” Foley said. “This is a way to help strategists think about behaviors and craft intentions.”

And how do “strategists” (marketers to you and me) use this organized data to “craft intentions” in the minds of ad viewers?

First, the agency identifies a behavior of yours that will need to change if their client is going to sell you more of their product. They then use the Behavioral Archetypes model to figure out a desirable counter-behavior that they can influence you to adopt instead.

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