- There's a meme, particularly virulent in educated circles, about how advertising works — how it sways and seduces us, coaxing us gently toward a purchase.
The meme goes something like this:
"Rather than attempting to persuade us (via our rational, analytical minds), ads prey on our emotions. They work by creating positive associations between the advertised product and feelings like love, happiness, safety, and sexual confidence. These associations grow and deepen over time, making us feel favorably disposed toward the product and, ultimately, more likely to buy it."
Here we have a theory — a proposed mechanism — of how ads influence consumer behavior. Let's call it emotional inception or just inception, coined after the movie of the same name where specialists try to implant ideas in other people's minds, subconsciously, by manipulating their dreams.
If ads work by inception, then we should be able to advertise to ourselves just as effectively as companies advertise to us, and we could use this to fix all those defects in our characters that we find so frustrating. If I decide I want to be more outgoing, I could just print a personalized ad for myself with the slogan "Be more social" imposed next to a supermodel or private jet, or whatever image of success or happiness I think would motivate me the most. And I would expect such an ad, staring me in the face every day, to have a substantial "inception-style" effect on my psyche. I would gradually come to associate "being social" with warm feelings, and eventually — without ever lifting a finger — I would find myself positively excited about the prospect of going out to bars and parties. Effortless self-improvement: isn't that the magic bullet solution we're always seeking?
But there is no magic bullet, because these arbitrary-association ads don't work by inception.