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Advertising is the art of selling you a solution you never knew you needed to a problem you never knew you had.

How’s that for a nutshell?

The main goal of an ad campaign is to make you feel dissatisfied. Let’s skip the obvious ones, like the ads for the Wear-these-and-lead-a-carefree-lifestyle Jeans (TM), or the dreadful My-laundry-is-whiter-than-thou Detergent (TM as well, dammit). Even the “good” campaigns, like the ones for Save the Children or other such just and good as apple pie humanitarian cause will usually make you cringe a bit inside for being a selfish little bastard and not forking up some of your hard-earned dough for the poor little buggers. Or whales. Or pandas. Or whatever else we’re saving these days.

A successful ad campaign will be able to trigger in its target audience a feeling of discomfort, and that particular brand of magic relies heavily on the theory of cognitive dissonance (go ahead, click it, it’s Wikipedia). Relevant quote:

A powerful cause of dissonance is when an idea conflicts with a fundamental element of the self-concept, such as “I am a good person” or “I made the right decision.” The anxiety that comes with the possibility of having made a bad decision can lead to rationalization, the tendency to create additional reasons or justifications to support one’s choices. A person who just spent too much money on a new car might decide that the new vehicle is much less likely to break down than his or her old car. This belief may or may not be true, but it would likely reduce dissonance and make the person feel better.

Speaking of which, have you clicked on that Wikipedia link? Nice site, Wikipedia. Did you know it relies entirely on donations from its users? Well? You just burned a hole in their budget there, you bad bad person, you! Want to be good again? Donate something to Wikimedia!

Ok, that’ was a bit heavy-handed, I must admit, but that’s how it works. Triggering cognitive dissonance in its target audience is an essential part of a good ad. The second part of this one-two punch is handing out a seemingly obvious solution to this attack on one’s self image. A sort of “duh, just do/buy/donate this and you’ll be fine”. It’s mostly sleight of hand that does it; the brain is still trying to come to terms with the previous statement, which was essentially a form of “you’re a bad, unaccomplished, not-keeping-up-with-the-Joneses kind of person”. Suddenly, there’s a new piece of information coming in, and the brain yells: “Hey! A straw! Let’s grab it! It’s only 59.95!”

There are some exceptions to this rule, as some of you are likely to point out. Some ads are using humour to rack a sell: high-brow, low-brow, self-deprecating or even downright infantile. Others dress it up in science, using either lab-coated men with serious demeanours or pie-charts and statistics to show you why you’re wrong if you don’t buy their product. But whatever their tactics, they always have the same goal: to sell something to you by the end of that minute. Your defence? Use your head. Or stop watching commercials.

Note from our sponsor: Studies have shown that 92.5% of the people that read this blog lead happier, more fulfilled lives, are envied by their peers and greatly admired by the opposite sex. So keep on reading!

Teach your children to lie

Teach your children to lie

lieNo, no, no – you say. Lie? We should teach them to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help them, cross their heart and all that. They have to be honest to a fault, you know, straightforward and trustworthy. That is, just like their parents.

Sounds familiar? Almost every one of you reading these words has heard the sermon about lies and liars and (if you were lucky enough) the eternal rewards set aside for the good honest children. Your parents tried in their own way to teach you that lying is bad for you. And in 99.999% of cases, they failed utterly.

If truthfulness is such a praised and desired quality in today’s society, why aren’t the liars the exception, rather than the rule? If everyone was better off telling all of the truth, all of the time, why aren’t we living in a world where lies and deceit are things that belong to an ancient, unenlightened past? I’ll tell you why. Because that in itself is the biggest lie of all.

Indeed, unless you’ve spent your tender years in a vegetative state – in which case, you have my sympathy – you first leaned how to lie from your own parents. They lied to you, willingly or not, and when you lied to them, they rewarded you, thus reinforcing the behaviour. And when you got caught with a lie, they punished you for it, thus forcing you to learn to lie better next time. And so you lied, and so it went, and if anything, you should be thankful to them for teaching you. After all, your own ability to function in society is solidly based upon your ability to lie.

There are indeed degrees to a lie, and you went through them all. First there was the blatant, stupid lie, when you painted the walls with your mother’s cosmetics and then denied vigorously – while wiping rouge off your hands. Your parents’ feedback made you give that up pretty early in your lying career, and you should be grateful for that.

Then you learned about the difference between telling the truth and being polite, like that time when Aunt Irma brought you that horrid pink sweater for your birthday, and not only you had to thank her, you had to wear the damn thing until she was gone. Or when you had to spend a whole day in your room for telling your daddy’s boss that he’s ugly and he smells – because he did, and it was the truth, and why weren’t you supposed to tell it all of a sudden?

In time you also learned that you can protect your parents from certain aspects of your young life that they strongly disapprove. Like hanging out with friends they don’t like – “Where were you?” “Oh, out playing, ma'” “Not at Johnny’s?” “No, I was with Paulie and Amber with the bikes around the park”. It’s just a little white lie, and they’re now happier for it. Or, if your parents were really strict about lying, you would just “forget” to mention some parts of your day. Lying by omission is not technically a lie – after all, you haven’t said anything untrue. And so it goes.

Of course you’ve seen your parents do it. You’ve seen your mum being all nice and sugary the new neighbour, only to talk trash  her with her girlfriends afterwards. You’ve seen dad handling door-to-door salesmen. You’ve seen them engaged in a million social interactions where they lie and hide and smile about it, because that’s how it’s done.

That’s how we’re able to function as a society. There was a film called “Liar Liar” where a young Jim Carrey was compelled by his son’s birthday wish to tell the truth for one whole day. The results were hilarious – in the movie – but also quite scary, when examined in depth. We tell a hundred lies a day and never even think about them. They are ingrained in our social persona, part of the reason we are able to live among people. Ever tried spending one whole day telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Try it, and tell me how you failed.

So teach your children to lie. If you’re squeamish about the word “lie”, call it something else, but teach them anyway. Teach them how to lie and how to recognize a lie. Teach them about self-serving lies, social lies, political lies, attorney lies and advertiser lies. Teach them how to recognize the intent behind a lie. Teach them how to use lies, fight lies and go beyond lies to find out who they can and cannot trust.

And if you want to teach them to always tell the truth to their parents, you have to make yourself worthy of their trust. Teach them that your love for them is unconditional and not affected by what they say or do. That being your children is reason enough for you to help them and support them to the best of your abilities. Everybody makes mistakes in life – I know you did – and the best you can do is learn and move on. And if you love them enough, and care about them enough, you will teach them above all this one important lesson.

Everybody lies.