10. Lessons from the Ad Industry

When I returned to the village after spending 33 years in Delhi, I realized that the village is not very much familiar to me. I didn’t know most of the people under 40. However, after the Dussehra program, there was some improvement. Whenever I saw a new face, I used to ask, “Whose family does he/she belong to?” ‘Family’ was a medium through which I was updating my knowledge of who is who in the village. Similarly, the village was also updating its information about me through my ‘Family’. This method was easy, simple, and quite effective.

Soon everyone in the village got to know about me. I was known but my ‘identity was still missing. In my view, ‘identity’ is like a tree. It begins as a sprout peeping from the seed. Gradually leaves come, a tender stem is formed and then over many years, it becomes visible as a full tree with numerous branches. If I had lived in the village, people would have ‘identified’ me quite well by now, but here there was a gap of 33 years.

The ‘identity’ that would have gradually developed over 33 years was now to be shaped in a few months. Furthermore, it was not me alone. I also had to establish the ‘identity’ of Govindacharya Ji and Mission Tirhutipur in the village. If it was just a matter of giving information, then I would not have had any difficulty. I had a roadmap ready for the next 7 years spanning 654 pages with 9 sectors and more than 100 projects. It is an exhaustive document with all possible details. But unfortunately, it was of little use in terms of creating ‘identity’ in the village.

Along with creating my ‘identity’ in the village, I also had to work on the village mindset i.e. the software of the village. In fact, this was my main task. This was the actual reason that prompted me to come to the village. But both these goals were not attainable by lecturing, preaching, or explaining. Doing so could have the opposite effect. There is a theory in psychology called the Backfire Effect. According to this, when we try to change a person’s beliefs or habits on a logical ground, things often go haywire. In such cases, instead of changing himself, that person is most likely to holds his ideas more tightly and he will defend them with increased determination.

Many urban people come to the village with the intention of doing something good. They often do not understand the theory of the backfire effect. The more they try to change the village on the basis of logic, the more careless the village becomes towards them. There comes a time when they start cursing the villagers and the villagers start making fun of them. In the end, exhausted, they either have to leave the village and go back to the city or are forced to live a lonely life in the village itself.

I did not want to repeat this story. I had a big No when there was an urge for preaching or explaining to anyone. Instead, I decided to use the same methods that people in the advertising industry often use to change (distort) people’s mindsets. I gave special attention to the methods of Edward Bernays. This is the same Edward Bernays who is regarded as the father of the modern PR and the advertising industry. He knew very well how to change the opinion of the people.

In 1929, Bernays launched a campaign that became a legend in the Advertising industry. At that time it was common for men in America to smoke cigarettes. But till then it was taboo for women to smoke in public. Cigarette companies were trying hard to change this phenomenon. They wanted to make smoking a fashion statement among the women. But things were not changing. Then ‘American Tobacco Company’ hired Edward Bernays to do this job. Bernays was a whizz-kid of the American advertising industry. He consulted with psychoanalyst Abraham Brill, a student of Freud’s, who reported to him that cigarettes represented “torches of freedom” for women whose feminine desires were increasingly suppressed by their role in the modern world.

Thereafter, Bernays prepared a plot. He paid some female models asking them to smoke publicly while strolling in the New York’s famous Easter parade. At that time it was very sensational news. It was profusely publicized in the media. Cigarettes were branded as the “Torches of Freedom”. Some feminist leaders also joined the game. In the end, the campaign was quite successful in convincing American women that smoking publicly is not a vice, rather it is a virtue. Needless to say that after this campaign, cigarette smoking became the symbol of liberated women, and the sale of cigarettes increased manifold.

There are many other exploits of Bernays where he used psychology to increase the profits of companies. In the next few decades, a lot of work was done on the possibility of making money by the use of psychology. Gradually a new branch of economics developed that is now called Behavioral Economics. In 2002, psychologist Daniel Kahneman came up with his revolutionary ideas on human judgment and decision-making. His work became so popular that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics even when he had no background in economic studies.

There is a famous book by Daniel Kahneman called – “Thinking Fast and Slow”. This book talks about the Twin Mind theory. It says that the human brain uses two types of systems while making decisions – system-1 and system-2. Whenever it comes to decision-making, system-1 gets activated. System-1 is fast, emotional, and intuitive. It takes a fraction of a second to decide. However, when there is something beyond its comprehension, it transfers the task of decision-making to system-2. System-2 decides slowly but wisely using all sorts of logic and rationality. Interesting thing is that system-2 takes the decision only when it is asked by system-1 to do so. System-2 does not take the initiative in decision-making. The crux of the matter is that when you have to explain something to someone, first of all, talk to system-1 of his mind. You are doomed if you try to bypass system-1.

The principles of behavioral economics, psychology, and cognitive science are all like double-edged swords. They can be used both for distorting and refining public opinion. Unfortunately, the knowledge associated with these disciplines is being used increasingly to spoil society. Now it is high time that this knowledge should also be used for the betterment of society. In Mission Tirhutipur I intend to take few small but steady steps in this direction…

That’s all in this diary. I will come up with new developments in the next diary. Goodbye.

Vimal Kumar Singh
Convener, Mission Tirhutipur

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