Modern Advertising Threatens Our Free Will


The concept of free will is, ‘the ability to decide what to do independently of any outside influence’, and is one that humanity seems to tirelessly reserve a place for in society. It is used in law to hold the defendant accountable for their actions, and in democracy which trusts the decision of the voter above all else. 1

However, it is well-accepted that our free will is heavily shaped by our desires, which in turn can be influenced by genetics, the external environment and electrochemical processes in the brain. As such, the definition of free will has been weakened to being the ability to act according to our desires, rather than to act free of outside influence. However, modern advertising seems to be able to create and choose our desires in the first place. The content of such advertisements or the merit of the product is no longer relevant, only the effectiveness in manipulating a target group’s emotions and desires.

Subliminal advertising is one such example of this, which involves using messages which are detected below the threshold of conscious awareness to create targeted ideas in a consumer’s mind. It was first proposed by James Vicary in 1957, who claimed that by quickly flashing slogans such as ‘Drink Coca-Cola’ in a movie, sales of the drink increased by 57.7%. Despite this being disproved, it set a precedent where both market researchers and scientists aimed to test the possibility of these hidden messages having a significant effect. 2

A study published by Ronald Millan in 1982 found that ‘the tempo of background music can significantly influence the pace of in-store traffic flow and the daily gross sales volume. In this study the average gross sales increased from $12,113.35 for the fast tempo music to $16,740.23 for the slow tempo music. This is an average increase of $4,627.39 per day, or a 38.2% increase in sales volume. ‘

He concluded that it was possible to influence consumer behaviour through music, without the consumers even being explicitly aware. This example was not strictly subliminal, since consumers would have been able to listen to the music actively, yet it still was able to shape their decisions of what to purchase. 3

Subliminal techniques were used on a grander scale in George Bush’s presidential election campaign in 2000. In the middle of one of his advertisements, whilst a narrator criticised his rival Al Gore for a prescription plan, the word ‘RATS’ appeared in the screen in block capital letters, out of the word ‘bureaucrats.’ It was no coincidence that it was short enough for a viewer not to consciously detect it, but long enough to be detected by the subconscious, and therefore negatively impact their opinions on Al Gore; this happened without viewers’ knowledge. Once this controversy was uncovered, the advertising campaign was withdrawn. 4

At 0:22, a single frame can be viewed which spells out ‘RATS’.

More recently in 2008, professor Tanya Chartrand of Duke University found that ‘almost any brand that has strong associations with particular traits could have the capacity to influence how we act’. In a visual task, the Apple or IBM logo was flashed to 341 students, at a fast enough speed to be below the conscious awareness threshold. The participants then completed a task to assess creativity, and it was found that those with exposure to the Apple logo found more creative solutions. This phenomenon takes advantage of pre-existing opinions (about Apple’s creativity) and it is able to shape them into the actions that advertisers want to achieve, rather than our ‘free’ thought. 5

These days, advertising has become so nuanced and targeted that one can study the psychology in advertising, which combines interests and psychological variables in order to predict a consumer’s behaviour. It is a broad and highly complex field which utilises emotions (such as love, fear and pride), memories, and colours to elicit predicted responses. Such is its effectiveness that there is a 31% success rate for ads which play on emotions compared to 16% for fact-based messages; we have reached a post-truth world, where we view our emotions as the unique and fundamental product of our ‘free’ thinking, yet they are controlled through media with scientific rigour. 6,7

The most frightening and well-known mass manipulation of the public came from Trump’s presidential election campaign through social media, funded by right-wing billionaire Robert Mercer. His $10m investment into the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica allowed them to build up psychological profiles for 220 million American voters, with 5,000 pieces of data for each of them. It began with a seemingly innocent personality survey of 32,000 voters, called the ‘seeders’, which was combined with the likes and information of their individual Facebook accounts. Then, through accessing their network of friends, the deepest emotions of every individual could be analysed and exploited through targeted advertising. With knowledge of 150 liked posts, the algorithmic model could predict someone’s personality better than their partner. By raising this to 300, it could understand you better than yourself.

It’s all about the emotions. This is the big difference with what we did. They call it bio-psycho-social profiling. It takes your physical, mental and lifestyle attributes and works out how people work, how they react emotionally.

Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s affable communications director
The Brexit Campaign also used Cambridge Analytica’s algorithms for advertising.

When data firms can predict and manipulate your decision as a voter without you realising, it is at this point that free will is completely erased, and the concept of democracy and the choice of the voter is thrown into doubt. Mainstream media was fighting a war of information, behind our backs, with right-wing conservatives who had a hardened emotional narrative; as a result, Trump, backed by Mercer, became U.S president. 8,9

Picture depicting the role of social media advertising on the outcome of an election.
Source: Media and Society 10

Since this controversy came to light, Cambridge Analytica has been shut down (along with its parent company, SCL group) and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was famously forced to testify before Congress. However, the floodgates of manipulative and predictive advertising have been opened, and unless decisive data-protection regulations are put into place, our free will remains under grave threat. 11


  1. Cambridge Dictionary (2020)
  2. BBC News (2015) ‘Does subliminal advertising actually work?’
  3. Ronald Millman (1982) ‘Using Background Music to Affect the Behavior of Supermarket Shoppers’
  4. The Guardian (2000) ‘Dirty Rats leave Gore a subliminal message’
  5. Duke University (30 March 2008) “Logo Can Make You ‘Think Different’.”,Whether%20you%20are%20a%20Mac%20person%20or%20a%20PC%20person,that%20mirror%20those%20brands’%20traits.
  6. 75 Media (2019) ‘Thinking vs Feeling: The Psychology of Advertising”
  7. Glint Advertising ‘Psychology in Advertising’
  8. The Guardian (2017) ‘Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media’
  9. The Guardian (2018) ‘Cambridge Analytica: how did it turn clicks into votes?’
  10. Media and Society (2019) ‘ How changes in media affect politics’
  11. The Verge (2018) ‘Cambridge Analytica is shutting down’


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