Most Americans are dismayed to learn that intentional disinformation likely affected our recent presidential election. The implications for our nation are large and the stakes are high. Interestingly, many of the questions swirl around who is responsible and what methods were used manipulate our sources of news.
What isn’t being so avidly discussed is why Americans fell for it. Sadly, I think the answer may have more to do with how we do business than we are ready to comfortably admit.
A growing number of Americans are generally disgusted with the status quo. Causes for the discontent include unemployment, technological change, imports, immigration, arguments surrounding morality and spirituality, and insecurities rooted way back to the economic dislocation of the Great Recession. So yes, there was a desire for a nontraditional candidate or approach, However, that does not explain why Americans are easily manipulated by information that is simply not true. That’s where business comes in.
Marketing professionals have long pursued a very simple goal: get people emotionally attached to a product so they will want to consume it. With the advent of mass media, this business model required even further simplification. The broader the reach, the more widely understood a message had to be: use the right toothpaste to get a good date. Drive a high-end car to be respected by others. Drink the newest beer to have a good time.
The evolution of the delivery of the marketing messages, from radio to TV, then to the Internet, onto mobile and beyond, created the conditions for more effective access to targeted consumers. However, each medium created pressure for brevity and spawned further simplification of messaging. All this while mass media expanded beyond anyone’s expectations and innumerable sources of information aimed at consumers exploded into a cacophony.
For marketers, the task of coaxing consumers was compounded by the challenge of rising above that noise. Anthropologists and psychologists have shown how the human mind determines which information to ingest and act upon. When information triggers a deep emotional response — and connects to a primal need — it will have a strong effect on behavior. It’s why so many advertisements are based on the fear of missing out or sex appeal.
Humans adapt to our environments and modify our behavior from what we learn. In an accelerating world of shorter and pithier soundbites, we instinctively seek simplicity by selecting which information suits us best. That, in turn, creates greater pressure on advertisers to find attractive ways to attract consumers’ attention.
Enter the marketplace of news. Decades ago, there were comparatively few journalistic outlets providing news at dedicated times of the day. But today, just like the flow of products competing for our attention, news is unending, often alarming, and all-too-often “breaking.”
Politicians scramble to win in this information environment. They market themselves and their ideas using methods learned from modern media and advertising. It is not surprising that our new president was a businessman, someone comfortable with winning media attention by rising above the noise with messaging that was catchy, easily understood and triggered emotional reactions.
After decades of watching commercials that told consumers what they need and how they will feel if they buy a specific product – where broader concepts are obscured or misstated – many Americans have not honed their ability to think critically about whether information is objectively true. They don’t recognize when a highly complex issue has been crudely summarized by the mass media to the detriment of one’s ability to form an educated opinion. Americans have been subtlety conditioned to value information that triggers an emotional reaction. There was no sinister intent – it was just business.
Long after today’s political scandal-of-the-day is resolved, a bigger issue will remain: Americans’ developed preference for shallow but exciting information. When ideas are sold the very same way soap is sold, the most important nuances will often get lost in the wash.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.