Advertising, Brainwashing, and Free Will

By Ian Melo

Where is the line drawn between advertising and brainwashing? This discussion must begin at the widely accepted definitions of the terms, and then works its way toward a reasonable understanding of how we see them in action in today’s world. Advertisements are promotion for commercial products or services, and brainwashing refers to the process of indoctrination of a person to a new set of beliefs, usually by threat or pressure.

The fact that brainwashing is accepted as something that can be done unto another person is proof enough that one man can impact the will of another man. The idea that through repetition and deception and pressure people can be broken down and coerced into action that they previously would not have considered has frightening implications on the weakness of human free will. To what degree can people be influenced in other ways? To put it in terms of this discussion, how much pressure must be exerted upon a person before they buy a product they would not have bought otherwise?

The Federal Communications Commission has addressed the issue of public coercion when faced with the problem of subliminal advertising. In 1974, when an ad contained the statement “Get It” in a manner that was so rapid that the viewer was unaware it was happening, they issued a statement admonishing such behavior as “contrary to the public interest”. However, they did not declare these tactics illegal, or even acknowledge whether they were effective or not, but only used their platform to condemn such deceptive tactics. No official lines were ever drawn in that regard.

The question becomes, then, what was the FCC afraid of? They were afraid of people being brainwashed by advertisements, advertisements that compel the viewer using means that have no relation to the actual product or service that is purportedly being advertised. And I think we can all agree that ads these days are less about the product and more about the appeal of the ad itself, an ad that appeals to the viewer on some level that the brand does not. It has become an artform in itself.

Of course, there is a lot of science that is yet to be done with regard to the impact of this sort of advertising on the human mind. Can our free will filter out these advertisements completely? That is yet to be seen, and seems to be the ethic that ad agencies use to justify what they do. But I think the science does need to be done. I do not think this is a non-issue, especially in the increasingly interconnected world we live in today.


Social media has created a medium for advertisers to impact more people in a more direct way than ever before. The effectiveness of this medium is not only being acknowledged, it is being pounced upon. Budgets for social media advertising doubled in the U.S. in just two years, 2014 to 2016, jumping from $16 billion to $31 billion. The impact of such drastic increase in consumption deserves to be studied.

Published by

UNT Eagle Strategies

Class members of the social media class in the Mayborn School of Journalism