One of the key tricks of propaganda — PR, advertising, or whatever — is to make the audience think whatever it is you're pushing was their idea all along. Don't just give the people what they want; give them what they think they want. The less they notice they are being manipulated, the better. And if they do notice it, just convince them you didn't so much give them any thoughts as you did awaken them.
I bring this up because I am noticing an alarming change in the way public manipulation of opinion and ideation — that is, not just feelings, but actual thinking — is conducted. It used to be we were that much less aware of the manipulation taking place, because most of us didn't have access to detailed information about how it was being conducted. But over time, it became impossible to keep such techniques a secret — especially not when they're taught in most every course on salesmanship and impressed on everyone sporting an MBA degree.
And now that such secrets are out in the open, we seem to feel the mere fact we are aware of them inoculates us against their power. My theory is that we have accepted the existence of crass psychological manipulation as part of the unspoken cost of modern living. Ads are part of how the wheels are kept turning, and so they're okay as long as they're cute and kinda funny, thus making their insidiousness all the harder to suss out.
We accept all this, in much the same way I accepted horrible snowstorms and crushingly high property taxes and the squalor of Penn Station as part of the cost of living either in or near a cultural center like New York City. After a while, reality set in: it was impossible to enjoy any of those things when I was broke anyway, and so I packed it in and relocated to a far cheaper (if also far less swingin') burg. But really, the biggest lies of all are the ones we tell ourselves, no matter who put them there to begin with.
It isn't the manipulation that bothers me as much as the willing assent to it — the way we assume it's OK to be jerked around as long as we know we're in on the deal. Except we're not really in on the deal at all. The minute you assent to being manipulated in ways you do know, you also assent to being manipulated in ways you don't know. Every time someone exploits your sense of nostalgia, or your sense of any number of other things, and gets away with it because you let them, what else are they getting away with that passes under the door, unnoticed?
I'm wondering now if this is what might have been meant, however clumsily, by the concept of "subliminal manipulation". It's not that the letters S-E-X are being hidden in ads somewhere or any such jejune nonsense, but rather that we are being taught how to persuade ourselves. The more you can make your audience do your work for you, the easier it is to take them to the cleaners a little more each time.
Milton Glaser once described twelve stops on a sliding scale of evil in his line of work, from designing a product packaging to look bigger on the shelf all the way to designing ads for a product whose frequent use could kill. "The interesting thing is how slippery that slope is and how easy it is to move from stage to stage until you arrive at the ultimate human sin," he pointed out. And if it's so easy to move between such stages for the propagandist, imagine how easy it can be for the target audience.