Advertising surrounds us. Whenever we are in human-created environments, we are subject to messages from every direction, some obvious in their intent, some more subtle. Unless you grew up in an isolated part of the world, it is likely you have been immersed in this babble of competing voices all your life. There are always new products for sale and new ways of advertising them to consumers. This has become more and more true with scientific and technological progress, from the spread of printing in the 15th century, through bill-boards, radio, cinema and television, down to the Internet in the last couple of decades.
These messages are a form of communication, and work with the social nature of humans. Socialization dates to earliest pre-history, and in many cases is shared with other primates and intelligent animals. Behaviors such as facial expressions and body language are used to elicit co-operation in carrying out tasks that one person on their own may find difficult, such as fighting an enemy, building a dam, or growing corn. Symbolic language allows views to be communicated in a more abstract way. One person may describe situations and how they feel about them, and courses of action that they’d like to take. Emotions like fear and hope are transmitted within a group (with survival as an ultimate goal).
Because emotions affect us as an immediate part of our consciousness, we may not even be aware that they are there, what their nature is or how why we act the way we do based upon them. Compare them with physical phenomena, the other side of consciousness. If you see a rock hurtling towards your head, you know immediately that you should duck out of the way. Likewise, if someone has learned from experience that berries of one color are poisonous, and that those of another color are safe to eat, then they are not going to eat the poisonous berries because they got mixed up about what color they were.
These phenomena are straightforward to identify. On the other hand, a huge amount of art and literature throughout history shows us that many people are confused about romantic feelings towards other people. Someone may be irritated because of rudeness or incompetence in people they deal with, but it is hard to say which specific events have caused their general feeling of irritation, or how they might feel had their recent past happened slightly differently.
An illustration of the pervasiveness of the messages we get from human-created situations is provided by natural beauty. For example, someone walking in some mountains might be able to see everything from rocks strewn at their feet, to trees growing a few feet away, to forests covering the land up to the horizon. They see the sky and the patterns of the clouds, and the sun shining through them.
We may distinguish two reasons for the aesthetic reaction we get to an environment like this. One is their shape and their fractal nature, which absorbs our attention. The other is the lack of human influence. We feel differently if we add a group of loutish buffoons to the scene, who are shouting and throwing plastic packaging into a river. Compare this natural scene to a city full of people rushing about their business, cars jammed on the roads and litter strewing the pavements.
All parts of consciousness, whether memory, imagination, physical sense phenomena like gravity and color, or emotions like friendship, fear or satisfaction, allow us to interact with the outside world and to manipulate it to reach goals. Conscious reflection can, therefore, be useful to analyze whether the views we hold are correct, in line with reality, or just a social fiction we’ve absorbed from others. Deliberate, conscious reflection on the causes of our immediate emotional reactions may cause us to change our perceptions and behavior.
For example, music being played in a shopping center may lift our moods. We might realize that the intended purpose of this was to make us more likely to spend our money on the goods on display. We may then decide to spend our money in a different manner from how we might have otherwise. We may also be affected by the intentions that we see behind artificial situations that were not created deliberately, such as litter and aggressive driving, which show a careless, selfish attitude towards public space and lack of civic spirit. There are subtler forms of advertising, such as clothes or cars. We should consider whether we admire someone because of their achievements, or because of their fashion sense.
Understanding of how we ourselves are manipulated also helps in manipulating others. While this may not be pleasant, a small degree of this is necessary in today’s world, with activities such as applying for a job, where you want to put over the best impression possible. If you decide that you wish to have an positive effect on the world through political action, you will have to manipulate popular opinion to some degree. Even if we don’t get involved in it ourselves, an understanding of politics is useful in order to immunize ourselves against political propaganda used by others.