How are you like that if I'm like this?

Updated: Mar 28, 2019

Photo by Sean Stratton

I can't understand why anyone watches The Bachelor. I desperately tried to, though. I listened to impassioned arguments from people I love, force-watched entire episodes on my favorite couch and even reframed it through the lens of my own nonsensical interests; didn’t matter. Nothing took.

There are two possible explanations. Either (1) I’m right and everyone else is wrong or (2) I have an emotional bias against this type of content and, due to lack of personal experience interacting with the culture, am unable to understand the sociology of its fans.

While some people claim to be immune to emotional behavior, I’m here today to definitively report those dudes are liars. Ever bought a product you don’t actually want? Me too! Ever sold a product people don’t actually need? Not particularly proud but yep, same!

Turns out, people have far less control than they know over the stuff they consume. Put more simply, the stuff you buy is rarely — and barely — up to you.

The good news is it’s not your fault, assuming such a thing as fault even exists. If what you chose were actually your choice, advertising executives wouldn’t have spent the last seven-plus decades stacking beaucoup bucks whilst rarely leaving their asses.

What would the world do without the brave pioneers behind genius phrases like, “This Bud’s for You,” and “Got milk?” They laughed all the way to their lake houses.

Ad execs are like dentists with worse cars. But instead of filling teeth with gold, they fill heads with bullshit. Why not? Bullshit is worth a lot more, its use is constitutionally protected and it's way cheaper to produce.

These people attend self-funded awards ceremonies where they sit surrounded by their own friends fawning over massive piles of their own work. When they win, they utter brave phrases like, “Wow, this is so humbling!” I would know. I've done it.

I tell you this not only because I enjoy making fun of the lying industry at every opportunity I get, but also because it paints a vivid picture of how powerful persuasion can be in the hands of professionals. Even lazy ones and even ill-intentioned ones.

Persuasion pros know when you successfully influence what people like, you can accurately predict what they’ll buy. This simple principle drives all marketing and advertising worldwide. From the gently-worded sign on your church’s front lawn to those crackpot Super Bowl pharmaceutical ads, rarely do ten seconds pass without someone trying to sell you something.

Figuring out why those people like those things and these people like these things has long been a fascination of mine. The psychological underpinnings of our irrational preferences are frequent tools I use to reveal individual personalities in storytelling, and they work better than any other tool I’ve found.

As a writer, you’re always playing with devices to help explain human nature to an audience. After a while, you notice patterns. And once you graduate into character development, you start assigning (and questioning) peoples’ motives behind their behaviors. Sure enough, certain patterns of motivation always line up with certain patterns of behavior, and that’s true both in real life and in storyland.

A good copywriter tells stories where the protagonist is a metaphor for the consumer. Instead of your goal being to write a story that rips the curtain off the truth, your only real goal is micro-persuasion. Micro-persuasion, or persuasion in small-doses, means you only want to persuade them a little bit about one little thing, knowing they’ll probably keep going down that same path unimpeded, a path that ends at the product the copywriter was trying to sell all along. That means if your story must suck and dialogue must be meaningless in service of making some inanimate object look ten percent better, then suck and be meaningless it will.

Art tickles your fancy. Ads molest it.

As a consumer of things, you should worry. But as a maker of things, you should get excited. At what point in recent history has the information institutions share been less credible? Never. And at what point in recent history has the art and media institutions share been lazier and less meaningful? Again, never.

Now, what a tremendous opportunity you have to be intentional when everyone else is random; to outgrow meme culture and replace it with thoughtful design; to put the work in, play the long game and tell the truth; to cultivate a reputation for doing and being the polar opposite of the growing army of spammers.

The three primary groups of people who weaponize our wants are criminals, prostitutes and marketers. Their scheme is always to (1) figure out what your heart can’t live without, (2) to give it to you, then (3) to watch you make an idiot out of yourself making sure the Shiny New Thing doesn't disappear.

You know, like on The Bachelor.