On Advertising and the Loss of Free Will


In his treatise on free will, philosopher Sam Harris claims that if an act is formulated in our subconscious then that act cannot be said to be willed by us. A reflex action to catch a ball, an instinctual action to blink in heavy sunlight or the act of breathing are all acts that are not consciously chosen by us, but automatic, reflexive or spontaneous actions.

Something that is automatic is not willed or decided upon, but, to a large extent, predetermined by the factors that initially create it. The blink is created by the sunlight, for example. And, for the same reason, we often cannot control these acts.

Subconscious decisions extend beyond reflex actions to decisions in everyday life.

The most famous example is the purchase of everyday consumer products, as influenced by the power of advertising.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the field of advertising had an influx of psychologists working around the clock to determine what subconscious motivators determined human action. The old paradigm of one kind of consumer motivated by why a product was a good purchase, was quickly subsumed by the idea that there were many  types of consumers , all motivated by subconscious desires.


Instead of selling cars, advertisers began to sell male cars and female cars; old-people cars and young-people cars and so on, using the presumed personality traits of these distinctive demographic groups.

The biggest revelation however, came with the idea that:

“Human behaviour [was not a result of conscious thought but] a result of unconscious efforts to control inner drives and instincts motivated by petty emotions, sexual desire and anxiety” – [1] .

Humans were not as disciplined and rational as first thought. But were instead irrationally motivated by their wants and needs (even if those needs were unknown to them at the time).


The Risks:


Our subconscious desires, by nature of being subconscious, are subject to a particular kind of psychological manipulation by advertisers. The most famous example is through the use of sexual imagery.

The epithet “Sex Sells” is based on the idea that sexual imagery in advertising often correlates to an increase in the sale of a product. (This is only partially true – as  recent research finds that sex only sells if the product itself is considered ‘sexy’).

Sexual imagery in advertising does however, light up specific regions of the brain that are linked to an increase in financial risk taking, and so subconsciously compels us to take risks we may otherwise not have taken, towards, for instance, purchasing an advertised product.


Inspired by neurotechnological breakthroughs, the advertising industry has turned towards the use of brain scanning technology to determine the subconscious desires of consumers.

A recent book called Buyology, collected findings from numerous studies in neuromarketing, concluding  that: subliminal advertising works (and bypasses conscious rational thought or conscious objections), emotional reactions to products can be implanted into the subconscious mind, and increased brain activity during an advert may be linked to an increased desire to buy  products.


The fact that the advertising industry today is relying firstly on brain scanning technology is alarming. It is particularly worrying that these technologies are uncovering our subconscious motivations and desires (unknown to us), and revealing ways to shift these desires.

As Sam Harris suggests: if an act is formulated in our subconscious then that act cannot be said to be willed by us.

If an act, to purchase a product, is formulated first in our subconscious (as determined by our subconscious needs and desires, as shifted by advertising), and then concluded upon in our conscious mind (when we decide actively to buy a product based on said subconscious desires), then have we retained our free will?


What is worrying here is that our subconscious desires and needs, largely unknown to us, are being manipulated. Worse still, they are being manipulated by subliminal messaging, or carefully planted psychological marketing tricks.


It is not necessarily the case that advertisers are compelling consumers to buy particular products, but rather that they are compelling the subconscious needs and desires of consumers to shift towards a state that is best suited to buy said products.

Advertisers play on emotions of nostalgia (targeting Baby Boomers with music from their twenties) or play on the emotions of love and compassion (through scenes of romance or small children).

But the most prominent and most successful emotional tool that they utilise to shift subconscious desires is fear.

Fear of insecurity, rejection, loss, grief or age.

In the case of political advertisements, the industry uses fear of the opponent candidate as the primary tool to dissuade voters.

Emory University psychologist Drew Wenston told CNN that: “fear-based attack ads are effective because they tap into a voter’s subconscious.” Although people say that they are not influenced by negative advertisements when asked, tests reveal that they are subconsciously influenced. Their brains have reacted to the ad, whether they consciously recognise it or not.

The group watched Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m.” campaign ad, which was intended to make voters question Barack Obama’s experience. Viewers said that the ad was fear-mongering and that it did not make them think Clinton was a stronger leader than Obama. But the data, Westen said, showed that their brains reacted differently.

Voters had the greatest hesitation with words like “weak” and “lightweight” during the color test. Westen said this meant the ad made them question Obama’s readiness.

This happens because the ads trigger a response in the part of the brain called the amygdala, which experiences emotions such as fear. When it is aroused, it overrides logic, according to Westen.

In the same way, ads about aging or health or hygiene are aimed squarely at provoking fears, and thus subconsciously increasing the desire of the remedy to that fear: anti-aging cream, doctor visits, Lynx deodorant and so on. A lot of the time we do not know that these fears are being provoked.


In conclusion, there is a risk that the advertisement industry undermines free will by targetting and manipulating our subconscious desires and motivations, which then influence and shape our conscious (or instinctual, reflexive and irrational) decision-making regarding the purchase of products.


Potential Solutions:

The best thing we can do is to educate ourselves on the tools that advertisers use, so that we can consciously recognise when advertisements are attempting to influence our decision-making (lol), and to understand the rhetorical, psychological, and neuromarketing tools at the advertiser’s disposal.



[1] Pamela Odih, Advertising in Modern and Postmodern Times (Sage, 2007) 10-15.