Masters of Mass Manipulation with David Colon

Acting in the shadows or in the light, the masters of manipulation design persuasion techniques every day that upset our behavior. 🎭 Because persuasive communication is omnipresent, sometimes dictating to individuals their desires and needs, making and breaking their consents, the We Are COM team decided to dedicate a We Are COM club workshop to the foundations of this art of manipulation. 💡 And to enlighten us, who better than the expert in mass manipulation and propaganda phenomena, David Colon? This historian reviewed the journey and exploits of the 20 greatest manipulation professionals of the last century, in his book The masters of manipulation, a century of mass persuasion.

So how did the great manipulators of the XXrd century succeeded in revolutionizing persuasive communication? What lessons can we learn from these pioneers? This inspiring workshop Club We Are COM was an opportunity for us communicators not to tell each other stories, but to tell each other the history of our professions. 📚 Let's go for a communication lesson, taught by Professor David Colon!

The expert of this Club We Are COM workshop

David colon is a professor at Sciences Po Paris, where he notably teaches the history of propaganda and persuasive communication techniques. This historian is also a researcher at the Sciences Po History Center (CHSP). In 2019, he received the Akropolis prize and in 2020, the Jacques Ellul prize, for his book Propaganda.

the books of David Colon: Propaganda and The Masters of Manipulation

👋 Hello David, to start we are curious. What is your definition of manipulation and your vision of invisible persuasion.

David colon : I would define mass manipulation as a form of persuasion that affects the behavior of a large number of individuals without their knowledge. In other words, it corresponds to the "invisible persuasion", described in 1957 by Vance Packard in his bestseller The Hidden Persuaders. Mass manipulation then appears to be the product of the advertising industry and the "soul engineers" of Madison Avenue. Invisible persuasion is based on two main approaches:

  • A scientific approach, that of KPIs, which is based on indicators, market studies and systematic tests. 
  • A mobile research approach (or search for motivations), which particularly characterizes the great prophet of mass consumption, the psychologist Ernest Dichter. This approach, which already impressed a lot at the time, is, in my opinion, still as decisive today. 

👀 What is the typical profile of the serial manipulator? Is this a men's competition? What do their strategies have in common?

David colon : To tell the truth, at the beginning of my preparatory work for this book, I had developed a corpus of forty characters. As my research progressed, I identified commonalities among some of these masters of manipulation. Finally, I chose to retain only the twenty characters with these four characteristics:

  • Willingness deliberate to manipulate the masses.
  • The capacity to manipulate these masses, most often through their situation: spin doctor, filmmaker, director ofagency, media director…
  • The effects they managed to produce. Precise studies now make it possible to demonstrate the effectiveness of past manipulation campaigns.
  • The scientific approach, which led them to take advantage of progress in science and technology, to apply its principles to persuasion. 

However, in terms of personalities, we observe very varied profiles. Some ardently seek the light, while others prefer to act in the shadows. Edward Bernays presented himself as a "mass manipulator", without always convincing people of the effectiveness of his action. Albert Lasker and John W. Hill, who were two of the most influential men of the twentiethrd century, took great care, on the contrary, to remain in the shadows.

🎞 What are for you the great historical evolutions of the art of mass persuasion? How has she professionalized herself over the years?

David colon : Mass persuasion was born in the United States at the beginning of the XNUMXthrd century. This nation, based on the myth of progress and the sharing of wealth, was the greatest economic power, but also the greatest democracy and the greatest industrial power of the time. Mass industrialization and the advent of political and economic markets have therefore quite naturally favored the birth of new products and new professions. There then appear scientific publicity, marketing, public relations, surveys and major theories of communication.

More concretely, the professionalization of mass persuasion emanates from a historical continuum, since communication has become an applied science, aiming to generate behavior (vote, click, purchase). In order to achieve these objectives, it was necessary to rely on the principles drawn from the progress of science or technology. I would say that this progress was more incremental in the XXrd century and have more recently become exponential, with the advent of digital, Big data and what is called “artificial intelligence”.

The current giants of Silicon Valley are the direct heirs of this historical continuum. They have built their persuasiveness by working to capitalize on a century of mass persuasion and communication theories.

The professionalization of mass persuasion emanates from a historical continuum, since communication has become an applied science, aiming to engender behavior

🎭 We, communicators, are we all manipulators insofar as we use persuasion to act on the behavior of individuals?

David Colon: Ernest Dichter said that mass persuasion is like a knife, with which you can do good or evil. It is a way of presenting communication as essentially foreign to any moral consideration: it is a tool, at the service of the goals pursued by the client of the masters of manipulation.

However, if we look at the course of the latter, we observe that they have, for the most part, focused their thinking on the question of ethics. According to Ivy Lee, the communicator's ethics are based on transparency and therefore the desire to reveal in whose name a discourse is put in place. This master of manipulation also considered that communication should be two-way, with the principle of " two way street ". It was not a question, for example, of manipulating only thepublic opinion so that she approves of Rockefeller, then perceived as a capitalist predator. It was also a question of convincing this industrialist to change his attitude, towards his employees or journalists. In the same way, when he was recruited by Nazi Germany, Ivy Lee defended himself by declaring that he hoped to change the attitude of the latter. All this reflects the character's idealism.

Other masters of manipulation believed that the ethics of communication should be based solely on purpose. Communication is moral when the desired goal is. However, Edward Bernays, at the origin of very famous campaigns for tobacco in the 1920s, was already aware of the carcinogenic nature of the product. It was only very late, in the 1960s, that he changed his tune.

Ernest Dichter said that mass persuasion is like a knife, with which you can do good or evil.

🤔 Is it partly the role of the company to try to manipulate public opinion? Can mass persuasion be moral outside of nonprofit organizations?

David colon : In my opinion, two types of companies use the techniques of mass manipulation.

On the one hand, theFMCG companies, confronted since the 1920s with the complex situation of overproduction. As production capacities surpassed sales capacities, it became essential to unlock the secrets of commercial persuasion and scientific publicity. For these companies, the use of manipulation masters has remained vital. Indeed, for a consumer product to stand out from its competitors, which are often identical, it must operate the strategy of " unique selling proposition (USP). What Ernest Dichter did for Esso, with the catchphrase " Put a tiger in your tank ". In other words, you're not buying gasoline, you're buying horsepower. Playing on the same principle, the latter advised not to sell women shoes, but pretty feet.

On the other hand, industries producing negative externalities cannot ignore consumer manipulation either. This was the case of the tobacco industry, which had entrusted the largest communication budget in the history of humanity to John W. Hill, so that he could counter the impact of scientific studies on public opinion. public, by casting doubt on the harmfulness of the product. This is still the case today with polluting companies which, without resorting to the manipulation of the masses, would probably not be able to continue their activities.

Regarding are non-profit organizations moral in essence? I do not think so. Some NGOs, for example, resort to manipulation techniques, even if their intentions are good. This refers to the concept of nudge » : do good to individuals without their knowledge. We should add that very often, a non-profit organization can hide the interests of an industry, or even be manipulated to serve the interests of the latter, without necessarily knowing it.

📲 How do you perceive the evolution of digital persuasive processes, since the advent of the internet, data and social networks? How is Facebook truly a breakthrough innovation?

David colon : Facebook is a real disruptive innovation, whose growth has relied on the persuasive technologies of BJ Fogg. His Stanford students have also greatly joined the growth teams Facebook. The objective of the platform in its infancy was to make users addicted to the digital product, in order to push them to get involved and encourage those around them to do so.

During the years 2006 and 2007, Facebook was monetized. However, this monetization is that of its users and the predictive analysis of their behavior, through extremely massive data collection. This analysis is based on three main approaches:

  • The inductive approach, where platform analysts infer probabilities from the data they have.
  • The deductive approach, which is the great feature of Facebook, and its strength, since it makes it possible to study user behavior on a large scale. Indeed, Facebook tests and patents a number of persuasive devices and experiments with them on its users.
  • The deep learning approach, more commonly known as artificial intelligence. It is now possible to identify character traits, personality traits or even psychological traits on the simple analysis of individuals in real time: their photos, their publications, their way of typing a message...

The heart of Facebook's reactor is made up of the teams of analysts and engineers who work daily to monetize all these discoveries relating to social relations and persuasive communication. And this, in a framework aimed essentially at generating profits.

Today, it is possible to empirically analyze the behavior of individuals, while crossing these behaviors with psychological characteristics. This is precisely where the great revolution lies, that of the psychological segmentation of the market. The famous phrase " Code is law by Lawrence Lessig takes on its full meaning here. This Harvard professor was the first to identify the two main characteristics of digital systems, namely immediacy and universality. Indeed, digital has generated this phenomenal evolution, that of being able to act on behaviors in a way that is both immediate and universal. The invention of the "like" button or the "share" button remain completely derisory innovations from a technological point of view, a succession of lines of code. However, these lines of code have turned our lives upside down. The “share” button, for example, has a considerable responsibility in the dissemination of hatred and conspiracy theories.

Digital technology has generated this phenomenal evolution, that of being able to act on behavior in an immediate and universal way.

📣 Is there a counter-power from the "mass"? From advertisers?

David colon : I am aware that the path of regulation can lead to a dead end. Condemning such or such a company to pay 4% of its annual turnover because it has resorted to mass manipulation is unlikely to deter the company in view of the profits generated by the infringement. In addition, how can we hope to demonstrate the use of said manipulation, since algorithmic systems fall under industrial secrecy?

On the other hand, there is another interesting track. When it was found that Facebook's tools were being used in the Middle East to facilitate human trafficking, all it took was Apple threatening Facebook to remove its apps from its AppStore for corrections to be made. The sums at stake were indeed much more colossal than a hypothetical fine from the European Commission. As a result, a power is offered to us, that invented by Irish farmers of the XIXrd century: the boycott. Launching a large-scale boycott of phone manufacturers who agree to host apps that use manipulation could have a big impact.

It is also possible to mobilize engineers and data analysts from Silicon Valley, who are increasingly distancing themselves from the deleterious effects of digital manipulation, observed on individuals and societies. The masses still have their say, all is not completely lost! 

💡 What do you think will be the next challenges for communicators in the service of companies, in the era of micropersuasion? Do you have any tips to share?

David colon : More than ever, the issue is, it seems to me, that of ethics and responsibility. It is important to question the meaning we give to these two fashionable terms in the world of communication. What is ethical and responsible communication? Should psychological segmentation of the market, the exploitation of individual vulnerability through cognitive biases be banned? Should a certain number of tools deemed intrusive be banned? Should we be transparent about communication strategies and the resulting persuasive tactics? Finally, I will add that the ethic of persuasive communication is certainly to let an individual be free not to be persuaded by manipulative speech.

The ethics of persuasive communication is certainly to let an individual be free not to be persuaded by manipulative speech.

☝️ Your book traces the history of 20 masters of manipulation, if there were to be 21rd, who would it be?

the 21rd master of manipulation that I would have liked to evoke here is a woman, Leni Riefenstahl, director, photographer and German actress. Unfortunately, his profile not corresponding to the four selection criteria, I had to resolve to oust him from the book. Leni Riefenstahl is certainly a manipulator, but on a more individual scale. This fascinating character has managed to impose himself in extraordinarily sexist and masculine circles, that of the cinema and especially that of Nazism. That said, she never asserted her clear and asserted desire to manipulate the masses with the totalitarian regime. And his films had very little impact during the Nazi era. The manipulation that was hers was rather implemented after the war, when she had to hide her involvement with the Nazis and conceal her complicity in certain crimes against humanity. A personality to perhaps approach in a future book… 😀

Do you want more ? We rewind

The origins of manipulative art go back to ancient Greece and their perfected oratorical art, rhetoric. The great Aristotle defined the latter in these terms: the ability to consider, for each question, what may be appropriate to persuade ". The processes and techniques of rhetoric, which have remained timeless, are the foundation of any action of persuasion.

It's at the XXrd century that a major turning point took place in the history of persuasion, manipulation which had hitherto been oratorical, moved into applied science. Extraordinary industrialization, mass consumption, democratic elections… Advertising and political campaigns require the application of theories of mass persuasion. Masters of manipulation now have a duty to do everything possible to design and perfect the most effective persuasive techniques and strategies. Thus were born, in the United States, the sciences of Communication and Marketing, very quickly exported to France and the rest of Europe. A brief overview of some of the great masters of manipulation.

The masters of manipulation: Ivy Lee, Georges Creel, Albert Lasker and Edward Bernays

Ivy Lee, the pioneer 🎩

Indeed, Ivy Lee is none other than the pioneer of press relations, who succeeded in convincing companies of the benefits of media communication. He is the author of the very first press release in history, using opinion leaders for strategic purposes. The one who called himself a "Doctor in advertising", also lays the foundations of the crisis communication : responsiveness, empathy and transparency. That said, for Ivy Lee, the principle of transparency was quite relative, reshaping the truth more than exposing it clearly. Its innovation? The "two way street", a two-way communication aimed at establishing the confidence of the general public in companies.

Edward Bernays, the father of public relations 🗞

A few years later, the publicist Edward Bernays also stands out. Unlike many of his colleagues, he does not want to play on the quality aspect of a product, but more on the behavior and habits of consumers. Edward Bernays is known for his ability to create events from scratch, and thus generate strong media coverage. Qualified by the New York Times as the "father of public relations", this master of manipulation is a specialist in public opinion. For the record, it is to Edward Bernay that we also owe the first product placement, when he made Maurice Chevalier say " you have this attitude, this provocative attitude that makes me rush to Cartier ».

Masters of manipulation: Ernest Dichter, David Ogilvy, Rosser Reeves and Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet

Ernest Dichter, psychological targeting 🤯

Ernest Dichter revolutionized advertising strategies when, in 1939, he focused on the search for motivations. By placing consumers at the heart of its persuasion strategy, Ernest Dichter lifts the veil on the unconscious desires of individuals and the instinctual nature of the act of purchase. This psychologist, marketing expert, designed the first laboratory of applied cultural anthropology, where human desires were explored, always for manipulative purposes. We owe him many studies on psychological targeting, as well as memorable slogans, which most often relied on emotion.

David Ogilvy, the call to curiosity 👀

The mythical advertiser, David Ogilvy, introduces the notion of "story appeal" in the communication strategies. The principle is none other than appealing to consumer curiosity, through original advertising. For him, the main thing was to succeed in mixing creativity and scientific research, he experimented among other things with AB testing. David Ogilvy was above all committed to the coherence and consistency of the brand image. He also stated, " Each advertisement must be designed as a contribution to the brand image ». This master of manipulation has bequeathed many principles to communicators: product information, the formulation of a good title, the use of testimonials, the power of photography or even repetition and highlighting of solutions.

The masters of manipulation: Michel Bongrand, BJ Fogg, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Thaler

Mark Zuckerberg, the revolution 💥

By creating Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is revolutionizing the art of mass manipulation. Much more than a is the international treasure , Facebook has become a veritable social graph capable of mapping the dynamics of billions of users and acting on them. These large-scale behavioral studies seduce advertisers, Facebook then sells a tool to monitor and predict. With his well-conducted growth hacking strategy and his addictive user experience, Mark Zuckerberg becomes the “first digital emperor”.

Richard Thaler, the “right” choice 🎯

In 2008, Richard Thaler invented the Nudge, a concept aimed at making the world a better place through behavioral economics ". In other words, it is a communication strategy encouraging individuals to make the “right” choice, by refocusing the user and his experience at the heart of the strategy. The idea came to him after buying an iphone, a purchase he considered to be quite beneficial, useful and easy to use. This behavioral finance theorist also wanted to apply the Nudge to public policies, by organizing a context of choice conducive to the "right decision". The most of its concept? the Nudge is inexpensive, low risk and very effective.

Join the Club We Are COM 🚀

Le Club We Are COM allows communication professionals to progress together during moments of sharing best practices only between peers, all sectors combined. Objective: an increase in collective skills in particular thanks to a workshop each month on concrete cases, responses to the major challenges of the COM, meetings with renowned experts, etc. Always exchanges in complete transparency and independence based on feedback: 0% self-promotion, 100% conviction.

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