Buying a certain company’s products won’t make you a better person. Don’t fall for a marketing gambit.

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Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash.

“Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman once asked before answering himself; “I contain multitudes.”

Whitman was quite right: Human beings are complicated creatures- individually and collectively.

Individual humans do things all the time that defy all rational thought. Societies of human beings often collectively do the same things on a larger scale. Human beings are so irrational, the writers of great fiction have had a heyday trying to reimagine that particular human foible out of existence. We can thank this corrective impulse for Spock and Sherlock Holmes.

In the real world, human psychology is complex, multifaceted, chimeric. Abnormal human psychology is a hydra, a many-headed monster of infinite variety. Mental illness, neuro-divergence, psychosis, chemical imbalance; each manifests different symptoms in every vulnerable mind it touches.

Then there’s the rest of us. We aren’t exactly all normal, all the time either.

Exhibit A-Z: Social media. People have laid their innermost thoughts bare to the algorithms of the internet, to the eager perusal of friend and foe alike. Whether or not this was a good idea, as some hoped social media would be, remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that humanity- up close- is a big old mess.

“I thought once people could freely express their ideas, the world would automatically become a better place,” mused one Twitter founder, infamously. “I was wrong about that.”

Yes; even among the most “high-functioning” members of society, quirks, eccentricities, foibles and follies of the mind persist.

Advertisers know all this of course.

They have been exploiting human psychology for decades now and they are pretty great at it. If you don’t think you’re being influenced by advertisers at this very moment, their plan is already working.

One particular odd quirk of human psychology is the reason you feel so good about your social justice Twitter post and your to-do list and why you shouldn’t.

It’s the same reason McDonald’s has salads on their menus. It’s the reason anti-smoking campaigns designed by big tobacco companies didn’t work; they weren’t meant to work any more than McDonald’s salads are meant to be eaten.

Just contemplating a virtuous choice makes us feel virtuous. Writing out our to-do list makes us feel as if we’ve accomplished something. Talking about doing something feels nearly as good as actually doing it.

For people considering going to McDonald’s, salads on the menu are a kind of healthy-behavior talisman; a leafy green rabbit’s foot to mentally rub while they eat their Quarter Pounder with cheese ™.

It doesn’t matter to backwards human psychology if we don’t actually eatthe salad- though human physiology would beg to differ. It matters that we could eat the salad. That alone is what can help push someone considering eating at McDonald’s against their health and fitness goals over the edge.

“I’ll go to McDonald’s,” the McFlurry craver might tell themselves to assuage their guilt. “They have salads.”

Understanding what makes people feel good about themselves is what makes good advertisers great.

Using human insecurity, our longing to belong, existential ennui and feelings of alienation and inadequacy against us is all part of the dark art of advertising.

That corporations know how to push our buttons, and that they have long known, is something lost in our current age of virtue signaling ad campaigns and lofty talk about community stakeholders.

At the end of the day, as appealing as progressives might have found Gillette’s “Toxic Masculinity” ad campaign, Gillette is still owned by Proctor & Gamble, which remains a serial abuser of the environment, an exploiter of low-wage workers in foreign countries, and the single biggest producer of single use plastics on the planet.

Corporations are luring us into yet another false sense of security about the things we buy, and the people who sell us things, their motivations and methods; this one more insidious than any which preceded it:

That buying their products makes you a good person.

Of all the lies media companies have sold us, and they’ve sold us some, the idea that buying a North Face jacket because their executives refused to make special jackets for an oil company group will help save the planet is unquestionably the biggest.

And not just because North Face jackets are produced using and oftentimes primarily made from petroleum products, or that North Face- like so many of its counterparts- is churning out fast fashion that is extremely hard on the planet, and intentionally designed not to be durable. Or that North Face exploits cheap labor and low regulatory environments in emerging nations.

Companies, products, marketers and ad campaigns can’t deliver virtue anymore than they could deliver happiness, sexiness, popularity, status, or anything else advertisers have offered in an enticement to buy new cars, carbonized chemical sugar water, alcoholic beverages or anything else.

Paris Hilton doesn’t eat Hardee’s double-bacon cheese burgers on the hood or a car or anywhere else. Credit card companies have predatory, discriminatory lending practices, whatever your favorite celebrity might say. Milk doesn’t do a body any good at all, and Cindy Crawford never drank Pepsi in her life.

Buying things doesn’t make us happy, or all the well-off people in wealthy nations would be ecstatic and all the impoverished people everywhere would be miserable- and that just isn’t true.

Buying things doesn’t bring us fulfillment or meaning, either.

Advertisers are trying to capitalize on the altruistic human desire to make a difference- while exploiting the human frailty loophole that lets us feel we are making a difference with our intentions alone.

At the natural conclusion of this clever strategy, the world will remain exactly the same as it ever was- while corporations continue to profit off the backs of workers around the world and the wealth gap abyss continues to widen.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)