The End of Brainwashing


Summer Reading List: Brainfluence by Roger DooleyHere’s a story within a story, and it begins and ends with my (mostly virtual) friend Brian Solis, author of The End of Business as Usual. Solis began things by posting a photo of my book on Posterous, tagging it as an item on his summer reading list. Solis then linked to that post on Twitter, which produced a small flurry of retweets and an interesting comment from Dan Miller, founder of Opus Research:

Miller’s comment was timely – I’m partway through reading The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations at this very moment. On the plus side, Bernays was indeed a genius at finding cultural hot buttons that enabled him to craft highly persuasive campaigns for his clients. On the minus side, he helped convert millions of women into smokers by positioning the habit as a form of independence.


“Brainwashing” may be a bit extreme, but even today, we are all susceptible to clever messaging and imagery that plays on our past experience and assumptions. Our human decision-making process is no more rational than it was when Bernays was at his manipulative peak.

End of Business by Brian SolisBut, one thing HAS changed since the heyday of Bernays and his peers – social media has wrested control of brand messaging from corporations and agencies and put it in the hands of consumers. This is the key point of Solis’s book, whose full title is The End of Business As Usual: Rewire the Way You Work to Succeed in the Consumer Revolution. Brands are no longer in control of their brand.

“Spin” is itself an endangered species – when consumers (or even competitors) detect a false message, they have massive platforms on which to share what they have detected. And, the more egregious the spin, the more the counter-message will develop a life of its own.

In short, manipulation and misrepresentation by marketers is still possible, but will have a much shorter half-life of effectiveness and may well cause terrible damage to the brand when it is exposed.

The NeuroNudge™

The brain-based marketing techniques I write about in Brainfluence and this blog don’t rise to the level of brainwashing, nor are they a sure-fire way to push anyone’s “buy button.” I think of them as NeuroNudges, a way to gently guide consumers in the right direction. Combined with a solid product and a consumer need or desire, they can help build both sales and a long-lived brand.

The Other Story

I promised a story within a story, and the wrapper for the Bernays/brainwashing piece is the fact that this exchange took place across multiple social media platforms. Solis’s original post was on Posterous, but spread across Twitter via tweets, Facebook via likes, Google via +1s, and so on. Miller’s response wasn’t on the original post, but appeared on Twitter. My response to Miller was too long to squeeze into a tweet, so it appears on a blog. This blog post will, in turn, be shared across other platforms and generate interactions on those platforms.

This chain of interactions, insignificant in the grand scheme of things, nevertheless underscores Solis’s message of change and is a good illustration of how communication occurs spontaneously and across channels that didn’t exist when spin was king.

  1. Disruptive Dave says

    I’m with you, Roger. I think it’s a bit short-sighted to call these topics “brainwashing”. End of the day, it’s about recognizing the science behind how we all operate (schemas, perceptions, etc.) and adjusting our communications appropriately. It’s not about “tricking someone into doing something they don’t want to do”. You look at digital design to enhance the user experience – we know there are certain colors that trigger specific emotions and we know that a bold image as the call-to-action will attract more eyes (same goes for video on a web page). Is that trickery? No more than me putting on a nice suit for an interview, or purchasing a light blue shirt because it’s a color I look good in.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Exactly, Dave. And, even if a marketer does succeed in tricking someone (yes, there are some deceptive marketers), that company and brand won’t last for long.


    2. Mentor Palokaj says

      It’s not so much about making people do things they don’t want. It is about making them want things that you want them to want. Sometimes it can be a seemingly small choice (pepsi vs cola) but with the right techniques people can be nudged a great deal…

  2. Dan Miller says

    Hi Roger:

    I’m glad to keep the cross-media conversation going. Clearly I have a lot of reading to do on the topic of Neuromarketing, as well as more thoughts to develop around when and whether it is okay for one individual (be it a marketing exec for a “brand” or an alpha participant among a company’s community of fans or friends) to manipulate other people’s thinking surreptitiously. My hyper-active imagination assumed that neuromarketing had to do with enterprises using superior knowledge of “hidden influencers” to their best advantage. It’s one of those things that can be used for “good” (promote physical fitness and avoiding sugary snacks) or “bad” (the Bernays case of promoting cigarette smoking is taking forever to undo – as evidenced by the smell of smoke within fifteen feet of any public building that restricts smoking.)

    I just get defensive when the masters of messaging (be it old fashioned, monoliths or brands or the notorious “influencers” who often dominate a multiplicity of publicly available streams – through blogs, the Twitterstream, community sites, FB fan pages, etc) are provided with more tools for dominating the conversation. Sure the power pendulum is swinging toward individual customers, but it doesn’t help if they are being knowingly and willingly manipulated by the same voices – but this time over multiple channels.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good points, Dan. It’s certainly scary to think about all the new channels turning into more ways for a brand to dominate the conversation. I think the more dishonest they are, though, the more rapidly they will get outed and drowned out by the vastly greater number of consumer voices. The current Progressive Insurance fiasco is just one example – an attempted coverup (or whatever it was) blew up into a groundswell of negativity.

      You might enjoy Martin Lindstrom’s Brandwashed if you haven’t already read it. It’s written from a consumerist point of view, and shows some of the ways consumer brands like Whole Foods use subtle but effective influence techniques.

      Thanks for stopping by, and kicking off the discussion!


  3. Neil Hopkins says

    Propaganda is probably one of the best communications books that I have ever read. Bernays was a genius and pretty much everything he wrote is still relevant today.

    I agree that channels have changed and fragmented in ways that he could never have imagined. But the underlying core of his thesis – letting people come to a conclusion as their own idea, facilitating not shoving etc – is still on the money.
    In fact, I’d argue that many of his teaching have been forgotten, but are being rediscovered again as marketers try to find “new” ways of engaging consumers…

    1. Roger Dooley says

      One change, Neil, is that between neuroscience and behavior research, we’re getting a better understanding of what underlies some of the truths that Bernays and others deduced by observation.


  4. Grant says

    Great post Roger – I’m with you that true old fashioned brainwashing isn’t going to be effective in a world where backlash is instant and deadly.

    Except…think about a company like Apple. Their fans exhibit many characteristics of being “brainwashed,” so to speak. Apple fans feel passionate about the company’s products, just as political activists feel passionate about their causes.

    Which begs the question – the most successful companies and organizations today have succeeded in arousing the passions of their supporters. They’ve converted a purchasing decision into an identity statement.

    Doesn’t that achieve the same result as “brainwashing”? Does this mean we’re actually entering a golden age of this type of deliberate engineering, as long as the engineering is done for a good cause? Does social media, which makes your life far more public, actually accelerate this trend?

    I’m really just trying to stir the pot and see where the discussion takes us, but what do you think?

  5. Dani Cross says

    I would argue that “brainwashing” has got even more effective because the “spin” is designed to make you think its not spin. Ahhh, the circles – It makes my brain hurt. At the end of the day, good content is good content is good content and will probably always come out on top.

  6. george says

    Among the people who used negative propaganda to the fullest was Goebbels, the propaganda minister in Nazi Germany. In 40’s , they were very well aware that if facts of only side are presented and that too in a twisted manner, people can be influenced to do things that they might not do without propaganda. Its frightening to imagine what would have happened if the social media like FB , twitter had been present then.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I can’t be certain, George, but I think that free social media tend to counter the propaganda from totalitarian governments. That’s why these tools tend to be banned or heavily censored in nations trying to control the attitudes and actions of their citizens.


  7. Mark says

    Brainwashing is a very strong term usually associated with dubious religious sects but more and more people recognise it when marketeers have a go, usually when it’s pointed out sarcastically via social media. We are in changing times as far as marketing goes but one area where people get brainwashed is when they start researching SEO. Having the most backlinks does not make any website the leading authority but being at the top of Google leads people to assume this. Would love to hear your thoughts, Roger?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Being at the top of Google is definitely an “authority” recommendation, Mark. People assume that Google is always right, and their results are like being told something by, say, an expert or your doctor.


      1. Mark says

        So whether or not Google are in control of their brand they certainly have the confidence of the majority.

  8. Ben Drake says

    I’m a little late to the game, but I see it as there will always be haves and have nots. In this instance we are talking about those who have the knowledge of manipulation or persuasion techniques and those who do not.

    None of us are immune to these forces. I bet even Mr. Miller owns a pair of Nikes or maybe even (gasp) owns a car. We are a social organism. We are influenced by those around us constantly. None of the so called independent choices we make begin, grow, and come to fruition devoid of others influence.

    Understanding how to be influential is no crime. And one could argue that by publishing these techniques in as many of today’s avenues as possible, you could be shedding light on a subject previously known by few (insert Plato’s Allegory of the Cave).

  9. Joseph Willis Jr. says


    I can’t believe I am now just seeing this article. As a hobbyist reader of Bernays and other great minds of the beginnings of modern day marketing, I would take Mr. Miller’s remark as a compliment. Having read your book (along with other modern greats), it for the most part proves, improves or discredits the theories of long ago. To be compared to Bernays, means you are doing something right. Yes he has his downsides, but a genius none the less.

    How are you different? You are using the knowledge for good, in my opinion. I often think about how people with that knowledge are often targets. I’m sure that professionals in your field have been asked, by companies who shall remain nameless, how to brainwash and manipulate their customers or for unethical purposes.

    We can put a spin on just about anything today, yes, but in reading your book; I feel get a since that you are trying to stay on the positive side of things and not talk about the negative. When talking about the negative or dark side, you would have to provide proof and facts that could expose people, and that may be dangerous. Edward Bernays was very straight forward, and others in his day did not hide their intentions. Today, we try to look on the bright side and deter alarmists and the fearful of the great tool that is Neuromarketing.

    ‘Everything is legal until someone is able to prove it should be illegal.’

    Keep up the good work!

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