From the “Nothing’s Free” Files: Want and Its Making

2 min read

Traci Cumbay | Writer/Producer | Well Done Marketing

“So, how are you controlling my mind these days?”

Work in advertising and that or something like it is a common reaction to the “What do you do?” portion of a conversation. It takes many forms, each of them tinged with vulnerability and cynicism.

“What are you making me want?”

Oh, honey. Would that I could. Because there are arguments all over the place that none of us is anything more than a fancy robot, anyway. That we’re ever at the mercy of our biochemistry and free will is nothing but a necessary illusion.

That notion haunts and relieves me in about equal measure.

Lately, it came up when I was listening to the “Blame” episode of Radiolab. In it, neuroscientist David Eagleman sticks to his guns about you being your brain and your brain being you. That is the whole story, he says: No magical “you” is in control and weighing pros and cons, choosing blue or red or whether to have that third cup of coffee.

Existence is all we have, and it feels like it feels. There’s plenty of richness here to hold a person rapt till it’s gone, so whether we have all the agency it feels like we have is irrelevant.

But the offshoot is that what I do, what all of us in advertising do, is useless. If no decisions are happening, we aren’t influencing them.

Or are we? Other brains have come up with entirely different answers. In Slate, Roy F. Baumeister argued that free will is real.

“There is no need to insist that free will is some kind of magical violation of causality,” Baumeister wrote. “Free will is just another kind of cause. The causal process by which a person decides whether to marry is simply different from the processes that cause balls to roll downhill, ice to melt in the hot sun, a magnet to attract nails, or a stock price to rise and fall.”

If he’s right, then my people have all the more reason to keep trying to influence action. If he’s wrong, we still have good call to soldier on. We know that advertising works. Maybe we’re tugging you toward a decision; maybe we’re using images and words to influence your brain chemistry. Either way. Our job is to get the messages out there, and I really don’t think we have any choice in the matter.