Introduction: Free Will and Advertising

First Principles

“We are more master of our thoughts in the morning than in the evening: Fasting, than after a full meal.” (David Hume, 1737)


(Sit expressionlessly still for the painter + boss the silver fox look with a lice-infested wig = Old School philosopher pose 2)

My own brain baffles me.

There are times where all I desperately need to do is remember key mental snapshots, like where I left my keys, what my diary and ‘to do list’ looks like for the day, memorising ‘up-the-sleeve’ data or even just why I’m standing in the kitchen about to open the fridge. No matter how much I attempt to rev up my brain’s RAM for these sorts of things, most of the time I can’t even remember if I’ve forgotten something.


Yet, there are times when I didn’t even know I would need to recall information, and, although I’ve put my brain in neutral, it’s like I have a grey-matter GoPro installed between my ears. It’s picking up the minutiae of casual pub conversation, throw-away comments in meetings, song lyrics to a whole album I’ve listened to just once, whole pages of books I’ve read years ago and quotes I’ve learnt for GCSE English. Even stranger, you only realise it has done so when you receive a ‘trigger.’ It is not until the video plays, almost in slow motion, that you realise why your brain had bothered to hit record at that particular moment. All of a sudden it’s significance is revealed to you by the very fact that you are able to watch the video-memory again.


You wonder, do I really have a choice over what I remember and when I recall it? You wonder, who is controlling who? Am I controlling my thoughts, or are my thoughts controlling me?


Heath would probably call this low attention processing. Kahneman might call it System 1 thinking. For me, it’s a question of whether or not we have free will.

“We learn the influence of our will from experience alone. And experience only teaches us, how one event constantly follows another; without instructing us in the secret connexion, which binds them together, and renders them inseparable.” David Hume


There are two important mental snapshots that made me think very differently about free will and advertising. The significance of the first only became realised when it was triggered by the second.

The first was when a boss told me, “Always remember, what we do is manipulate people.” Their white and blue checked shirt crumpled with their Adland wearied sigh. It was a painful admission.

The second was when a different boss leant in, rest their hand on my forearm (I never felt comfortable enough to tell them that insincere physical contact makes me uneasy) and told me:

“Daaaarling, you have to be more manipulative.” The word ‘manipulative’ made their eyes widen with wicked playfulness.

“Manipulative?” I asked.

“Yes, manipulative. It’s the only way you can get your own way.” Their hands then gesticulated wildly and enthusiastically, like a Bond villain revealing their world domination plans to their minions.


Is it a worthwhile skill or a veritable sin?


Would you rather be the puppet or the puppet master?

If the puppet knows they are a puppet, are they still a puppet?

If the puppet doesn’t mind being a puppet, are they actually the puppet master?

Now, is the puppet master actually the puppet?

In Adland we swing between feeling that our adverts don’t ‘work’, that nobody cares what we have to say, that people automatically tune out and therefore our puppeteer strings have been cut loose and between being ultra-aware that we bombard and pester our way to cut-through.

We swing between wanting to be loved, ‘engaged with’, for the puppets to trust us, and on the other, we want to influence, to manipulate and to control.

Free will is when you have a conscious awareness of a situation that enables you to make a choice about how you interpret and respond to it. Sometimes it takes will power to think more laboriously about the choices you make to stop them being made for you.


Sometimes you just want to renounce responsibility for your choices and leave them to some sort of system – perhaps fate, free market economics, the government, astrology or corporations.


1. Conscious Awareness of Choice : When do nudges knock us over the edge?

Other times, you don’t get a choice of what you are aware of. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could choose what we wanted to take in so that we can make choices accordingly?

2. Choosing Conscious Awareness : When is an interruption an interruption?


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