Imagine for a moment that you’re eating a doughnut. It’s warm and soft and sweet. The glaze is perfect. Everything about this doughnut is perfect. Now imagine yourself eating that doughnut while walking into a rundown gas station. It’s not the kind of place you would normally stop, but this was your only option. It’s dirty and and the lights are dim. There is an unsavory person sitting behind the counter. But, nature is calling and so you walk to the back, grab the doorknob of the restroom and walk in. It’s the worst scene you can imagine in this scenario. Soiled toilet paper is laying on the floor. Dried vomit on the wall. The sink doesn’t look like it’s ever been cleaned, the toilet seat is covered in urine and the bowl is clogged and overflowing with someone else’s feces.
By the way… You’re still eating that doughnut. Imagine standing there in that restroom and then proceeding to lick the stickiness off your fingers.
For most of you, if you’ve made it this far, couldn’t even fathom staying in that restroom for a moment longer, much less sticking your finger in your mouth. Some of you may want to go take a shower just because you read that.
I just triggered your sense of disgust.
That feeling comes from a very old place in your brain. We get the feeling of disgust when we encounter things that are potentially diseased or poisonous. It’s why my gag reflex will kick in almost the moment I smell rotting fish. It’s like a fire alarm warning us to get away from something deadly. So we turn away from the smell of rotting meat. We walk out of that bathroom. We wrinkle our noses at mold on food. We hold our breath when we think the person next to us may be infectious. Our instincts tell us to get away from it and if it’s in the house to get it out immediately.
Tendencies towards disgust can vary among humans. At least on some level the degrees of what psychologists call ‘openness to experience’ is connected. People with high openness tend to be more creative with more desire for variety. People with low openness tend to prefer more structure and less variety. They also statistically are more prone to disgust. In a nutshell, people with low openness probably don’t want their food to touch. But, that feeling of disgust extends beyond the biological realm and into cultural and social realms. Simply put, people who look a certain way or display certain behaviors can also disgust us. Pick your favorite prejudice. Again, this comes from a very old place in our brains. The place that says that ‘thing’ carries disease and I need to get it out of the house or away from the tribe. Someone left in proximity to the object of disgust can turn to emotions of fear and then anger and desperation. This detail will be important later.
It’s a survival mechanism, but for our purposes today it’s also a part of our minds that’s easily hijacked. Hijacking that emotion has been a core of advertising and political propaganda pretty much as long as we’ve been telling stories.
Humans are wired for stories. It’s the primary way that we communicate. We don’t like bullet lists of facts and figures. We want stories and the core reason why is a simple question we all want answered. How should I live my life? Or another way to ask it: What is the right way to live? We spend billions of dollars each year in pursuit of stories. We create archetypes and heros and villians that visualize what is good and what is bad. We can watch the same movies and all clearly point to the hero of the story. But strangely, when the filter is applied to real life, we all identify with the hero and never the villain. This detail will also be important later.
Yesterday, I was listening to episode 28 of the podcast Your Undivided Attention which featured Yuval Noah Harari who offered a deep dive into the use of artificial intelligence in social and mobile media and the potential implications for humanity if it continues to go unchecked. My paygrade isn’t high enough to explain everything they did so go listen to it. What I can tell you is this. Social media algorithms primarily push content to us based on the probability that we will react to it in some way. Our engagement can be liking, commenting or sharing. What those algorithms never care about is whether that engagement is based off desire or disgust. Neither is there any consideration on the quality of information. The only objective is to increasingly refine the type of content placed in front of the user in order to create a high probability that will engage with it. Put bluntly in modern terms, the goal is to trigger you into action. It doesn’t care if that trigger is pictures of kittens, girls in bikinis, or political drama. What you can be sure of is those algorithms are monitoring every moment of your digital behavior to continually improve the cocktail that will cause you to pay attention to what it is offering.
Enter the modern world where everyone seems to be disgusted about something. Don’t think for a moment that isn’t by design.
The world of marketing and advertising is a world of stories. Those stories are mostly manipulative stories of desire and disgust. And those stories are mostly about strategically disconnecting reality for consumers so that they act on non-logical if/then statements. What I mean by that on the desire side is connecting a product to an unrelated desire. Think of the old Axe Body Spray commercials. A teenage boy wants to attract the attention of teenage girls. The advertiser alludes through the use of their product that the boy will get his desire. It doesn’t matter how unrealistic the scenario as long as the advertiser can create that association in the consumer’s mind. It works because that particular demographic has a strong desire that the advertiser uses to draw the consumer to their product. But, this is something most of us are aware of.
My job isn’t to make you cheer for a cure. My job is to make you believe something is diseased and dangerous.
Disgust is the other side of that coin that seems to get less attention. The use of disgust isn’t designed to draw you toward something, it’s designed to push you away from it. I don’t have to convince you to like my product, I just need to push you away from something else that will have the inverse effect of pulling you closer to me. I don’t have to tell you how good my soap is. I just need to remind you how dirty your hands are. Again, it doesn’t matter if it’s true as long as I can create that association in your mind. The stronger your reaction to disgust is the greater the probability that my strategy will create my desired outcome. Once you believe the thing is diseased, I don’t have to do anything else but wait. You’ll do the rest on your own.
My job isn’t to make you cheer for a cure. My job is to make you believe something is diseased and dangerous. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, as long as I get you to make the association in your mind. I’m no longer a product, I’m the solution to your problem. Once we get past talking about hand soap and start talking about politics and nations, this strategy has been used to create some of the most destructive campaigns in the history of mankind. If I can trigger your moral outrage while playing on your desire to be the hero, I can get you to do a lot of terrible things without you ever noticing. Disgust has been the currency of bad actors over the history of mankind. Pick a people group, make others disgusted with that group, declare war on that group. Disgust will take care of the rest.
Media companies figured out a long time ago that manufacturing political outrage was a lucrative trade. Like social media algorithms of today, it wasn’t necessarily that they cared what people were outraged about. It was that once they were in that state of mind, that group was more susceptible to advertising products. Breaking their audiences up into more specific demographics made that messaging easier. The media companies, then as now, were making financial decisions less than political ones.
The problem is that most of us think we’re too smart to fall for such things. We’re not. Not me. Not you.
When you rage about a certain group, you’re almost always raging against a caricature that causes you disgust, not your fourth grade teacher or your next door neighbor.
Something that has interested me for a while now is the disconnect I’m seeing where a group or individual will be systematically dehumanized and their actual identity will be replaced with a caricature of something else. More specifically, that caricature is almost universally designed to create disgust for the target audience. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, as long as the association can be made. We overlay filters to turn people into what we want them to be. Case in point the two following memes.
In neither case are they designed for a sober reflection on the realities of today, but instead to place two images together that feed a certain worldview in order to generate a feeling of disgust.
They aren’t designed so that anyone can reconsider their position, but rather to feed the stereotype of a caricature in order to keep pushing a particular narrative. They’re designed to create a feeling of the type of social disorder that a particular group will perceive as a disease. Whichever of these two images makes you angrier, you can be sure that’s the one meant for you.
It’s not useful to think of a Democrat as that lady who was your fourth grade teacher. It’s much more beneficial for me as a marketer to get you to think of them as an anarchist burning cities down.
It’s not useful to think of a Republican as the guy who lives next door to you and has helped you fix a thing or two around the house. It’s way easier to think of neo-nazis armed with AR-15s.
But the end result is people scratching their heads at why they keep hearing people like themselves described in ways that don’t match their own reality. When you try to address it with someone they lash out at you. Cognitive dissonance kicks in and they try to fight and explain to you why they know the truth and why you are wrong. It’s also why you see your uncle, who’s been so nice to you, raging on Facebook about a particular group of people that you happen to belong to. It’s also why your uncle doesn’t make the connection that he’s talking about you. He sees you as a human who is part of the family instead of a caricature. When you rage about a certain group, you’re almost always raging against a caricature that causes you disgust, not your fourth grade teacher or your next door neighbor.
At least to a point. Sometimes it goes too far. Sometimes it gets caught in a feedback loop and explodes.
Unlike the hypothetical bathroom at the beginning of this essay, in the world of social media, people don’t flee from their objects of disgust, they wallow in them like a dog rolling on top of roadkill. Disgust turns to anger. Fiction festers into fact and someone decides they need to be a hero. Because we all think we’re heros. We go too far down that rabbit hole and the caricatures become our reality. We need to remove the diseased from our tribe. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. The connection has been made. And then they do something tragic in real life that has consequences they weren’t expecting. I’ve seen a lot of videos from the people who participated in the insurrection at the US Capitol getting arrested, getting kicked off planes, getting fired. And you can see the confusion on their faces. They thought they were the good guys in this story. They thought they had the moral high ground and some still do. They don’t understand how this could turn out this way. One of the thing that’s been clearly identified with online behavior, is that people will say things to someone online that they would never say in person because they don’t feel accountable in the same way or vulnerable to the consequences of their words. But sometimes those consequences catch up to us.
Because at the end of it we need to remember that engagement is the desired result of the wizards behind the curtain. Sometimes clicks are followed by bangs.