Marketers and The Myth of Perfect Control

Marketers and The Myth of Perfect Control

You're not broken. I promise.


I can understand why you would think you are, though. After all, you're an expert in yourself. Like a fine painter, you're so familiar with your subject matter that you quickly notice when things are off by a hair. Leonardo da Vinci would surely notice if Lisa had her hands crossed incorrectly, and so you notice a little extra puffiness in your cheeks or a tiny blemish the size of a pinhead on the side of your nostril.

But the dark side of expertise is obsession. And there are few obsessions more tempting than envy and self-criticism. It’s part of the human condition. But there is no worse place to be. Self-pity is quicksand, and will keep you mired and focused inward, contemplating your slightly-less-than-perfect navel.

Today, with technology bringing more of the world under our control, envy and self-pity can lead to never-ending consumption and modification. There is always another watch you can buy, or wine you can drink, to feel a little more worthwhile and confident. In 1800, if you were born with a less than flattering nose, you had to deal with it. In 2015, you can get a masterful nostril reshaping done to the specifications of your favorite celebrity.

In psychology, this is called your locus of control. If you believe you can control what happens to you in life, you have what’s called an internal locus of control. If you believe you’re at the mercy of outside forces, you have what’s called an external locus of control. And in the 21st century, everyone is being internalized. This is a blessing for humanity, but a control freak’s nightmare. While you might have learned how to come to peace with the uncertainty of life and your imperfections in the 19th or 18th centuries, today you can decide to successfully wage all-out war against everything you don’t like.

This is partly due to true technological advancements, and partly due to devilishly effective marketing. Technological advancements in computing, medicine, agriculture, mobile phones, and so forth have genuinely given us control over much of our lives. But consumer marketing, pioneered by Edward Bernays in the early 20th century, has given us an even greater illusion of control.

Each product in our lives has been associated with a happy outcome or a positive image. Toilet paper is no longer just toilet paper. It’s a kid pleaser and a home saver. In ad after ad we see a happy father pull a 12-pack of extra-ply TP off the shelf while his nearby children cheer and smile. Consciously we see this ad as ridiculous. Subconsciously, though, a connection has been made between the product and our happy children. “Buy this product and your kids will be contented” seems to be the hidden message. And so we purchase product after product with expertly crafted associations and branding. Consciously, we don’t really expect anything magical to happen. Over time, however, we might notice ourselves getting a bit frustrated with the world. The kids aren’t happy. The boss doesn’t respond the way we’d like to our presentation. A new freckle or zit has popped up on the nose.

This is life. It’s uncertain, wild, and mostly uncontrollable. It’s imperfect and will always be — and so are you. We all are. In our never-ending quest to create our ideal selves and life, let’s not forget that true perfection comes when we change the things we can, and accept the rest. Every great hero has a flaw.

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