Who are your heroes? People want to know. Do they include Teddy Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Adolf Hitler, Ronald Reagan, Michael Jordan, or Jesus Christ? Or Che Guevara, Mahatma Gandhi or Ayn Rand? Does it make any difference? Well, yes it does.

  Frequently when I was sitting on a Juvenile Court calendar I would tell the young people in my court: “You show me your friends, and I will show you your future.” And I believe that is true. But that is about their future. If you show me your heroes, I will go a long way in showing you who you are now, what you believe in, and how you can be influenced in those beliefs.  

  Knowing who people hold as heroes in many ways demonstrates those people’s values, and shows who and what they will follow. Accordingly, choosing one’s heroes is an important exercise that has a lasting impact. But the importance goes beyond that individual impact because, all importantly, it also shows how those people can be manipulated by others. For example, if your hero is Jesus Christ, I can identify myself with the rousing song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then use it to convince you to give me money, to vote for me, to let me lead you into battle, or to encourage you to give me your children so that I can send them into battle.

Similarly, if you are African American, people can use the song “We Shall Overcome” to lead you in the direction that they want you to go. Or they can use a poem about the Cherokee Indians’ Trail of Tears to gain the following of Native Americans and their sympathizers. And of course, Hitler was famously effective in using the image of the heroic but suppressed German people to take over the political leadership of Germany in the 1930s.

Commercial advertising does basically the same thing. Back in the 1950s, author Vance Packard in his classic book The Hidden Persuaders addressed how Madison Avenue used psychological hooks to draw you in to buying their clients’ products. And he similarly showed how these hooks were used to support the advertisers’ clients as political candidates.  

For example, when a manufacturer came up with a new pancake batter that was not selling, even though it tasted like homemade and was so easy to prepare that the preparer only had to add water to the mix for a great tasting pancake, its officers went to marketing psychologists to determine the cause of their lack of success. After some studies, it was determined that mothers were not buying the product because it was so easy that it took away their psychological need to feel that they were personally taking care of their families. So the psychologists recommended that the manufacturer actually take the eggs out of the recipe, and on the box prominently display the phrase “You provide the fresh eggs.” That approach satisfied the mothers’ psychological needs, and the product almost immediately began to sell solidly.

In another situation, the manufacturer of writing pens decided to market a high quality silver pen for a much reduced price, and was dismayed that its product was not selling. So market analysts conducted a study that showed that people did not believe they could get a good quality pen for that price, so they were not buying it. The researchers simply recommended that the manufacturer increase the pen’s price by 100 percent, which they did, and the pen’s sales increased dramatically.

I have often had fun by watching television commercials with the express purpose of trying to determine how the marketers are attempting to convince people to purchase their clients’ products. Try it yourself, and include your children right along with you. Then take especial notice about what particular product is advertised at what time of day, and by whom?  

And what is the implicit message that is being used to convince you? It is certainly true that sex sells, but there is much more as well. For example, if you bring home our particular brand of pizza, you will be a hero to your family. And also notice that everything is “easy,” “new and improved,” costs ONLY whatever they say it costs, and you must HURRY and act NOW – obviously before you think about the product and realize that this is the wrong decision. The possibilities are endless, and the more you analyze this subject, the more you will see that absolutely nothing happens by coincidence.  

For example, it is no accident that sports events are mostly sponsored by beer and automobile manufacturers when pseudo macho men will be watching, or that the afternoon “soaps” are sponsored by laundry detergents and feminine beauty products that are aimed at the stay-at-home housewives. And as the population becomes increasingly older, notice how medicines to cure baldness and even urinary and erectal disfunctions are increasingly advertised on programs that are watched by the aging “baby boomers.”

Similarly, notice what people are featured in the ads, and how often minorities are or are not included. For a long time if minorities were present at all, they were strategically placed off to the side, and were mild skinned instead of dark. But more recently actors who are from minority groups are being placed more prominently, and often they are the actual focus of the advertisement. To me that is a good sign both that minorities have increased strength in the marketplace so their buying habits are being targeted, and that our race relations problems are being reduced. In other words, progress is being made. But one way or the other, it really is an interesting thing to study.

The same thing holds true for political advertising. How can a particular candidate or proposition be made to be sympathetic to the viewers’ beliefs, or made to fit into their heroes’ molds? This is a multi billion-dollar a year business, and it is fascinating to try to take it apart and analize its makeup.  

Years ago when I was a volunteer for George Deukmejian’s first campaign for Governor of California, I telephoned a registered voter to request his support for my candidate, and his response deeply surprised me. He said that he had not yet made up his mind, but would simply wait to look at the television ads before making his decision. What a startling thing to say! Not that this does not happen all the time, but the thing that got me was that he was consciously aware that he was leaving his choice to the folks on Madison Avenue.

In the final analysis, the surprise is not that professional psychologists and strategists are being paid big money to study us as consumers, voters and supporters, it is that many if not most consumers and voters are not even aware that this is being done. So who is your hero? Do people know who your hero is, and are they using that information to manipulate and otherwise convince you to do things for their own selfish purposes? The answer to that question is a definite yes.

So all of us should be aware of the forces that are being used by others to convince us and to affect our decisions. Not only is this subject interesting, but being aware of these factors will make us better citizens, tax payers and voters – and parents!

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)