by Guy Hatchard

When I was at university I read a book by Vance Packard called The Hidden Persuaders. It remains as relevant and true today as then. Packard delved into the advertising world of branding and psychological manipulation of consumers. He realised that this involved a transformation of our traditional experience-based values into the acceptance of implanted ideas.

Prior to the advent of television, much of everyday knowledge came from personal experiences, book learning, peer interactions, and handed down traditions. The Hidden Persuaders revealed the psychological techniques used to guarantee the acceptance of mass produced consumer items. Powerful admen were tapping the irrational propensities of the consumer mind, they used the applied psychology and sociology created by the propaganda arm of the government during World War II.

Very often we are susceptible to what we want to hear and believe, good comforting news favourable to our deepest desires is often far more acceptable to us than hard realities or uncomfortable truths. Packard was writing 65 years ago, today we are a consumer society and a media-viewing public so attuned to carefully manufactured images that we have difficulty distinguishing reality from wishful thinking.

Subterfuge is now a mainstay of business and politics

The actual techniques of persuasive and deceptive advertising are not now taught as cautionary tales as they were in my day, but as prescriptions for success in the cut-throat world of politics and business. We, the general public, are highly conditioned to accept the nuances of branding. 500 handbags may all serve virtually the same purpose, but their differences in price, quality, desirability, and utility are magnified by branding.Similarly 500 almost identical politicians are differentiated by branding rather than by their past actions and actual capabilities. They are schooled in hollow rhetoric and all the skills of the demagogue. They offer almost impossible possibilities to an electorate who have become conditioned to uncritically accept the exaggerated claims of advertising.

The regular acceptance of patently false or misleading ideas conditions the uncritical mind. We accept advertising telling us that we live In a clean green New Zealand, even when we know this is a manufactured dream and a gross exaggeration. Such uncritical acceptance weakens our psychology—we are no longer in charge of our truth.

Physical harm has become a permitted outcome of government policy

The real problem arises when politicians realise that they can effortlessly segue from wishing thinking to deliberate and criminal deception, without anyone being the wiser. When deception involves turning a blind eye to physical injury, a line has been crossed. Such has become the case during the pandemic. We have heard that:

  • People do not suffer adverse effects from mRNA vaccines.
  • The vaccine will protect you from infection, hospitalisation, and death
  • Everyone hospitalized with covid is unvaccinated.
  • The virus without doubt came from a wet market, (rather than a bioweapon laboratory).
  • The list is a long one….we are at a crossroads.

How do you protect distorted reality from discovery?

When you are advertising a faulty consumer product, eventually poor reviews, and competing products that work well, will kill it off. But:

  • What if there are no reviews allowed?
  • What if there are no competing products?
  • What if politicians are your only source of truth?
  • What if you are told that things would have been so much worse if you hadn’t got vaccinated?
  • What if you are swathed in a mask and discouraged from meeting your peers, or worse encouraged to fear them?

If you read history, you will recognise these as the tools of tyranny. If you watch television uncritically, you will be none the wiser. If you discourage communication between peers you are acting as a dictator.

Control of information has become a matter of faith

The PR machine that is informing us is highly skilled in deception. It recognises our human need for faith and shamelessly substitutes idolatry. The idols of the pandemic are mRNA vaccines. The false prophets are epidemiologists and modellers. The media is paid to agree.

Last week a Stuff newspaper editorial proudly trumpeted its new programme The Whole Truth aimed at medical misinformation. It is being funded by our government. A government who also pays a New York PR firm to sample our social media posts. A government who pays a group of scientists—Te Punaha Matatini—to support their policies and label alternatives as conspiracy. A government who announces themselves as our one source of truth.

The sleight of hand is hard to identify if you are lost amongst the rampant fear mongering of the pandemic. In actuality 99% of our health arises from the food we eat, our daily routines and exercise, the rest of the night, and the joys of the day.

The PR dream that pharmaceuticals alone can offer quality of life or freedom from disease is a manufactured fantasy. Over the years, the protection offered by traditional medical ethics has been eroded as more and more adverse events from largely ineffective medicines are labelled acceptable, and even inevitable. Compulsory compliance comes next.

Constitutional reform is a way ahead

Parliamentarians of all parties have engineered a coup in all but name. The overreach of power is unprecedented. The lack of constitutional protections is handicapping any efforts to resolve the manipulation of information.

Parliament is supreme. 62 newcomers can pass any law without reference to any long standing body of wisdom.

The NZ Bill of Rights is advisory only—we have no rights other than those granted to us by whomever happens to be in the majority this week.

We don’t have a formal written constitution—leaving the door open for the abuse of power.Because of parliamentary privilege politicians are not obliged to speak the truth and there are no mechanisms such as impeachment to hold them to account for lying.The judiciary serves the dictates of Parliament—there is little reference to universal and internationally-recognised standards of fairness.

Control of much of our economy and the media is in the hands of foreign entities and powers who wield a subtle influence on our government.Levels of party allegiance and conformity restrict independent discussion.

Immediate fixes that avoid social disruption are possible:

  • The NZ Bill of Rights could be ‘entrenched’ as a constitutional provision that is beyond the reach of parliament alone to alter. This will strengthen the individual rights that the judiciary can protect.
  • The control exercised by party whips can be reduced to allow MPs to vote more often according to conscience. For example by reducing the MMP threshold to one per cent.
  • Parliamentarians should not be allowed to tell lies with impunity but should be subject to the same laws as anyone else.
  • Provisions of direct democracy such as those in Switzerland can be introduced and implemented through the use of modern technology.
  • Options for choices in health and education need to be strengthened.

Firstly a NZ constitutional conference should be called to discuss these and other issues which would strengthen the accountability of our democratic institutions.The second step towards a resolution requires the formation and election of a single issue party with broad support dedicated to specific constitutional reforms.Upon completion of reform, a second election would allow the appointment of a new government functioning under a constitutional umbrella that guarantees freedom of information and protection of individual rights.

Knowledge is independent of parliament

Importantly, our new constitution needs to recognise that knowledge is independent of the exercise of parliamentary authority. Knowledge has its own canons of veracity. Knowledge is matter of:

  • Personal experience and experiment
  • Scientific rigour and logical analysis
  • Extended use and evaluation of safety

Government in its essence involves the capacity to balance individual and social interests. The recognition of knowledge sufficient to guide such a balanced policy requires debate, experiment, proof, and consensus among all the stakeholders of society, not just one group or special interest.

Such reform will require courage and perseverance. New Zealand has a long history of social innovation and fairness. We can rise to the task, and leave the mistakes of yesterday behind.