Regardless of what you might’ve heard about me, I’m not a manipulative person. But as someone who understands there’s sometimes a delicate art to getting along in a relationship, I’ll admit I’ve wondered if there are sneaky ways to get people to do what you want. As a woman, I’ve long been advised to subtly encourage men toward my aims, and I’ve spent my life being fed magazine articles and books like The Rules, which purport to trick men successfully into marriage, and movies like If a Man Answers, where a mother shows her daughter how to train her husband as you would a dog.
Still, I know that good partners ask directly and kindly for what they want, frame it as beneficial to both parties, and also give positive encouragement to get that change. By extension, good partners also listen when asked to make compromises: wash the dishes; don’t leave wet towels on the floor; more sex, or any sex, would be great.
But what about when asking directly doesn’t work? Now what?
So when I read about the brainwashing service offered by a company called The Spinner, where you can pay $29 to initiate a blitz campaign of Facebook ads directed at any desired target to influence their behavior (propose marriage, have more sex, stay in school or get a pet dog), I was at the very least curious.
One pitch meeting later, I had a budget to attempt to brainwash an unsuspecting target through targeted ads.
‘Adtech at Its Worst’
If you read the articles about The Spinner, they predictably frame the very idea in alarmist terms, and not just as unethical and creepy, but as some kind of dystopian tech nightmare, where we can sway our loved ones easily without their knowledge to do our bidding precisely where they’re already a captive audience: their own News Feed. This is pure evil, right? After all, it’s a similar tactic that the Russians used to influence the election with racist, religious propaganda by buying and disseminating ads that hyped racial tensions and perpetuated right-wing fear-mongering.
It all sounds pretty icky, but when I read more about the nature of the campaigns, it came across as far more silly than malevolent. The description on the website explains that “The Spinner is a service that enables you to subconsciously influence a specific person, by controlling the content on the websites he or she usually visits. The targeted person gets repetitively exposed to hundreds of items which are placed and disguised as editorial content.”
I wouldn’t call this subliminal messaging exactly; maybe it’s more supraliminal: The message is right there, plainly written, with no subtext. It’s not hidden in something else. It’s just you, the target, don’t know that someone who ostensibly loves you paid $29 to send you 10 articles up to 180 times over three months, all to talk you into getting a dog. What’s more, you don’t know that they did this by texting you a link to a real New York Times article and saying, “Hey, have you seen this crazy article!?!” And you also don’t know that after you clicked it, it activated cookies on your personal computer that initiated the brainwash sequence. Then, presumably, your loved one sat back to let the sweet, sweet brainwashing begin.
But the company’s campaigns are far more quaint than you’d guess given how it sounds. The options include: “Get your kid a dog!” targeted to Mom or Dad, where the target will be exposed to articles such as “12 Reasons Why Your Family Should Get a Dog.” Other options: “Propose Marriage!” Target: Boyfriend. Article: “How to Propose: Marriage Do’s and Don’ts.”
You can also convince someone to stop eating meat, to settle their divorce out of court (though one wonders why anyone who refuses to settle your divorce out of court is going to click on any link you send them), stop riding motorcycles because they’re so unsafe, to quit smoking, to initiate sex, to not do drugs (target: professional athletes), to stop drinking, etc. Then there’s one that encourages people to “Play Slots!” — as if gamblers need more encouragement.
Is This Even Ethical?
But all of it raises the question of who would buy this stuff, and perhaps more interestingly from a sociological perspective, at what point does a person feel this is their best shot? Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows that you can ask directly and explicitly for what you want and still not get it. People are weird, stubborn creatures of habit, and even when they mean well, they’re still pathologically themselves. The older you get, the harder it is to teach those new tricks.
Worse, even, the more you ask, the more the ask becomes an “issue,” the kind where people start to throw up reflexive defensiveness and block you out. It’s what a therapist might call a moment of “low receptivity,” where the person is least likely to hear your request as anything but nagging. At some point, you become a broken record, and it would take a Hail Mary to cut through.
I submit that The Spinner’s campaigns are that Hail Mary. I imagined a person at their wits’ end trying to talk someone they love into more intimacy, a safer mode of transportation, to cool it on the smoking, and that the fun of dogs really does outweigh the hassle of their care, only to realize all those entreaties are falling on deaf ears. Then, maybe they see this option and think of it as a last-ditch workaround that, just maybe, will annihilate their defensiveness.
I agreed to test it the method to write this article. The only problem was, I’m not really angling for any of those things offered by the campaign in my relationship, but even if I were, my significant other refuses to ever look at Facebook.
I knew I had to try someone who’s still on the social sauce. We chose my colleague Miles Klee, and after reading his work, I chose the “Stop Drinking!” campaign. Did Miles have a drinking problem? I would soon find out.
He clicked the bait link, and we were off. Even though the campaign is a three-month blitz, I checked in with him a week later to see if the wheels were a-turnin’.
‘It Didn’t Even Faze Me’
Tracy: Hey have you noticed anything weird in your Facebook lately? Any persuasive messages about your behavior?
Miles: I don’t think so!
Tracy: Wait, you didn’t see anything at all?
Miles: Seemed like FB was just usual posts from friends??
Tracy: Nothing telling you to do or not do anything? No obviously sponsored content?
Miles: Nothing I noticed.
Tracy: Have you changed anything behaviorally this week? Like, done anything more or less than usual?
Miles: Hmmm. Nothing comes to mind.
Tracy: Can you comb through your feed at all? Just see if you got any sponsored ads?
Miles: Sure. Oh wait, I totally was getting a weed ad all the time. Cannco Brand. Telling me to invest.
Tracy: Okay. I was brainwashing you with an ad that was supposed to subtly change your behavior.
Miles: I love that I’m such a pothead it didn’t even faze me that Facebook kept telling me to invest in a cannabis company.
Tracy: That wasn’t the ad I bought! You didn’t notice anything else subtly trying to manipulate your behavior either? At all?!!??!
Miles: I got another ad for something called Intuit QuickBooks. Also the California Cryobank sperm bank. L.A. sperm donors needed!
Tracy: I paid for a blitz campaign to get you to stop drinking, even though, to be clear, I have no idea how much you drink. Do you drink too much?
Miles: Oh, I did not drink less at all. Possibly more. [Editor’s note: We forced Miles to binge-drink a knockoff Four Loko over the weekend, to mixed results.]
Tracy: Meanwhile, I got ads for getting a pet dog, and for not riding motorcycles because they aren’t safe, two other campaigns they offer which I did not order.
Miles: I need no brainwashing to want a dog. My building doesn’t allow them! Also motorcycles ARE unsafe!
Tracy: So, the thing is, we don’t know if this worked, since it doesn’t seem to have sent you ads. How would someone get you to change your habits, anyway? What if you DID drink too much? Would seeing ads about drinking being bad even work? Or could your partner just say, ‘Hey Miles, you drink too much’?
Miles: She does and honestly that’s why I think about trying to drink less.
Tracy: So this campaign could’ve really helped you. Maybe.
Miles: Alas. I think ads about it being bad… would have to be super-scary to work. Intellectually, I already know that it’s bad for me, and that I should drink way less or quit for a while. But the addiction tends to get its way.
Tracy: I have no idea how to make people do stuff you want them to. It seems like being direct is best, even though I realize people don’t always respond to direct requests. Beyond that, anything else seems manipulative. And yet, this didn’t seem that bad. What else would you do to subtly influence this outcome? Forget to bring home booze? Accidentally spill it? Slyly cue up a documentary about the ravages of alcohol?
Miles: Well, also, the mechanism here is odd. If something on FB isn’t a friend’s post or from a group I subscribe to, I just scroll right past, like the pot ad. I just kept seeing “pot leaf” and didn’t even know what specific thing it was for.
Tracy: So what will it take then to make you drink less?
Miles: Actual willpower. It might also need to be about the positives of quitting.
Tracy: Do you think your girlfriend does subtle things to influence you to this end?
Miles: For the most part, she just accepts that I’m going to have a few drinks at home every night. Every once in a while she’ll tease me about how fast I go through the booze or how strong I make drinks. Like she’ll sometimes sip what I’m drinking and make a face.
Tracy: But does it even make a dent?
Miles: More rarely she’ll just gently ask if I ever worry about how much I drink and says she doesn’t want me to die lol.
Tracy: Yeah, that’s not subtle at all, which I respect.
Miles: Same. It’s what makes me want to try.
Tracy: Has she gotten you to change any habit with this method before?
Miles: I’m more conscious of household labor, and I’m cooking more than I ever did with her encouragement. There was a direct conversation after we’d lived together for a while where she pointed out I wasn’t pulling my weight. She’s really good at it. Which is also something I love about her.
Tracy: How so? Like, she says it directly but kindly? And then encourages?
Tracy: Wow, can she send me some tips? I usually just rant for awhile.
Miles: She might unload a bit but always brings it back around to wanting us to have a happy life and home together.
Tracy: She should run the Spinner campaign.
Miles: It never feels like yelling or nagging, I guess. She’s just like, “Hey I’m noticing we’re a little out of balance here.”
There’s No Substitute for Healthy Communication. Also, Is This Whole Thing a Scam?
To be fair, Miles’ girlfriend is approaching things in a healthy way, exactly as experts would suggest. And though it hasn’t exactly worked in terms of his drinking (yet), it obviously did yield positive results in other areas of the relationship.
That said, I had the nagging suspicion Miles hadn’t received a single ad from the Spinner campaign, whereas in my own feed, I’d gotten an ad to get a family dog and that motorcycles are unsafe, both of which I noticed because I’d already perused them when signing up for the service.
I emailed the customer service link to note it didn’t seem like my target had received any ads. I recalled that in a Daily Beast article on the service, the author Kevin Poulsen had signed himself up for the service and hadn’t seen a single ad after weeks. He wrote:
Weeks after voluntarily exposing myself to The Spinner’s cookie cocktail, I have yet to see a single Facebook ad hinting that I should get a family dog. A check with Facebook’s new ad transparency tool provides no evidence I’ve been targeted from one of The Spinner’s sockpuppet pages. Shefler urged patience; the real test will be in another two months. “See if you have a dog,” he said with a laugh.
To their credit, a rep replied to my email within 20 minutes and verified that the link I’d sent Miles had been clicked and the cookie had been activated, but that there were no impressions yet. He advised: “Normally, the targets start being exposed to the content chosen for them within a week. In case your friend won’t see articles on the subject on news sites or social media within 3 days please contact me again.”
I thanked him, but I’m a bit dubious. It’s entirely possible the whole thing is a racket, in spite of the fact that the company insists they have thousands of pleased customers who flood them with “emotional” responses about how they’ve connected with partners or gotten dogs or gotten a son to stay in college.
Since the jig is up with Miles, it won’t make much difference if he actually starts seeing ads for the next three months straight espousing the benefits of drinking less. And given his girlfriend’s stellar work in this area, even if he does start drinking less, we won’t know exactly why regardless. Still, it’s a seductive idea when used in a fairly decent way. Maybe I’ll email her on the sly and see if she wants to get Miles to stop eating meat. Would that really be so manipulative?