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Passive consumer, you are a marketer’s dream.

Americans, you have been brainwashed.

By cornflakes.

It started more than a century ago, when W.K. Kellogg introduced his morning cereal to the market. Thanks to some savvy marketing strategies that included a wax paper liner to help maintain freshness, plus a flip book for customers to play with while they munched away, shipments of the new breakfast sensation soared from an initial 33 cases a day in 1906 to 2,900 daily by the first half of 1907.

Within months, Kellogg’s advertising budget had more than tripled from $90,000 to $300,000 — a lot of cash in a time when skilled construction workers were earning around 50 cents an hour and beef sold for about a dime per pound.

Americans’ appetite for comfort and convenience (and pre-processed foods) transformed Kellogg’s into the titan it is today, and did the same for a number of other companies whose logos, jingles and slogans are now a routine part of pop culture and our lives. Have a Coke and a smile. Just do it.

Advertising and marketing practices are such a common — and often friendly — element of life, that we sometimes forget these messages are asking us to do something. But that’s all they’re designed for. Every ad, every headline, every image is meticulously tailored to drive you to act, even if it’s just to remember a company’s logo so that it feels more familiar when you reach a purchase point.

The strategies are decades old. What’s new is that they have been adjusted for and assimilated into social media tactics — and even into online news reporting. Consumers are more comfortable — and likely to spend more — when they hear or see opinions that mirror their own, which is why every click, every comment, every moment of your browsing and buying day is scrutinized, and the content you receive as a result is increasingly tailored to your preferences.

Decades ago, an entire nation could join in and sing Kellogg’s famous 50s jingle of Good morning, good morning and be fairly certain that everyone was having a common experience. Now, if there’s four people with tablets or phones around the breakfast table, it’s likely each one is in an echo chamber with content that is different from what others are watching or reading. We may have no idea why we are seeing certain ads, if a headline has been generated here at home or overseas, or whether the person we’re having a conversation with is actually a bot.

In this environment it’s important to be smart about what influences you. When one of the thousands of ads or news stories you are bombarded with catches your attention, don’t simply accept the messaging. Stop.

Ask questions, including:
• What company or group is behind this message?
• What is it asking me to think, buy or do?
• Why is it being delivered to me?

Likewise, whether you skim news headlines via social media or sit down with a print version of a Sunday edition, it’s essential to ask:
• Is this a widely recognized news source with an established web address, or is it coming from a makeshift source that is posing as an authority? (Remember: if a news story tells you everything you want to hear, be suspicious.)
• Is the story I’m interested in delivered by a reporter (tasked with reporting facts) or by a commentator (who can actively imbue messaging with opinion)?
• Is this story asking me to feel or act a certain way? (For example, is it telling me the local food pantry is low on donations and providing a way to help out — or is it simply stoking frustration or anger, with no positive way to react?)

Savvy marketing and communications professionals take pride in their work. They love nothing more than to craft a well-designed ad, story or campaign that is welcome on your platforms, with messaging that connects people and ultimately contributes to a sense of community, comfort and achievement.

So don’t be a passive consumer. Make these professionals work for your attention.

The right ones will earn it.