To defeat your enemy, you must first know your enemy (Part 1)

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. 

― Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Back in 2016 I published a post called Advertising : Respect your enemy.  It was light-hearted.  It didn’t get many comments. Many people probably just thought it was a bit of fun.


But there was a serious point in there. Advertising works.  To defeat your enemy, you must know and respect your enemy.

I used to think adverts were just harmless background noise.  I thought that stuff would just run right off me, like raindrops run off a rock.

But here’s the thing. With enough time and enough water, even the strongest rock in the river gets worn down.

If you live in a city, you’re surrounded by advertising. If you watch TV, you’re surrounded by advertising. If you’re on social media or have a smartphone, you’re surrounded by advertising. This shit is everywhere.

Advertising works…but not on its own. It mixes with peer pressure.  It mixes with our competitiveness and our desire to rank ourselves in hierarchies. It mixes with our monkey brain desire for MORE SHIT. It mixes with the toxic effect of watching The News.  This makes the cocktail of consumerism that I call “The Prison Camp”.

There is far more to The Prison Camp than just working an office job that you don’t like. The Prison Camp is complex.  It’s an economic system and a hierarchy, but its more than that. Above all, The Prison Camp is a belief system.


The Prison Camp broadcasts messages at us all day long via The News and adverts. These messages multiply our wants, whilst making us less effective. Double lose.

With repeated exposure, adverts form part of your Money Blueprint.  The Prison Camp eventually comes to form the “frame” through which we see the world. The assumptions of the frame are all the more powerful for being implicit and unchallenged.

My suggestion: remove advertising from your life as much as possible.

Advertising is powerful…far more powerful than most people realise. More powerful than your conscious brain realises.  Its NOT that your conscious brain thinks:

“Aha, the product in that advert looks good, I’ll go out and buy it now

That’s not how adverts work. Most of what passes for our thinking is automatic, instinctive and based on habit. Adverts work mainly in our sub-conscious.  Even when adverts seem cheesy, they’re having an impact on your sub-conscious.

To illustrate the difference between conscious and unconscious thought, here’s a simple exercise. Sit somewhere quiet and notice yourself inhaling and exhaling. Consciously breath in….then breath out.

You were breathing long before you focussed on breathing. What then happened is that your conscious mind grabbed the steering wheel from the sub-conscious part. Your body has this amazing ability to operate on automatic pilot and do the breathing without you even being aware of it.

Now, I’ve got news for you. That sub-conscious bit of your brain is doing a lot more than just keeping you breathing.  Its influencing all your money decisions as well.

How many times have you heard people say that advertising works on them because they are an easily influenced sucker? Probably never. That’s not how people think of themselves. But we should pay much more attention to what people actually DO than what they say.

What people actually DO is buy more stuff that is advertised.  Newsflash: Consumer goods companies are not paying billions of £$£€€ to advertising agencies, Facebook and Google for a laugh.  If advertising didn’t work, they wouldn’t do it.

Brand symbols, slogans and jingles lodge in your head without you even knowing it.  This shit never really leaves you. Instead it sits somewhere on your “hard drive” taking up valuable memory space…like some malware program sitting there dormant…until you get to the shop, restaurant, bar etc. And then boom it re-activates! When you see the outline of the traditional coke bottle, you instantly know what it is without even reading the word Coke.

For a wonderful illustration of how powerful subliminal suggestion is, check out this video from hypnotist Derren Brown.  The fact that he plays the trick on advertising executives just adds to the delicious irony.

You probably need to watch this video a couple of times to appreciate just how clever it is.  Symbols and slogans are subliminally embedded in the minds of the victims who think they are operating from free will.

Perhaps this was just achieved by TV editing? Well, I’ve been to one of his shows and Brown does this stuff live and in person.

If you are going to escape, you need to unplug from The Matrix. This is of course a reference to the 1999 sci-fi classic film. The Escape Artist is not the first person to have seen the spooky parallels between The Matrix and Financial Independence.  Back in 2011, Mr Money Mustache joined the dots for us here.

The Matrix helps visualise what financial independence is all about and why it seems so counter-intuitive at first.  Let’s start with the easy bit…our hero Neo is a cubicle dwelling office worker trapped in The Prison Camp.

Neo has this niggling sense that there must be more to life than working at Megacorp.  But, although his boss is a bit of a drag, his everyday life is familiar and comfortable. Change is scary. It will take a change of mindset where he embraces a new reality.

This is shown in the famous Red Pill scene.  Neo has a choice between taking The Blue Pill (continuing with the comforting routine of work, shopping, holidays, consumption etc etc) or taking The Red Pill and seeing the world as it really is.

Having taken the Red Pill, Neo is unplugged from The Matrix….wrenched away from the comforting myths and false beliefs that have occupied and distracted him for all his life.

Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?

Morpheus : You’ve never used them before

When I first stumbled across FI blogs, I had that weird realisation that there’s another world out there. I’d found the rabbit hole that could take me to that other world.  The Red Pill analogy provides a way of thinking about that perception shift.

It also explains the difficulties of “converting” other people.  Every so often on FI discussion groups online, you’ll see a FIer talking about how their colleagues are moaning about being broke yet they’ve just bought a new car / holiday / phone whatever. Surely what that colleague needs is a lecture some good advice?

Well maybe… but need and want are 2 different things. In the words of Morpheus:

You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependant on the system that they will fight to protect it.

When you watch the clip above, note how what at first looks like a random crowd of people are actually made up of the occupations which keep The System going:

  • The suits = Big corporations
  • The nuns = Organised Religion
  • The sailors = Military
  • The cop = Law Enforcement
  • The teachers = Education
  • The agents = Politicians
  • The woman in red = Distractions (alcohol, shopping, passive entertainment etc etc)

The Escape Artist is not “against” the people working in these fields.  It’s not that simple. For example, teachers are motivated to educate students, not enslave them. But life is full of unintended consequences and second order effects.

The Prison Camp is the end result…it’s what happened when big corporations, advertising, the media, politics and education came together.  Most politicians didn’t set out to create a system that would encourage over-consumption and environmental damage. Nor a society where everyone is fat, broke and stressed. It wasn’t designed that way, it’s what evolved in a complex world where people want to influence other people.

Here’s how Ed Latimore puts it:

I don’t think there’s an INTENTIONAL conspiracy to make everyone fat, lazy, and stupid. The goal is just to make a lot of money. The best way to do that is to get people hooked on junk, both physically and mentally.

A fat, low-attention span, instant gratification, dopamine seeking population is easy to control, and better to profit from.

So, there is no organised conspiracy.   But the effect is much the same.

So control your own environment as much as you can.  Don’t go to shopping centres. Don’t watch TV news or adverts (there are mute and skip buttons on TV remote controls). Opt out of marketing junk mail. Hit unsubscribe rather than just delete when you get a marketing email. Change your settings on social media to get fewer notifications. Stop sharing your location and data with big tech companies that use it to beam targeted ads at you.

To escape, you need to unplug from advertising and The News.

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  1. I always think of the Bill Hicks bit whenever advertising or marketing is mentioned.

  2. i got rid of all that a few years ago and have never had a “smartphone” to make me dumb. i found that what helps keep the ad stuff at bay is to active shout and rail against it. mrs. me is very patient when i must see a pharma ad and jump around shouting sarcastically about “needing those pills immediately!” i only sincerely hope that some people get out of the matrix. the rest of the irresponsible need to continue to fuel my investments.

  3. Great article Barney. I am a FI’er and have always thought of society as 99% compliant robots. I don’t think its a sinister conspiracy, its just that most people really value instant gratification whilst avoiding effort, hassle and pain in life – so companies find ways to provide solutions for fat profits. Most people are prepared to stay on the treadwheel of work>pay>buy more shit>repeat in order to provide this existence. Of course, it doesn’t have to be like this, but it seems most are resigned to live that life.

  4. FI Warrior · · Reply

    Hey, fully agree. I have 2 memories from circa a decade ago at the nastiest corporate I worked at:

    I came home one day after a grueling stint of pointlessness to find my beloved then-wife’s pet mice running happily on their little wheel and idly thought ‘Haha these guys are still on their shift. But which then led me to wonder why they actually do it for fun, so we must be dumber than mice because we don’t have fun but do it anyway, despite our brains being apparently larger. (shades of ‘The hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy’ there)

    And at work one dress-down Friday, a female colleague was wearing a very well-fitting T-shirt with ‘98% Chimp’ written on it, high at the front. She could do this humour with such confidence because the last thing you could think of on seeing that was any resemblance between her and any chimp, especially the area where the words were. I don’t doubt for a minute her intention was to provoke only philosophical thought though and indeed it worked; it made me think that actually the mass of humanity are more likely 99% sheep than any given primate. Hence the power of advertising and why I’ve so many shares in facebook while never having used it it the normal way.

  5. As bad as it is, I’m seriously scared by what is coming… For example, neuromarketing looks like it has the potential to turn us into irrational puppets.

  6. Urban_F.I · · Reply

    I have been reading your blogs for the last 7 months and enjoy the topics and information and down to earth approach, great post.

    Thank you , I’ve finally woken up .

  7. MoneyVik · · Reply

    Wow, Escape artist, I’ve been following your blog for a while and I really enjoy your writing but this article has really hit the nail in the head.

    When I first watched the Matrix I related to it, at the time I was working in my first office job and realised there must be more to life than this.

    Ever since then I’ve been seeking the alternative and only when I came upon the FI world did I realise what I was looking for.

    This is a great reminder to plug out from advertisements and location sharing also.


  8. Funny. I’m half-way through writing a post on what it’s like to be in a country where the advertising isn’t about consumer goods, but about the rulers. It was fascinating to see how all-encompassing the emotional hold on the people was. There’s no reason to believe that our society (with its consumerism) is any different. 🙂

  9. Plina · · Reply

    Throw out the TV and get an adblocker in addition to those points then you commercial exposure drops significantly.

  10. Wonderful post, sums us up completely,the need to be in hierarchy goes back beyond us to chimp culture I think? So powerful in our reason to being that even when you know what it is doing it still influences our actions.

  11. steveark · · Reply

    You can achieve that need for significance in the social order just as easily by the things you do as by the things you buy. By being a leader who serves or a helper who helps others, by being a recognized expert. By being financially independent and obviously free from the rodent wheel or by having a job that is too much fun to quit even if you are past needing any more income. By rejecting the conventional wisdom when it is obviously conventional nonsense. And by hanging with a tribe of the unplugged like this one. Love those Matrix clips!

  12. Very funny (but very true). If you like this post (and ones like it) I’d recommend “The Handbook of Human Ownership: a Manual for new Tax Farmers” by Stefan Molyneux. Made me laugh a lot…

  13. Hi TEA,

    I haven’t watched “The Matrix” for years. Seminal classic. Thanks – I am watching it now the better half is out and the kids are in bed 🙂

    As a teacher I liked the clip about the “system”. I wrote a post a while back ( about how all I feel the state education system is for is to create wage slaves.
    It begins early on. They learn discrete topics and specialise. Teachers, driven by performance management targets drive and bully/handhold the kids to their results.

    This results in them “passing” into society but without the requisite skills for independent thinking (questioning/analysis/resilience/problem solving). This is the “education” required to create a mass of people being trapped into the “40 years of work”. The private system for all its societal flaws, seems to develop more “creative” people (or is this just a result of mingling with confident people?).

    I believe some teachers want to create people “free from the matrix”. However, there has been an orchestrated, gradual, “managed removal” of experienced teachers from the profession due to budget cuts. Most teachers are young, inexperienced (in life), social media obsessives who think they have made it when they get a car on a PCP.

    You missed this from Agent Smith…

    “Have you ever stood and stared at it. Marvelled at its Beauty. Billions of people. Living out their lives. Oblivious.”


  14. Great stuff man. Ditching cable and TV all together was the best thing I ever did for my mind. I still have to deal with ads in other parts of life, but the boob tube is the source of a vast majority of it for so many, esp since Americans watch something absurd like 5 hrs. of TV a day. Anyone who’s ever worked in advertising can tel you the lengths they will go to get into your psyche…

  15. Debbie · · Reply

    Absolutely brilliant post. I stopped listening to the news many years ago. Just seemed garbage in would be garbage out. Stopped listening to local radio few years back. Have been watching only recorded TV for past year or so. My World is so much more serene. At work, all of us that work in my position are getting a Grade promotion with a nice bump in salary. I immediately increased my TSP contribution with another co-worker talking about how he was going to buy a new car. He is stuck in that buy, buy, buy world. My eye is on my future.

  16. Ken A · · Reply

    All your comments are true. There is, however, another concept closely allied to everything you have mentioned. It is the concept of ‘Group Think’ This is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in groups of people when the desire for group consensus overrides the common sense desire to present alternatives, critique a position or express an unpopular opinion. Here, the desire for group cohesion effectively drives out good decision making and problem solving. Read the book by Irving Janis, it’s all in there.

    The EU, Universities, Climate Change, The BBC. They’re all examples. The ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion only went ahead because the decision making group was riddled with groupthink. There are many more.

    Another new concept now seems to be ‘Virtue Signalling’. The conspicuous expression of moral values. It’s probably an old concept but has been rejuvenated and is omnipresent in advertising and company slogans. Basically bullshit in disguise.

    I feel really sad for the people who are fed this shit on a daily basis and who swallow it. At least I can recognise it for what it is. I’m not eating any of it.

    Great article Barney.

    Ken A

  17. Thanks to everyone for the comments. I must admit I was hoping to hear from someone who thinks adverts don’t work on them….or at least used to think that. It’s definitely an article that touches on groupthink…this is the downside of being a social species…we are prone to “hive-mind” on a whole range of subjects not just money.

    ps Kudos to Quitting Teaching for open-mindedness on public v private education

  18. Survivor · · Reply

    Hi, I thought I was impervious to advertising influence, then realised it was just a good habit built up to ignore what I’d consciously identified, like obvious pop-ups/old-media in-your-face-hectoring variations on BUY THIS NOW!!! But when you read up on the psychology of it, experiments like Derren Brown’s show that plenty of other subliminal messaging slips in under the radar [nobody is perfect enough to resist this] …….& by definition subliminal means you don’t know it at the time.

    Which always reminds me of the standard question at airport security when phrased wrongly by sh*t-bored staff:- ”Has anyone put anything in your bag without your knowledge?” Well, by that reasoning Dude, I wouldn’t ****en know would I? 🙂

  19. Hi TEA

    A great article about how we are all influenced to buy MORE SHIT and keep THE MAN on top.

    Whilst I also don’t think it is an intentional policy to keep us hooked on the stuff, I do think that the suits know how a lot of people are hooked on it (e.g tobacco companies, bookies, alcohol companies all know that their businesses will cause people a lot of grief – even death with tobacco, but still to continue to push it as hard as they can knowing these effects, and only add warnings when they are force to do so). I know that ultimately we have to take responsibility for our own decisions, but if some people are more susceptible to the power of suggestion they are always going to get trapped in the Prison Camp.

    Luckily I took the red pill and managed to escape the Prison Camp for a life of freedom, a large part of which came from seriously looking at what we really needed rather than what we would like.

    Best Wishes

  20. I have to see The Matrix again. With different eyes this time. I never thought about it this way…

  21. […] for branded food is rarely worth it (we’re just paying for marketing and supernormal profits – just like investment […]

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