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The notion that there is something inherently evil or corrupting about selling stuff to people who want it strikes me as being completely ridiculous.

Are market researchers really getting inside our minds?

There are two things happening at once. There is more and more granular information -- demographically, ethnographically, psychographically -- about consumers that is available now. There's just many, many more ways to slice the bread than there were before. So you can figure out people's preferences, their needs, their desires, their values, and you can organize your media buy based on everything from people's ZIP code to their age to what they read to their usage of cellophane-wrapped beef stick products. And so the information is all there, and it's sliced and diced in more ways than ever before. I don't know if it's good or if it's bad, but the information is there. So if that is the path for "the man" to get inside of your head and manipulate you, and if that's bad, OK, it's there.

The other side of it is that these aren't being used very much. The fact is that even sophisticated marketers are saving money by not doing any kind of real sophisticated research and are instead making decisions based on what they regard as research: some focus groups here and there, where they get what they believe is "data" but isn't data at all -- it may as well be overheard conversation in the beauty parlor -- and they're acting on it. So it's kind of a paradox. There are more ways to get inside the consumer's head than ever before, and because it's so expensive to do that, advertisers are substantially relying on data that are absolutely meaningless.

In his "Ad Review" column for Advertising Age magazine, Bob Garfield, an essayist, critic, and broadcaster, regularly delivers stinging critiques (and occasional praise) of the ad industry. If criticism is more common, there's a reason -- most ads, he tells FRONTLINE in this interview, are "historically, actually, quite bad." Yet the industry keeps trying harder and harder to get people's attention, resulting in a media landscape cluttered with pitches. "Since time immemorial, advertising agencies have been trying to create emotional reactions to goods and services," he says. "But there is no magic string for the puppet; there is no Svengali spell; there's no poison gas, there's no magic wand. … What they are doing mostly is failing again and again and again." In the end, he believes advertising and marketing is not actually that powerful and can't persuade us to buy or do things we otherwise wouldn't. This interview was conducted on March 23, 2004.

What drives them to pursue this data about consumers?

Think about what marketing is. Marketing, if you've got any sense at all, is not about coming up with a product or service and then just trying to figure out a way to sell it. Marketing is about figuring out what people need or want or believe they need and want (which I actually believe are synonymous), and then creating the product to suit that need or desire and then selling it. To let the horse pull the cart instead of vice versa. If you want to know what to make and how much of it and how to sell it, you really have to ask the question: What do people need and desire? And there's nothing sinister about that.

I know there is a body of thought that believes that the marketing world is out there foisting off unneeded, unnecessary products on people who are persuaded that they need them. Well, the truth is that's not how it works. The marketing world is people who make a living by figuring out what people want or think they want, and then they make it for them, and then they sell it to them. Do they sell fear? Do they sell insecurity? Do they sell stuff that you don't think you need or that anyone needs but someone out there thinks they need? The answer to all those questions is yes, but fundamentally, the world of marketing is about fulfilling people's perceived needs and desires. And they've come up with a whole lot of really good stuff with which to do that. Maybe someone in Toronto thinks I don't need a VCR. You know what? I think I need a VCR, and I refuse to cast aspersions on the world of marketing for making me think so, because I have one, and I like it.

Procter & Gamble tries to figure out what people will buy so they can make a lot of it and sell a lot of it, and their goal is profits for their stockholders. Well, I'm failing to understand why that is a problem. No, they're not meeting and saying: "What will help humanity? We'll make that, and in fact, we'll do it for free." No, Procter & Gamble is not a government; it's a company. Its responsibility isn't for the commonweal; its responsibility is to sell s--- and they do. Ultimately, I believe that economies being what they are, it's a good thing. It satisfies consumer needs; it creates jobs; it creates a middle class; and the accumulation of lots of Procter & Gambles all over the world creates wealth. OK, so they're selling extra-absorbent Pampers instead of the cure for cancer, but if they could figure out a way to do that, they would do that if they can make a buck on it. Procter & Gamble is not a government; it's a company. To conflate the raison d'être for governments and nongovernmental organizations with commercial enterprises is ridiculous. Why criticize a shark for not being a baboon? They're different.

Corporations weren't created by governments. You have to incorporate so you can do business lawfully, but corporations aren't an instrument of government; they're an instrument of their shareholders' desire to make money. Most of what they do is to the good, and some of what they do is to the bad. But to impute to them the responsibility to take care of the general welfare is a logical flaw. If they were breaking the law, you should sanction them, and if they're not playing fair, you should make them play fair in court. And if you can get them to do things that are relatively selfless and you can convince them, God bless you, to do it, let them be philanthropic. But their job is to make money, and you can't judge them on the same criteria that you judge a government, because they're different beasts.

There's a line of thought -- it's really kind of an economic philosophy -- that corporations and businesses out there trying to make money and foist ever more goods and services on people is not only kind of morally corrupt, but actually dangerous to the world; that it's an environmental catastrophe in the making, and that the profit imperative is creating a world where people are essentially bribed with comforting goods and services while we're destroying the ozone layer, while we're polluting the water and doing all sorts of other horrible things. Governments have to decide what is too much in terms of the environment. But the notion that there is something inherently evil or corrupting about selling stuff to people who want it strikes me as being completely ridiculous.

OK, someone at Adbusters in Canada doesn't think I need a Sub-Zero refrigerator. Maybe they think I don't need a Jaguar. Maybe they think I don't need my VCR. Who are they to tell me what I want and need? Who are they? Listen, do they have chairs in their homes or apartments? Do they have central heating? Because all over the world, in Central Asia for example, they don't have chairs; they don't think they need them. They sit and sleep on mats on the floor. And by the way, they might be heating their homes by burning dung. Are the people in Canada telling me that I should also be sleeping on mats and burning dung? You know what? I don't want to sleep on mats; I don't want to burn dung for my heating. I want to have central heating; I want to have chairs; I want to have beds. And oh, by the way, you know what? I really like my VCR. I didn't think that was going to really matter, but 25 years ago I got one, and it really improved my life, and so does my conditioner. My conditioner improves my life because my hair was kind of flyaway before, and it was dry. I like my conditioner. You know what? I use the expensive conditioner. Am I a spiritual coward? No. I determine what makes my life more comfortable, and whether that makes me happy is really not material. Does it make me an enviro-criminal? I don't think it does. And I don't want somebody else to impose his or her values on my trip to the Safeway.

Do you think consumers are ultimately knowable?

There are some things that are predictable, yeah, but the annals of failed product introductions are ample proof that consumer behavior is not all-knowable, and it's not all-predictable. I think the people who came up with Touch Of Yogurt shampoo thought they knew what they were doing in whatever it was, 1980, but it turns out the public wasn't all that interested in Touch of Yogurt shampoo. And yet these people invested many millions of dollars with all the sheaves of data in their hands, thinking that, well, yogurt seems to be a trend, and hair-care products are a trend, and we've got market research that [says] people are looking for something. And it's one of the giant jokes in the history of product introductions.

There's this idea that advertising people and marketers are these Svengalis who not only know everything about us but can manipulate us to act out their will. Well, they can't. They've never been able to. They're no better at it now than they ever were before. It's really, really hard to make anybody buy anything. In fact, not only is advertising not very good -- and historically, actually, quite bad -- at getting you to buy goods and services that you don't want or need; advertising and marketing historically aren't all that good at getting you to buy their brand of good or service that you've demonstrated that you do want and need.

They can't just pull the strings and make you jump. There is 90 percent failure and 10 percent success with new products, for example. And you use toothpaste all the time, but there's a multibillion-dollar fight to get you to choose one brand or another every time you go to a store. But tell me, how manipulated are you in that purchase? I can tell you categorically, not very much.

What's the difference between a brand and a product?

Are you going to buy the Arm & Hammer? Are you going to buy the Colgate? Are you going to buy the Crest? Are you going to buy Pepsodent for a little blast from the past? That's where all the money is spent -- to try to influence that decision. If you buy the Pepsodent, Arm & Hammer, Colgate and Crest have failed. And yet decisions are made to the tunes of billions of dollars every day -- voting for the "other guy." So has advertising pulled your strings? Evidently not. That's one answer. Sometimes brands are just brands. Sometimes there's actually something inherent, something intrinsic to them that makes them different. Sometimes it's an actual property of the product that's different, and sometimes it's just an idea.

Three of the greatest campaigns in advertising history are built on nothing more than an idea. Marlboro cigarettes: It's built on the idea of rugged individualism, of making your own decisions, of taking on the world all by yourself, squinting into the sun. And Nike, "Just do it." They hire the same slaves in Southeast Asia to make a pair of shoes for $4 and then sell them for $120 as all the other sneaker manufacturers.

What has imbued Nike with this special something? It's two things: One is Michael Jordan, who was this extraordinary athlete doing seemingly impossible, virtuosic things, and they borrowed that interest at great expense. The other was "Just do it," because hitherto, no sneaker manufacturer had taken upon itself to say to the audience, "Why don't you just get up off your fat ass?" They began to own the aspirational quality of sport, and the campaign grew to have them own all of the emotion of sport, the drama of sport, the grit of sport, the aspiration, the triumph and so forth. They own the idea of all of the really powerful emotional sentiments that we attach to sport. They own them because they bought them, and they bought them by advertising this idea again and again and again and again and again. There's just not a whole lot of difference between the most expensive Nike shoe and the most expensive Reebok. But they've got much, much, much, much larger share of the marketplace on the strength of an advertising idea.

"A diamond is forever." How is it that the diamond is the default demonstration of lifelong love and affection? How did that happen? An advertising idea. They turned a commodity -- a rock -- into the ultimate expression of enduring love. It was just an advertising idea, and it has penetrated societies throughout the world for 100 years. That's pretty extraordinary.

You know what, though? Marlboro, Nike, "A diamond is forever" -- this very, very seldom happens. These are the few examples when advertising really does cast a Svengali spell. And I guarantee you there's a lot of advertisers out there trying to do that all the time, but 99.9 percent of the time they're failing, because it's hard to do. Very seldom can you trade on an idea to change the way people view your good or service. Mostly it's just "12 percent more whitening power," and the "12 percent more whitening power" struggle and ideas sometimes are triumphant.

Is Kevin Roberts onto something with his book, Lovemarks?

No. To be honest, I haven't read Kevin's book, but he's just belaboring the obvious, from what I've read. He seems to be just belaboring the obvious: that there's emotional connections between brands and consumers and that it's not just intrinsic qualities that motivate people. Well, OK, fine. Sometimes you can make emotional connections. AT&T has done it. Hallmark has done it. Coca-Cola has done it. But mostly the people who have tried to make emotional connections with consumers over the years, by far, the vast, vast majority have failed.

Since time immemorial, advertising agencies have been trying to create emotional reactions to goods and services. But there is no magic string for the puppet; there is no Svengali spell; there's no poison gas; there's no magic wand. Advertising works, and sometimes good advertising campaigns work, especially, but they are not controlling your mind, they're not controlling your heart, and they're not controlling your glands. What they are doing mostly is failing again and again and again.

So you don't think we can get to our "lizard brain," like Clotaire Rapaille argues.

Clotaire has worked on I don't know how many brands, but none of them is dominant. Tell me exactly how many cars he's sold. The answer is, not that many. There's just no poison gas. There happens to be something about cars which does generate a response. I own a Miata that I put about 2,000 miles on per year because I really love those 2,000 miles. I love the wind in my hair. When I'm in my Miata, I don't even go fast, and I feel like I'm sailing. But it wasn't a Miata ad that did it for me; it was something intrinsic to the car. And, you know, fundamentally, people armed with information make decisions of self-interest. This is not The Manchurian Candidate, where they're responding to messages buried deep within their psyche that they don't even know are there. There's a lot of people in the advertising industry who would like it to be that way, and there's a lot of people outside of the advertising industry who imagine it to be that way, but it ain't that way.

Can persuasion based on advertising and marketing techniques work in politics?

If you're looking for an example of how advertising is a really corrosive force in society, I advise you to look away from consumer product advertising and just look at political advertising, because it's a stain on our democracy. If you're selling soup or soap or oatmeal or automobiles, one thing you basically have to do is tell the truth -- not the eternal truth, but the factual truth. Sometimes you put your best foot forward, but you have to fundamentally not mislead people, not overly exaggerate. There's a limit to the amount of puffery that you're entitled to. You basically have to stick to the facts, because even if the government doesn't do anything about it, your competitors are going to drag your ass into federal court, and they're going to sue you, and they're going to make your life a living hell. And while they're doing that, your campaign is off the air, and by the way, it's in the newspapers, and you're taking a lot of hits to your brand image.

So by and large, advertising is essentially truthful, except political advertising, which year after year ... gets worse. It's just the artful assembling of nominal facts into hideous, outrageous lies. And it is the fundamental venue for political discourse in this country. It's an abomination. Because of the First Amendment, there's not a whole lot we can do about it, but it makes me sick.

What do you think of the job America has done selling itself abroad, especially in the Muslim world, using advertising and marketing techniques?

We were talking about Svengali, pulling strings, and the whole idea of manipulating people into doing something that they're not apt to do. They say that under hypnosis even, you cannot get someone to do what they morally would not do. Well, if hypnosis can't get people to do something that they don't in the core of their psyches wish to do, you think advertising can? Well, I can answer that question; it's rhetorical, but the answer is no.

It's [an axiom] in the marketing business that nothing kills a bad product better than good advertising. Because the advertising's clever, it makes the product look fabulous, people try it, they find out it doesn't help them, it doesn't do what it was advertised to do, it doesn't make their life simpler. For whatever reason, they don't like it, and these customers never come back. Nothing kills a bad product better than good advertising.

The American government's problem in the Muslim, and especially Arab, world is not how it presents itself; it's the product. Our product is of no interest to the Muslim and Arab world. I'm not saying the Muslim and Arab worlds are right, but I'm saying from their point of view, American support of Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the American propping up of these authoritarian regimes all over the Middle East, and American unilateralism, especially military unilateralism, has made this a bad product.

We decide to create a softer image [of] America by showing [on television] happy Muslims living and working in this perfectly integrated, pluralistic society where they're free to express their religion. And they wear headscarves at their jobs, and everybody holds hands, and it's "Ebony and Ivory." Do you think that makes any difference to somebody who has no hope of getting to America, someone who hates America for its position in their eyes? Do you think that an advertising campaign is going to change their perceptions? No. It just calls their attention to everything that they don't like about the product. Once again, you think you're a puppet master pulling strings, but you're not. You're just calling attention to something that people are in their own minds deciding ever more that they don't want any part of.

You can put all the pictures of Muslims happily living and working in the United States on TV in the Arab world that you desire, but it is not relevant to the discussion. What do they care? They like Britney Spears, but they don't like America's policy in Israel. So how does some woman who's happily teaching in Detroit with a headscarf on have any bearing on the existential realities of life in the Middle East? The answer is, it doesn't. So, in fact, America's failure to be able to use advertising and marketing techniques to soften the image of America around the world is just the ultimate, quintessential proof of what I've been saying all along, which is that advertising is a tool, but it's not a poison gas, and it does not alter substance for the most part. It doesn't change conceptual structures. It just gives some information and puts a little burnish on the product. It cannot perform miracles. So there you go. Sure, let the government try to embrace the magical techniques of consumer advertising, because if they do, they're going to find out that they failed right alongside of Touch Of Yogurt shampoo.

Does political advertising compromise democracy?

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I believe there actually is a sort of conspiracy afoot among people inside the Beltway, political consultants. It's very clear that the American electorate has been disaffected by years and years and years of this attack advertising and the state of coarseness and obnoxiousness of political discourse as exemplified by TV commercials. It's very, very clear that fewer and fewer people show up for elections, and they constantly explicitly cite the tenor of the debate. Well, if you're a political consultant and your business is to mobilize the masses of people you can depend on -- for example, the religious right -- and you want to maximize their influence, how do you maximize their influence? By simultaneously mobilizing your people and diminishing the overall electorate to give your mobilized forces a disproportionate influence on the outcome of the campaign. I believe that part of the strategy of the Republican revolution in the off-year election in '94 was to so sully the debate, to turn voters away in droves so as to give disproportionate influence to the seething white males who are at the core of their support.

I think that a bell went off on the right and also on the left. Clinton was trying to energize women, for example, and he was perfectly happy for whole other populations to fall off because it maximized the impact of the women. I think that these people in Washington would much prefer speaking to fewer people among potential voters than more. It's just a lot easier to manipulate. And they have. Whether it was intentional or not, that's certainly been the effect, and we're much the poorer for it as a democracy. And advertising actually has been the tool not of selling but of scaring away.

Is there a difference between a consumer and a citizen?

Yes, there is a difference between being a consumer and being a citizen. And yes, those two issues have been conflated -- illogically in my view. Let's just talk briefly about super-sizing and the obesity of America and McDonald's. McDonald's sells hamburgers. Hamburgers are fatty; they make you fat. And the more you eat, and the more french fries you eat, the fatter you're going to get. Now, is it personally better for you as an organism not to eat this stuff? Yes. You as a consumer, does it make you feel good to eat this stuff because you like french fries and hamburgers? Yes. As a citizen, do you have any responsibility to adjust your diet according to what others think is best for you? No. And yet somehow the notion of what's good for you and what's good for public health and what a corporation sells for a living have all been twisted together when there are three separate issues.

McDonald's sells hamburgers and french fries and have zero responsibility, zero responsibility for the public health. Your job as a citizen is to participate in your democracy, and your job as an individual is to decide what's good for you. It's not McDonald's fault that you eat like a pig. Yet somehow it's all viewed as part of the same whole, and it isn't. They are completely separate, discrete issues, and to confuse them, I think, is ridiculous.

 

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posted nov. 9, 2004

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