» The Persuaders
Americans are swimming in a sea of messages.
Each year, legions of ad people, copywriters, market researchers, pollsters, consultants, and even linguists--most of whom work for one of six giant companies--spend billions of dollars and millions of man-hours trying to determine how to persuade consumers what to buy, whom to trust, and what to think. Increasingly, these techniques are migrating to the high-stakes arena of politics, shaping policy and influencing how Americans choose their leaders.
In "The Persuaders," airing Tuesday, November 9, at 9 P.M. on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE exposes the inner workings of the marketing and advertising industries, and the new and surprising methods they use to decipher who we are and what we want.
Produced by Barak Goodman, Rachel Dretzin, and Muriel Soenens, and featuring media critic Douglas Rushkoff as correspondent, the 90-minute documentary examines how, in the words of one on-camera commentator, "the principal of democracy yields to the practice of demography," as highly customized messages are delivered to smaller and smaller segments of the market.
Take this year's presidential sweepstakes for example. Both the Republicans and the Democrats went to extraordinary lengths to custom craft their messages. "Instead of being Americans, we're sliced into seventy demographic groups," says Peter Swire, professor of law at Ohio State University and an expert on Internet policy. "We might be sliced into hundreds of subcategories under that. And then the worry is that we don't share anything as a people."
Political marketers are just now discovering new ways to use the techniques that have long been employed by the private sector. In "The Persuaders," FRONTLINE visits Acxiom, the largest data mining company in the world, where vast farms of computers hold detailed information about nearly every adult in America. Data mining, a practice that predicts likely behavior based on factors such as age, income, and shopping habits, has been the gold standard of commercial advertisers. Acxiom promises its clients a better way to target their messages to individual consumers.
"There is an age-old anxiety among advertisers that they are wasting their money, that they cannot know whom they are reaching and with what impact," says Rushkoff, who collaborated with Dretzin and Goodman on FRONTLINE's "The Merchants of Cool," which examined the process by which corporate conglomerates have co-opted teen culture in order to capture the multibillion-dollar adolescent market.
But Rushkoff predicts, "Anxiety is giving way to a confidence that they will soon have access to the core emotional needs of nearly every American shopper and voter."
There is, however, a paradox. While the techniques of the persuaders have become more sophisticated, consumers have never been more resistant to marketing messages. Yet today, advertisements fill up nearly every available inch of the landscape, creating a sense of advertising 'clutter.'
"You cannot walk down the street without being bombarded," advertising writer Bob Garfield says. "You go to fill your gas tank and you look at the pump and you're seeing news headlines in advertising. You go into the bathroom and you look in the urinal and you're staring at an ad. You look up at the sky and there's skywriting."
But clever marketers have found ways of overcoming the clutter conundrum. As television viewers have found ways of avoiding ads by using personal video recorders like Tivo--"the two-horned devil" as one ad executive calls it--advertisers have responded by becoming a part of the program through sophisticated product placement. FRONTLINE follows this new trend in advertising known as "branded entertainment." Rather than marketing products around a TV show or other entertainment vehicle, industry insiders predict the future will bring a seamless blend of marketing and entertainment. Producers are already moving in that direction. Take for example a recent Sex and the City story line in which a character becomes a poster-boy for Absolut Vodka. The idea was actually developed by HBO with Absolut's public relations agency.
But is this new style of integrated advertising having much impact on consumers? "If you can tell that it was advertising within the context of the story, it didn't work," says Mitch Kanner of Integrated Entertainment Partners, a firm that puts together brands with film and television producers. "It's all about how the writer and brand engage in that very, very interesting narrow space so that it feels natural."
As consumers grow more cynical toward marketing claims, the persuasion industries are developing and refining techniques to reinforce an emotional attachment between Americans and the brands they buy.
"What consumers want now is an emotional connection--they want to be able to connect with what's behind the brand, what's behind the promise," says Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi Advertising. "The brands that can move to that emotional level, that can create loyalty beyond reason, are going to be the brands where premium profits lie."
Douglas Atkin, a partner at advertising agency Merkley + Partners, goes even further, comparing the brand loyalty that companies are trying to create to the passionate zeal once enjoyed only by cultists and religious fanatics.
"Saturn is a really good example," says Atkin. "It's a mass cult brand. For example, 45,000 people turned up to spend their holiday, vacation time, at the factory in Tennessee instead of going to Disney World or the Grand Canyon. Now why would they do that? Because they wanted to meet other people who own Saturns, they wanted to meet the rest of the Saturn family, they wanted to meet the people who made the car, the people who made the car wanted to meet them, and the people who ran the Saturn business knew that."
Although some brands have been more successful than others in making the magic connection to consumers, the techniques the marketers are developing are startling and include the hiring of anthropologists, ethnographers, linguists, and brain researchers to plumb our unconscious desires and urges so as to better influence our decision making.
But there is reason to wonder if these emotional connections are real. Says author Naomi Klein, "When you listen to brand managers talk, you can get quite carried away in this idea that they actually are fulfilling these needs that we have for community and narrative and transcendence. But in the end it is...a laptop and a pair of running shoes. And they might be great, but they're not actually going to fulfill those needs."
Correspondent Rushkoff observes: "We Americans value our freedom of choice--choice in the marketplace of goods, and choice in what has become a marketplace of ideas. When the same persuasion industry is engaged to influence these very different kinds of decision-making, it's easy for our roles as consumers and our roles as citizens to get blurred. By revealing some of the most effective practices of the persuasion business, we may better understand our choices and perhaps make wiser ones."
"The Persuaders" is a FRONTLINE co-production with Ark Media and is produced and directed by Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin. The producer is Muriel Soenens. The correspondent is Douglas Rushkoff.
FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS.
Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers.
FRONTLINE is closed-captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers.
FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
The executive producer for FRONTLINE is David Fanning.
FRONTLINE XXII/November 2004