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Coercion: Why We Listen to What They Say by Douglas Rushkoff

Excerpted (with permission) from the "Advertising" chapter of Rushkoff's recent book (published by Putnam); copyright 2000, Douglas Rushkoff

Once a teen has been identified as part of the "target market," he knows he's done for. The object of the game is to confound the marketers, and keep one's own, authentic culture from showing up at the shopping mall as a prepackaged corporate product.

The so-called "Generation X" adopted the anti-chic aesthetic of thrift-store grunge in an effort to find a style that could not be so easily identified and exploited. Grunge was so self-consciously lowbrow and nonaspirational that it seemed, at first, impervious to the hype and glamour normally applied swiftly to any emerging trend. But sure enough, grunge anthems found their way onto the soundtracks of television commercials, and Dodge Neons were hawked by kids in flannel shirts saying "Whatever."

The members of Generation X are putting up a good fight. Having already developed an awareness of how marketers attempt to target their hearts and wallets, they use their insight into programming to resist these attacks. Unlike the adult marketers pursuing them, young people have grown up immersed in the language of advertising and public relations. They speak it like natives. As a result, they are more than aware when a commercial or billboard is targeting them. In conscious defiance of demographic-based pandering, they adopt a stance of self-protective irony--distancing themselves from the emotional ploys of the advertisers.

Lorraine Ketch, the director of planning in charge of Levi's trendy Silvertab line, explained, "This audience hates marketing that's in your face. It eyeballs it a mile away, chews it up and spits it out." Chiat/Day, one of the world's best-known and experimental advertising agencies, found the answer to the crisis was simply to break up the Gen-X demographic into separate "tribes" or subdemographics--and include subtle visual references to each one of them in the ads they produce for the brand. According to Levi's director of consumer marketing, the campaign meant to communicate, "We really understand them, but we are not trying too hard."

Probably unintentionally, Ms. Ketch has revealed the new, even more highly abstract plane on which advertising is now being communicated. Instead of creating and marketing a brand image, advertisers are creating marketing campaigns about the advertising itself. Silvertab's target market is supposed to feel good about being understood, but even better about understanding the way they are being marketed to.

The "drama" invented by Leo Burnett and refined by David Ogilvy and others has become a play within a play. The scene itself has shifted. The dramatic action no longer occurs between the audience and the product, the brand, or the brand image, but between the audience and the brand marketers. As audiences gain even more control over the media in which these interactive stories unfold, advertising evolves ever closer to a theater of the absurd.

Today, the cathode-ray tube is no longer a receive-only device but, through the Internet, video games and camcorders, a portal to self-expression. Media has become a two-way street. Kids are as likely to deconstruct imagery as absorb it.

The proliferation of all these devices, plus the advent of fax machines, VCRs, modems, and cellular telephones, has fundamentally altered the shape and function of the mass media. It is now an open system -- a mediaspace. Anyone can contribute, and no one can be sure how what he throws in there will be deconstructed, repurposed, and distributed. A top-forty song might be sampled and recycled by a rapper. A news report may be deconstructed and exposed as propaganda by a public-access show or Internet newsgroup. A rock video may be mocked by commentators like Beavis and Butt-head. A commercial can be satirized by a late-night comedy show for its clumsy efforts at manipulation--and the audience will get the joke.

The media is a chaotic place. Like an ocean or a weather system, it no longer respects authority. In fact, those who attempt to impose their authority are ridiculed, while brilliant and valuable tidbits emerge from the most remote and seemingly inconsequential sources. Advertisements attempting to associate a brand with a celebrity or lifestyle aren't nearly as effective as they once were. No sooner are they broadcast than they are deconstructed into their component parts. Younger, media-savvy viewers instinctively reject authoritative voices and laugh at commercials in which people try to act "cool."

Advertisers are well aware of our changing viewing habits. Now that an increasingly large proportion of the public has adopted this self-protective stance toward the media, marketers have turned to what might best be called postmodern techniques of persuasion.

Consider the microbrand. As consumers became weary of major beer brands and their relentless over-the-top media campaigns, they turned to local breweries and brands for a sense of authenticity. Like do-it-yourself media, these tiny companies gave their customers a sense of local control and connection. No longer content with supporting a national brand devoid of character, consumers sought the distinction and individuality that came with buying a bottle of beer that may well have been brewed around the corner.

The major breweries were quick to respond to the microbrewery phenomenon. Miller Brewing Company released a fake microbrew beer called Red Dog, whose label advertised that it was brewed at the charmingly remote-sounding Plank Road Brewery. There is no such place as the Plank Road Brewery. Anheuser-Busch bought a quiet interest in Seattle's Redhook Ale Brewery, and Coors launched its own line of imitation microbrews from the Blue Moon Brewing Company, whose marketing campaign touted the beer as "handcrafted once in a blue moon."

Fake microbrands are created for a new population of consumers who have learned to resist the pressures of conformity imposed by well-known brand images. Airwalk sports shoes are worn by millions of young people who resent the overwhelming marketing campaigns and widely criticized labor practices of Nike, and American Spirit cigarettes sell to smokers who want to believe they are circumventing the notoriously manipulative cigarette industry. In the end, they are simply succumbing to the counteroffensives of shrewd marketers who have predicted and capitalized on their rebellion.

Advertisers are learning to stay one step ahead in the chaotic mediaspace. If today's consumer will instantly separate a product from its spokesperson, then the answer is to make advertisements that are more difficult to deconstruct. Many billboards and magazine ads have resorted to showing isolated body parts rather than full-body portraits of models using or wearing products. This style of photography, known in the industry as abstract representation, allows the viewer to see himself in the advertisement, rather than the model. Instead of having to identify with a character, he can watch the commercial as if it were from his own point of view. All of our hands and legs are pretty much the same. Ads for Kool cigarettes show only the hand of the lucky man who holds a pack, and the beautiful girl who has turned in his direction. A hugely successful Dockers trousers campaign showed a group of men from the waist down only, as they spoke in random, disconnected sentences.

The less specific or more iconic a representation, the harder it becomes for an audience to resist identifying with it. As a result, icons have become the new unit of communication in a mediaspace characterized by deconstruction. Wary of stories, slogans, and other emotional traps, young people in particular have been drawn to icons as a way of expressing who they are and what they believe in. Kids paste iconic stickers on their skateboards, attach iconic key chains to their backpacks, and collect trading cards and Pogs with simple iconic representations. Because they seem universal and disconnected, they are perceived as somehow safe from the influence of authority.

Advertisers exploiting this same principle have moved toward more iconic ways of representing their products. The simpler and less descriptive the icon, the more universal its appeal. Ask a group of teenagers what the Nike swoosh icon means, and each one will most likely tell you something different--but all the responses will probably have something to do with challenging authority, excelling in sports, being an individual, or "just doing it." The swoosh is a universal icon, capable of representing any number of youthful ideals. Some young people identify so fully with the Nike symbol that they have tattooed it onto their bodies.

Part of an icon's power comes from its indivisibility. The swoosh cannot be further deconstructed into its component parts. Just as golden arches mean McDonald's, and the little red tab means Levi's, the swoosh is Nike. The product is its icon, inseparably and without exception. To buy a pair of Nike shoes is to buy the Nike swoosh. By adopting the postlinguistic currency of an iconic culture, marketers can reposition themselves and their brands in a manner consistent with the operating system of today's point-and-click marketplace.

Media-savvy television viewers pride themselves on their ability to watch programming from the safe distance of their own ironic detachment. Young people delight in watching "Melrose Place" in groups so they can make fun of the characters and their values by talking back to the screen throughout the show. Others turn to shows like "Beavis and Butt-head," whose characters' constant commentary on the MTV videos they watch serves as a built-in distancing device. The wisecracks keep the audience emotionally removed from the seductive charms of the images on the screen.

In addition to using icons, marketers have come to recognize the way irony makes a wary viewer feel safe, and now they regularly employ irony in the commercials targeted at these more difficult demographic groups. "Wink" advertising acknowledges the cynical stance of resistant viewers: Sprite commercials satirize the values espoused by "cool" brands, sometimes even parodying their competitors' obvious image-based tactics, and then go on to insist, "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything." A brand of shoes called Simple developed a magazine campaign with the copy "Advertisement: blah blah of company."

By letting the audience in on the hollowness of the marketing process, advertisers hope to be rewarded by the appreciative viewer. Energizer batteries launched a television campaign where a fake commercial for another product would be interrupted by the pink bunny marching across the screen. The audience was rescued from the bad commercial by the battery company's tiny mascot. The message: The Energizer bunny can keep on going, even in a world of relentless hype.

Of course marketers haven't really surrendered anything. What's really going on here is a new style of marketing through exclusivity. Advertisers know that their viewership prides itself on being able to deconstruct and understand the coercive tactics of television commercials. By winking at the audience, the advertiser is acknowledging that there's someone special out there--someone smart enough not to be fooled by the traditional tricks of the influence professional. If you're smart enough to get the joke, then you're smart enough to know to buy our product.

Like all advertisements, these self-conscious commercials help the viewer define his own identity. The strategy is not as overt as showing Michael Jordan in a pair of Nikes so that young athletes will identify with their hero. Instead, a person's notion of "self" is defined by how sophisticated he feels in relation to the images on his TV set. If he has grown up deluged by coercive advertising and expended effort to break free, then he will identify himself as a media-savvy individual. Wink advertising gives him a chance to confirm his own intelligence.

In the advertising wars between long-distance carriers, underdog MCI attempted to show how they were friendly and perky, especially compared to industry leader AT&T. A beautiful young operator mischievously whispered to us that AT&T doesn't want their customers to hear about MCI's low rates, or their discount Friends & Family plan. She ridiculed AT&T's ads begging people to "come home," and implied that they revealed Ma Bell's desperation. AT&T fought back with their own ads, highlighting the coercive nature of MCI's marketing: that people were fooled into writing lists of their friends and relatives so that MCI could make annoying phone calls trying to enlist them. The advertisements were no longer about quality or service. They were about the advertising campaigns themselves.

Wink advertisements very often borrow imagery from another company's advertisements as a way of eliciting viewer approval. After Lexus made the ball bearing famous by rolling it seductively over the precision engineered lines of its luxury sedan, Nissan did the same thing in their ad to demonstrate how a much less expensive car could exhibit the same qualities. BMW sought to rise above the whole affair, demonstrating their car's unmatched turning radius by putting the whole vehicle through the same tight turns as the ball bearing went through in the other brands' meaningless test. Finally, in an irreverent spoof of the automobile advertising wars, Roy Rogers rolled a ball bearing around the edge of a roast beef sandwich. Get it? Wink wink.

In a similar campaign, Levi's made fun of Calvin Klein's heroin-chic, ultra-skinny supermodels. The company pictured healthy models wearing Levi's under the caption, "Our models can beat up their models."

As the techniques of self-consciousness and parody become more recognizable and, accordingly, less effective, advertisers have been forced to go yet a step further, taking the media reflexivity of advertising into the realm of the nonsensical. It's as if by overwhelming us with irony, they hope to blow out the circuits we use to make critical judgments.

The Diesel jeans company ran a series of billboard and magazine ads designed to critique the whole discipline of advertising. One showed a sexy but downtrodden young couple, dressed in stylish jeans and arguing with each other in what looked like the messy, 1960s-era kitchen of a dysfunctional white-trash family. The ad meant to reveal the illusory quality of the hip retro fashion exploited by other advertisers. Diesel would not try to convince anyone that those were the "good old days." We were meant to identify with the proposition that the enlightened values of the sixties, as represented by the media, are a crock. But the meaning is never made explicit. Another Diesel campaign consisted of advertisements which themselves were photos of garish billboards placed in ridiculous locations. One showed a sexy young couple, dressed in Diesel jeans, in an advertisement for an imported brand of ice cream. The billboard, however, was pictured in a dirty, crowded neighborhood filled with poor Communist Chinese workers.

Benetton and The Body Shop ran similar ads, but at least theirs made some sense. One Benetton campaign pictured Queen Elizabeth as a black woman and Michael Jackson as a caucasian to comment on racial prejudice. A series of Body Shop ads featured giant photos of marijuana leaves, presumably to call attention to drug and agriculture laws. These are appeals to a target market that feels hip for agreeing with the sentiments expressed and for grasping the underlying logic. There is, indeed, something to "get."

We are supposed to believe that Diesel's ads also make sociopolitical statements, but we never know quite what they are. In fact, the ads work in a highly sophisticated disassociative way: They make us feel as tense and uneasy as we do after a good scary story--but we refuse to admit to our anxiety lest we reveal we are not media-savvy enough to get the joke. The campaign is designed to lead the audience to the conclusion that they understand the ironic gesture, while the irony is left intentionally unclear. No one is meant to get the joke. In that moment of confusion--like the car buyer subjected to a disassociative hypnotic technique--the consumer absorbs the image within the image: two sexy kids in Diesel jeans. Thinking of yourself as hip enough to "get" it--no matter what "it" may be--means being susceptible to lying to yourself, and to being programmed as a result.

That's all coercion really is, after all: convincing a person to lie to himself by any means necessary. The stance of ironic detachment, while great for protecting ourselves from straightforward linear stories and associations, nonetheless makes us vulnerable to more sophisticated forms of influence. After a while, even a detached person begins to long for a sense of meaning or some value, any value, to accept completely and genuinely. In spite of their well-publicized cynicism, so-called Generation Xers reveal in numerous studies that they often feel lost and without purpose. Disillusioned with role models, the political process, and media hype, they are nonetheless seeking something to believe in.

As people search for a sense of authenticity in their increasingly disconnected "virtual" experience, advertisers seize on the opportunity to help us delude ourselves into thinking we haven't really lost touch. A shrewd advertisement for an airphone service shows a businessman stuck on a jet flight while his young daughter dances in a recital at her elementary school. He has foregone his family obligations in the name of business. But in the airphone commercial, he calls his daughter from the plane after her recital, and, basked in golden light, she is as delighted to hear his telephonic voice as she would have been to see him in the flesh. The television viewer who is searching for meaning in his life will accept the faulty premise of the advertisement: that the airplane telephone can actually connect him with a life he has left behind.

The back-to-basics authenticity of such advertisements capitalizes on a growing sense that we are no longer in touch with who we really are. In the past, advertisers worked to generate this sense of disconnection. In the 1950s and 1960s, a marketer would present an image, personality, or story with which we were meant to identify, and then stretch that image in order to make us feel unworthy, to give us something to aspire to: The girl in the hair-color advertisement looks just like me--when I was twenty years younger and five shades less gray; the woman in the commercial has a dirty kitchen and noisy children just like me...but she is confident enough in her rug cleaner to throw a dinner party for her husband's business partners that night. The viewer identified with the character, only to be made to feel unworthy by comparison.

Today, however, a deep sense of disconnection and unworthiness is just the starting point for the detached viewer. As a result, the opposite effect takes place: We welcome the opportunity to let down our guard, even for a moment. Having grown to resent all the striving toward the ideals represented in commercials, we yearn to get off the treadmill of yearning altogether. We yearn not to yearn--to be still and content. To just be.

The newest approach to the antiyearning urge capitalizes on these feelings. The Calvin Klein CK Be perfume advertisements offer the media-fatigued sophisticate a chance to relax and literally "just be." Uniquely beautiful and detached-looking young people stare confidently into the lens. Beneath them are captions like "Be hot. Be cool. Just be." The slogans in companion ads all stress that people should have the ability to express their individuality and be who they really are. "CK Be fragrance is about who you's about the freedom to express your's about the freedom to be yourself."

The astonishing supposition of these ads is that the young audience for whom they are intended does not feel they already have permission to just be. Unlike the models in the advertisements, who appear to have earned their cool resolve by draining the life out of themselves through dedicated heroin abuse, the audience must expend effort to maintain a sense of self against the onslaught of commercials and other coercive messages. The CK Be ads suggest that if we just buy one thing--a single bottle of perfume--we can finally be who we really are with no further effort.

Like all of the image-based advertising that went before it, the CK Be campaign once again capitalizes on its audience's undetermined sense of self. A person who is striving not to strive is striving nonetheless--perhaps even more desperately than those who are simply yearning for a better lifestyle. Our aspiration toward a simpler, less taxing way of relating to the world around us makes us no less vulnerable to the suggestions of others on how best to get there. Being "in" is a booby prize, since it depends on a false and further self-defeating claim to exclusivity. The emergence of a protective, ironic stance, though temporarily immunizing, only contributes to our longing for ways to feel genuine and connected--and will likely turn out to be just one more chapter in the greater narrative of the history of advertising.

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