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FRONTLINE asked four top insiders and observers of the advertising/marketing world to respond to a set of questions: Is there something about Americans that make them uniquely 'persuadable' by advertising's messages? What are the ramifications of a culture that is dominated by marketing and consumerism? And what might the future hold - where are the techniques of persuasion headed?

The participants in this forum are Douglas Atkin, Douglas Rushkoff, Kevin Roberts and Mark Crispin Miller. All are featured in FRONTLINE's report, "The Persuaders."

You can jump below to any of four questions and answers, or scroll through all of them.

1. Playwright Arthur Miller said in a recent interview that "our culture now is advertising." How would you define the changing character of American society? And, if you agree with Miller, then what does this all mean -- all these people trying to figure out how to persuade Americans what to buy, whom to trust, what to think. What impact is this having on us?

Kevin Roberts

This is a great question given the election result this week. All the analysis says that it wasn't Iraq, it wasn't the economy, but the ascendancy of conservative values, that led the result. Yes, advertising is a significant feature of the media (it usually pays for the content!) and it is quite a feature of our urban landscapes, but I believe Arthur Miller's view is out of touch (he said in the New York Times a few weeks ago, ''How can the polls be neck and neck when I don't know one Bush supporter?'').

The "persuasion" industry is highly transparent, the techniques are widely written about and freely available, and there are no secrets. We now live in a perfect information world thanks to Google. Everything anyone wants to know is available everywhere. The thought that there are armies of secret manipulators concocting devious ways to entrap people into purchasing products is nonsense. Consumers today are smart, savvy and ruthless and they exercise their right to choice. The consumer is boss. She can smell a fake a hundred miles away. Consumers understand marketing and they are the party leading the dance.

Douglas Atkin is author of The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers and is a partner and chief strategy officer for Merkley + Partners, a communications company that has produced branding campaigns for Mercedes-Benz, JetBlue, Citigroup, BMW and Pfizer.

Douglas Rushkoff is a media analyst and FRONTLINE's correspondent for "The Persuaders." He was also the correspondent for FRONTLINE's 2001 report on how media conglomerates market to teenagers, "Merchants of Cool." He is the author of many articles and several books on the media and popular culture, including Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say.

Kevin Roberts is CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide and the author of Lovemarks: the Future Beyond Brands.

Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of culture and communication at New York University and the author of several books including Boxed In: The Culture of TV and The Secret History of Modern Propaganda.

Douglas Rushkoff

Well, I don't know that our culture is, or ever was, advertising. Culture is more of a living thing, and most advertising is about deadening experience - or at least reducing it to consumer choices. I know what Arthur Miller means, but it's a bit pessimistic.

It is true that our culture has been slowly replaced by marketing. But I don't know whether that's due to the aggressiveness of marketing or the weakness of our cultural institutions. Did Starbucks replace public space, or did it simply fill in where our civic reality was already waning?

And I guess the answer to that one, and the substance behind Miller's comment, is that living as consumers tends to weaken our civic reality. When we think of public school as something we're paying for rather than something we're participating in, it's no wonder our public schools fail. And then, those of us who can afford to, turn to private schools.

It's less a function of advertising than that of the market model becoming mistaken for reality.

Douglas Atkin

Frankly, advertising is not good enough to deserve the status Miller gives it. But I agree with his general drift. Consumerism has become a defining characteristic of our culture. But it was only when I interviewed my research subjects did I understand the true extent of its influence…one that would horrify many. For some people, brands are becoming the new religion…or at least giving some of the traditional institutions a run for their money. Brands are becoming credible centers of community and meaning. 45,000 Saturn car owners visited a factory in 1992 where their vehicle was made, and spent days together sharing barbeque, listening to country music and enjoying finger-painting. Did they go because they wanted to see the birthplace of a technological wonder? No, it's really quite an ordinary car. But it enjoys extraordinary devotion. Why? They told me that they identified with its worldview (that everyone, no-matter what their status, deserves respect.) And that they simply want to meet other people like themselves who share the same values and the same enthusiasms.

Brands are increasingly adopting the roles traditionally occupied by social and religious institutions…the making of meaning and community. We eat a brand's meaning when we spoon Ben and Jerry's political agenda into our mouths, or cut off an SUV in our Mini. We feel a brotherhood when we roar down the road with a pack of other Harley riders. A passenger told me that he would start a conversation with his neighbor on a JetBlue plane as they're taking off, but only when they're landing on other carriers. In other words he has the feeling that he's flying with `like-others' on JetBlue, but not with other brands.

How or why have brands been elevated to this position?

That brands can be taken seriously in this role is because our culture has allowed it. Modern society has seen the traditional forms of fellowship erode. The things that have enabled contemporary life have also undermined our collective idea of what is at its heart: geographically based communities. Mobility, modern communications and the media have chipped away at our picket-fence concept of neighborhood.

But simultaneously they have made possible non-geographically anchored equivalents. Now communities are transcending towns and villages, language and ethnicity and are evolving into groups of dispersed individuals connected by shared interests, values and identity. Community has not gone away, as some of our leaders complain. Like any successful organism, it's just adapted to changed circumstances. And communities are now forming around brands. Brands are, after all, the natural offspring of this trend. Well financed and conceived, succored by media, communications and mobility, they are becoming loci for strong communities and express credible worldviews.

Mark Crispin Miller

The all-but-total saturation of our culture by commercial advertising has surely helped intensify the general cynicism that we notice everywhere around us (and within us) nowadays. Often we hear that such cynicism is a consequence of government lying--that, ever since Vietnam and Nixon, the people have grown understandably distrustful of official claims. Well, there is certainly a lot of truth to this claim, but this explanation does not tell the entire story. American cynicism reflects at least as much on the culture of "marketing" as it does on lying presidents and all their men. Or, to put it more accurately, Americans have grown less willing to believe our politicians as the latter have themselves become more advertising-oriented, advertising-based.

This is not a healthy cynicism--which would be realism, and skepticism--but a kind of snickering knee-jerk unbelief in any ideals whatsoever. To disbelieve in any ideals whatsoever is as bad as falling for whatever "values" have been packaged for you most effectively. The cynicism that imbues this culture now suggests the sort of vaguely angry boredom--an attitude blasé, passive, disappointed--that you see on nearly every face down at the shopping mall.

Also, advertising has changed markedly over the decades, its appeal becoming less and less nostalgic, escapist, sentimental, pastoral--in a word, humane--and ever colder, nastier. Advertising now reflects and caters to a general sense of powerlessness, which can't, of course, be remedied by going shopping, as it has to do with social, political and economic factors. Nevertheless, ads commonly allure us these days with a fantasy that you can be "empowered" by the product. This constant emphasis on "power" at its crudest (your SUV is bigger than everybody else's) constitutes a most unhealthy propaganda on behalf of individual domination.

2. Is there something distinctive in the American character that makes us susceptible to this world of advertising and messages? "The Persuaders" program explores the idea that Americans are seeking and finding a sort of identity in buying/joining a brand. What is this about?

Kevin Roberts

This is human nature. Mammon is an Aramaic word, from biblical times. Americans are no different to Armenians, Athenians and Australians in their wish to have choice about what they buy, whether everyday necessities or nice-to-have items. Do brands fill an emotional void in people's lives? Possibly they can, and this is as valid as any other choice they make. I love my iPod but does this make me a spiritually void person? Of course not. The choices for how people can spend their lives spiritually are infinite. The watch-out is to balance people's right to consume with the sustainability needs of the planet. America's energy consumption is not sustainable, and I have a strong wish that the vision that has gone into the creation of the Toyota Prius runs through every industry. We have to find many ways of producing stuff that is environmentally sustainable.

Douglas Rushkoff

Well, America is an Enlightenment society. We were founded on the notion that individual freedoms are of paramount importance. This philosophy has dovetailed quite well with the market's need to treat us as individuals. It's easier to market to isolated individuals than to cohesive groups or collectives. The loneliest people can more easily be convinced to buy stuff to fill the void.

Marketers tell us we matter - that we're worth it. We deserve everything. They won't tell us about sacrifice, participation, or sharing. People who share things, don't need to buy as much stuff.

So advertising exploits the American belief in individualism by recasting it as some sort of consumer right. We are led to think of our consumer choices as some version of true agency - when the choice between Coke and Pepsi really isn't a choice, at all.

Douglas Atkin

I don't believe that Americans are more or less susceptible than anyone else. In fact I don't like the word `susceptible' at all…it implies that people are passive receivers of manipulative messages. In general we are highly discriminating. We have to be. We've been forced to edit the thousands of messages that assault us and select the few that may have some relevance. We've become very marketing literate.

Some brands do generate very strong commitment, even devotion from their customers. But this is not the result of any inherent sensitivity or vulnerability to the clever machinations of marketing professionals. The devotees that I interviewed reported that their brands provided a rallying point for people who shared the same values. As one Apple user told me: "literally it's [the Apple community] based around a machine. But actually it's based on a common way of thinking."

The desire to belong and believe is a fundamental urge of the human condition and therefore not specific to one country or another. It's universal. And this compulsion will find satisfaction wherever it can. If the traditional suppliers of meaning and community are lapsing in their ability to satisfy, then others will take their place. The laws of supply and demand apply equally in the realm of sacred as they do in the secular. And the sacred is under siege from an increasing number of vigorous competitors, including consumerism. As a senior Italian Catholic theologian put it: "There are more and more morals and ethics on the market. There's Buddhism, Hinduism, New Age Spiritualism, consumerism. With all these competitors, it's harder for the Church to sell." (Reverend Enzo Bianchi).

What is unique in human history is that we are at an intersection between the rise in development and sophistication of the consumer culture, and a simultaneous decline in the vigor of established religion. Church attendance in Europe is in the single digit percentages and although attendance is the U.S. is the highest in the Western World, its long-term trend is down. This is only likely to change when traditional suppliers of meaning and community become more competitive, or the vitality of consumer culture declines.

Mark Crispin Miller

Well, Americans are extraordinarily suffused with and assaulted by commercial advertising. And although they're canny customers, that sort of wariness has not a thing to do with whether propaganda works on you or not. Indeed, if your skepticism is very shallow, it can actually help advertisers put one over on you, by flattering your sense that you're too shrewd for anyone to fool you. The great success of certain rightist demogogues at work today attests to this, as all of them purport to give you the REAL story, not the lies promoted by the Liberal Media. What Bill O'Reilly does, for instance, is appear to honor his viewers' self-conception as sharp cookies, drawn naturally to his "No-Spin Zone."

As for why Americans are drawn to advertising, I suggest it has to do with the sheer volume of the ads themselves: "volume" in both auditory and quantitative senses. In older cultures, there are still a range of institutions that pre-dated modern advertising/marketing, and that therefore offer other sorts of refuge from the pitch. Here, there isn't much aside from advertising; and that's the case here whether you're a Christian rightist or a liberal atheist.

One might argue that there is bound to be a high degree of mass credulity wherever people think in "faith-based" ways.

3. What are the common elements in the persuasion/selling strategies of advertising and marketing? And how can we move about in this world with a degree of self-awareness as to what's happening, especially since all these messages are increasingly trying to move us to act and make choices on an emotional level?

Kevin Roberts

The greatest combination of selling techniques is sight, sound and motion. We call this Sisomo. It used to be called television, and the 30 second television ad is the greatest selling technique ever created. But technology and consumers have moved, and now we are part of the Screen Age. The combination of movement, color, music and words creates an emotional field that is highly engaging for people, whether it is to present a point of view in documentaries on public television such as "The Persuaders" or to sell laundry detergent. Music and humor are especially important. Music creates mood; it is a shortcut to the heart. Humor is highly empathetic.

The techniques for creating Lovemarks involve Mystery, Sensuality and Intimacy, three words you won't find at Harvard Business School. Mystery is about great stories, being inspired, blending past, present and future, icons and symbols. Sensuality is about how you evoke all the senses in your product or communication. And Intimacy invokes passion, commitment and empathy. This is how you create emotional communications.

But remember, consumers are smart. They've seen everything. They know what is authentic and what is fake. And if you're not respected, there is little chance you've ever going to be loved.

Douglas Rushkoff

The common element, as I see it, is to induce what psychologists would call 'regression and transference.' Make us feel small and disoriented, and then step in as the parent to tell us how to feel better. In the old days, it may have worked by frightening us about dandruff, and then having a nice deep-voiced narrator tell us to buy a certain shampoo. Now, it might simply be to show us the body of a beautiful athlete - so that we feel bad about our own physique. Then we buy the sneakers, as if to purchase a bit of that strength. When it's really only a shoe.

These days, most advertisers are into one form or the other of experiential marketing. One place might call it "cult branding," another might call it "lovemarks," and another might call it "brand experience," but it's all really part of the same trend towards connecting with consumers on a more emotional or even spiritual level. Of course, it's much easier to look at brands that may have accomplished this over the past twenty years, than to actually do this for some new brand. Everyone can recognize when it's happened. No one knows how to do it.

What it involves is getting the brand to mean something more than whatever object it's stamped on. Apple means something to consumers more than the computers or music players they've branded. It's that something that, in the best of cases for advertisers, can become a kind of substitute for culture or religion.

Douglas Atkin

Consumers are cleverer than the marketing industry. The very billions that have blasted the culture with advertising over the decades have made the audience marketing-literate. If you have not sat in a focus group that's assessing a marketing campaign, try it. In my experience the group has very quickly deconstructed the effort using the very jargon marketers use. Not surprising really, since twenty percent of undergraduates take some kind of business or marketing option. So, there is already high awareness of persuasion and selling strategies.

When brands have generated commitment it's when they have met fundamental needs. These are increasingly in the `emotional' area (nowadays there are fewer and fewer real tangible differences between products anyway.) The people I interviewed felt attached to "their brands" because they identified with them, literally. They aligned themselves with what the brand stood for and by the same token, with other users of the same brand. Mac users feel more comfortable around other Mac users. We all feel a mutual smugness as we stand in line at Whole Foods.

And where this commitment and identification is the case, consumers and marketers have engaged in a sort of consensual dance. The consumers know what's going on. The marketer knows that the consumer knows. But it's all ok, because the consumer finds the marketing entertaining enough, funny enough, and simply well-executed enough that they effectively say, "Ok, you've respected me and engaged me, I'm now predisposed to what you're trying to sell."

This self awareness was vividly expressed when a Snapple drinker told me that "I've been bamboozled by the man and I know it." He knew the product was simply colored sugar water and that the claims on the back of the bottle were groundless. But he enjoyed the inventiveness of the marketing campaign that asserted that Snapple was `Real' (a value that also defined himself, as he saw it.)

Literate consumers, and the marketers that respect them, raise the game to a higher level where both get something out of it. Consumers become aware and willing accomplices in the agenda of the brand…because the agenda is their own. There is mutual respect and as a result, mutual commitment.

Mark Crispin Miller

…The second question there is crucial. How do we live our lives amid the endless hype? Rational awareness is of course essential, but, as I've said above, it's not enough. One must not only be conscious of the various misleading tactics, etc. One must understand the falseness of advertising on a much deeper level. The problem isn't so much that they use all kinds of clever tricks to take us in, as it is that they extol an empty and inhuman way of life and vision of the world. One needs a philosophical and/or spiritual grounding to remain immune to these illusory temptations.

4. Where are we headed? What's the future? What are your thoughts on how far the techniques of persuasion might go?

Kevin Roberts

I'm a radical optimist. The role of business is to make the world a better place by creating jobs, choice and self-esteem. I have faith in consumers to do what they think is best for their lives, and for the planet. Consumers get the idea of Lovemarks - massively.

Go to and you'll find several thousand stories from consumers about products, services, experiences, places and people that are useful, well designed, ethical, positive for the planet, personally enriching, fun and generally guilt-free.

And remember the world is bigger than America! I travel centers and edges of the world continuously, and the capacity for the triumph of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me. You can easily be a pessimist if you so choose. Me, I love the term Inspirational Player. The world needs an abundance of them.

Douglas Rushkoff

Well, they're hoping for a future in which we each get marketed to individually - through our cell phones or computers. But I doubt that will happen. Ultimately, we want our products and our media to bring us to other people, not isolate us further from them. So most of this segmentation research will fail. There's so much data out there, being collected by everyone from Amazon to Amex. I don't think it will be easy to make money in segmentation data when there's such a glut.

The other future is one in which our consumer brands really do replace our religions and culture. I suppose it's possible, but consumerism is fighting a war on two flanks. On one side, there are fundamentalists (Christians here, and Muslims elsewhere) who are fighting against a consumer culture pretty well. And on the other flank, there's those of us who are becoming unsatisfied with the extreme dearth of genuine, connecting experiences offered by the consumer reality. And we're just shutting off and looking elsewhere.

Douglas Atkin

Let's flip it around the other way. How far will this `consensual dance' go that I described in question three? `Persuasion' implies the conversion of others to your point of view in an almost one-way transmission of tactics from persuader to receiver. I don't think that's the future. Success is going to demand the willing participation on the part of the consumer in the running of the brand. After all, it needs the consumer to feel that it's their brand. And if that's the case, they need to feel ownership of it. And that means no `us and them' but perfectly matching identification.

The next big thing in marketing will be `Community Marketing'. That is, building a community around one's own brand or becoming adopted by an existing community. This is consumer ownership in its purest manifestation.

With over 900,000 `HOGS' (Harley Owners Group members), clearly that brand has recognized the potential of community. It is actually a very good example of the brand community running itself. The manufacturer has played a very small role in either its formation or management of its activities…the members do it all themselves. They run the rallies, they organize rides. The community, not the brand manager, created the `brand logo'. It's the famous `Deaths Head' icon, appropriated from the Hell's Angels (those High Priests of the cult). The official symbol is the `Bar and Shield' which is present, but is not the fetish object of the community.

The `command control' practice of old-school marketing is over in my view, together with its militaristic lexicon of `target,' `campaign,' `guerilla marketing' and other aggressive epithets that describe marketers' aging armory of intrusive practices. Instead the clever marketers will recognize the potential for brands to adopt a more elevated role as fora for communing and ideas. And that requires different skills. The marketer needs to adopt the posture of Nurturer of communities rather than the General of marketing campaigns. They need to do something to do something that is completely foreign to them…be humble and let the consumer run the show.

By the way, the recent election has demonstrated the utility of this approach. The Bush campaign, whether knowingly or intuitively, adopted many of the practices of Cult or Community Marketing. They expressed a clear, and polarizing ideology. Existing communities, primarily Christian churches, saw an alignment between their values and the Administration's (and "moral issues" are currently being identified as a key deciding factor in the election). The Republicans were therefore adopted as `their' party. Furthermore, the Administration galvanized this community by identifying a threat, a timeless strategy of leaders of committed groups. Defining a threat or enemy does two very important things. It creates solidarity and energy in the community as it mounts a defense for its very existence. It also clarifies the unifying values of the community by defining `The Other' as almost a photographic negative of themselves. There were two threats that the Administration dramatized in this case: terrorism and the `liberal agenda.' The Democrats singularly failed to use any of the strategies of Community Marketing.

Mark Crispin Miller

This one is impossible to answer, as one never knows what's going to happen. Who, thirty years ago, would ever have imagined cyberspace, for instance? Who would ever have imagined the successful cult of anti-rationalism that has gripped most of the right?

One can extrapolate from the present, and imagine an ad-based dystopia of the sort that, say, Philip K. Dick might have envisioned. But its emergence would depend on the continuation of a lot of current trends: ecological, political, psychological. Frankly, I am doubtful that the planet can sustain the U.S. model for much longer. So I'd foresee a vast material breakdown coming on before the Adworld can perfect itself.

· · ·

Douglas Atkin and Douglas Rushkoff wrote the following follow-up replies to the preceding answers.

· · ·

Douglas Atkin

With reference to the first question, I agree with Douglas Rushkoff that our culture is a living thing. That means that if it is dominated by consumerism, then those stallholders pitching it in the marketplace of ideas are gaining more traction than the traditional providers of meaning and community. You may wish to express a value judgment about that. Even as one of the `consumer-culture' stallholders, I confess I'm a little sad. But if you do, criticize the relative relevance of the pitches, not one side or the other. The marketplace is a self-correcting mechanism…those satisfying the needs of its customers will prosper. If consumer culture is winning out, then traditional providers of meaning, symbols and community should buck-up and do something about it.

With reference to the second question, I disagree with Mark that advertisers are trying to, and can ever, "put one over on you" (some of them would say: "if only we could.") In our industry we learnt very early on that subterfuge and deception doesn't work. The Truth will out. There is a common phrase in our business: "The fastest way to kill a bad product is to use good advertising." And I would argue that Bill O'Reilly's impartiality is looking a little frayed for this very reason, under the assault of leaks from his own organization and growing attacks on his veracity. Good advertising, bad product. I doubt any of those listening to his rants are under any illusion from which worldview he's coming from. That's why they listen to him. Anyway, as Kevin points out, consumers are not dumb. The Internet makes it virtually impossible for commercial organizations to indulge in one-upmanship.

Regarding the third question -- I confess, I'm a marketing professional, but I can't stand most marketing. I have a Tivo that I use primarily to avoid the ads. I mute the commercial breaks. I spend more time on my computer than I do watching TV because the sheer volume of insultingly low-standard advertising drives me crazy. In other words, I'm like almost everyone in our marketing-swamped culture. I engage in active avoidance of most commercial messages. (There are tons of data reporting this phenomenon.)

So the days of "endless hype," as Mark puts it, are going to be over. The marketing industry is notoriously slow to change, but change it will as its current tactics are proven to be less and less effective. And the new tactics will have to respect the intelligence and media literacy of the consumer. Not "clever tricks to take us in" as Mark puts it. I find that phrase insulting, not to me, but to consumers. The tactics will be clever because they will acknowledge the low boredom threshold of the consumer and their requirement for the advertiser to be truthful and engaging.

Douglas Rushkoff

Rushkoff responds to Kevin Roberts' comments to the first question:

Roberts - "…The "persuasion" industry is highly transparent, the techniques are widely written about and freely available, and there are no secrets. … The thought that there are armies of secret manipulators concocting devious ways to entrap people into purchasing products is nonsense. Consumers today are smart, savvy and ruthless and they exercise their right to choice. The consumer is boss. ..."

That's a bit of a straw man argument, though. It's like saying, no one is about to detonate your apartment with explosives, so why are you so paranoid to keep a lock on the door? Just because the persuasion industry is transparent to those reading the New York Times or taking marketing courses or deconstructing "The Simpsons" doesn't mean most of America is consciously participating in the erosion of civil society. Very often, the fear leading us to act impulsively does not lead to the best longterm results for ourselves or our communities.

The motto for your own technique, Lovemarks, is "loyalty beyond reason." The idea is to go around a person's rational functioning and appeal to them on an emotional level. After all, there is no "reason" to buy one brand over another, for the most part. But this does amount to a kind of training. The same gut-level lower-brain reasoning we use to pick Coke or Pepsi is being applied to whether we pick Bush or Kerry. It's not a particularly conscious way of moving through life, even if we - as consumers - are voluntarily practicing it. But that's why we made the documentary. Not to condemn marketers at all, or even the persuaders. Nowhere do we suggest that these people are secret manipulators (even though many of them - like the ones who created the term "Climate Change" or "Death Tax" - truly are). The point is to bring these processes and our participation into consciousness, so that people can make a conscious choice about how much they want to participate in the dance that you are celebrating.

Rushkoff responds to Douglas Atkin's comments to the first question:

Atkin - "…Community has not gone away, as some of our leaders complain. Like any successful organism, it's just adapted to changed circumstances. And communities are now forming around brands. Brands are, after all, the natural offspring of this trend. Well financed and conceived, succored by media, communications and mobility, they are becoming loci for strong communities and express credible worldviews."

Indeed. It's too easy to blame Starbucks for taking the place of public meeting spaces. The public meeting spaces had already been sold off to the marketplace. Starbucks merely arose to fill in where civil society left us down. If we want public parks and benches and town halls, we ought to do more than attack the bookstores and coffee houses attempting to recreate these spaces. We have to go build them, ourselves. Or shut up.


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posted nov. 9, 2004

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