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persuading the consumer and the citizen
The prospect of zeroing in on the right audience at the right time with the right message is irresistable to both marketers and politicians. Increasingly the techniques of persuading Americans to make choices in the marketplace of goods are spilling over into the techniques of persuading them to make choices in the marketplace of ideas. Commenting on this are Ohio State law professor Peter Swire; Frank Luntz, corporate and political consultant; Naomi Klein, author of No Logo; Bob Garfield, columnist for Advertising Age; and Mark Crispin Miller, media critic. These excerpts are drawn from their extended FRONTLINE interviews.

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Kevin swire
Law professor, Ohio State University.

… Marketers want to rely on things that you've really done, not just so much [what] you say you're going to do. So marketers, if they can get hard data, think that they're going to reveal what customers really care about. If they have hard data, they can also sell that to their customers. They can seem scientific and really try to sell the companies that they have the magic formula for marketing success.

Is there a downside?

Well, is there a downside to pigeonholing people? I think that a lot of people don't like to be pigeonholed. If you're being told that you're this kind of yuppie or that kind of blue-collar person and you become aware of that, you can start to resent it. And so one thing that's happened here is in the marketing world, the folks are very explicit about what's going on. If you read Direct Marketing News, you'll see spectacular claims about how well we can pigeonhole people. But the hope is that real customers out there, real people out there, won't really know how they're being pigeonholed.

In the end, it seems what this is all doing is reinforcing our differences.

... Instead of being Americans, we're sliced into 70 demographic groups. We might be sliced into hundreds of subcategories under that. And then the worry is that we don't share anything as a people. Some people think that democracy was enhanced in the three-network world that we grew up in, or four networks, because we were all watching the same shows. We all saw Gilligan's Island, and we all saw Walter Cronkite, and that way, as Americans, we shared certain things. Today, if there's 500 channels and five million Web sites, maybe we're not going to share so much as Americans. Maybe we'll lose the sense that we're all in this together.

And there's risks down that road. One of the risks is we don't feel the same as everyone else. We're reading the things that we agree with, but not the things that will challenge us to reach out beyond it. That's one of the risks. Another risk is that politicians can talk out of 500 sides of their mouth, right? So we can have now targeted e-mails, targeted ads that go to the gun control people or the abortion people or the NASA people. …

What about the effect this is having on democracy?

Right. Well, one possibility is that people get the information they care about. There's this optimistic vision of marketing, political marketing or commercial marketing which is if you get 1,000 ads this month, you get 1,000 ads that are interesting to you. If you're a New Yorker reader, maybe you don't get the stock car magazine and vice versa. And that way you're using your time better as part of the efficiency of America to get you the information you're interested in. That's an optimistic vision.

A pessimistic vision is we're splitting America into tiny pieces and we're not sharing America. Or another pessimistic problem here is that it's manipulation. It's a hidden persuader, because we don't realize that we're being pigeonholed; we don't realize that the words we're reading are not the words that people down the street are reading, and we might be fooled that way. …

When and how did the political parties catch on to all of this?

A huge change was in the 1980s, when a direct marketing genius named Richard Viguerie really got the Republican Party going on a direct mail campaign. He created a mailing list that was a group of fervent believers that became the fund-raising basis for Republican success. His insight was [that] you could use the tools for marketing from the commercial side and apply them to politics.

There's a very strong natural selection in marketing that people who get results get paid and then sell to the next round. The marketers are the American geniuses who know how to succeed. Once those geniuses are making money for clients, then they can start making money for political clients, and that's what we're seeing more and more and more. …

So given all this, how does a modern candidate's campaign approach getting their message out?

It's a big country. We have diversity in America. If you want to get up to 51 percent of the vote, you probably have to assemble a coalition of 20 or 30 or 50 demographic groups. So as a modern candidate, you want a targeted ad on the gun control, on the pro-life, on the military, on the economic issues. You're going to want to have a message that's tailored for each one of those groups. If you don't do it, you're putting out broadcast ads in a narrowcast world. You're going to have your response rate lower, you're not going to be spending your money well, and that means you're falling behind in the arms race. …

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Frank luntz
A corporate and political consultant.

The way you communicate an idea is different than the way you communicate a product. However, the way you measure [the response of the public in both instances] is quite similar. And the principles behind explaining and educating the product or the elected official is similar, even though the actual execution of it is very, very different.

Are there different techniques you use when working with politics versus corporations?

The technique is a little bit different because politics and corporations are a little bit different. But in the end you're still using the same focus groups; you're still using the same dial technology; you're still using the same quantitative data; you're still doing split samples where you ask half a sample one way and the other half a different way. You're still asking and re-asking the questions. You're still showing them visuals to see what they like the best, and you're still showing them or having them listen to audio track to see how they respond. So the actual techniques are the same, but how they are applied is different. And that really is the separation; that's the differentiation between politics and the corporate world. ...

How important is keeping the consistency of the message in political language?

The advantage of working for a corporation is that it has only one message, because a product or a service doesn't speak; it's just there, and you can advertise it. The challenge in working in politics, particularly if you're working for a political party, is that everyone's a messenger. I think the best example of this, frankly, is Israel, where you can have 20 members of the Cabinet, and they've got 68 messages between them, because among the 20, all of them think that they're prime minister or will be prime minister or should be prime minister or hate the person who is prime minister. And when you have all these people saying things in a different way, nobody hears anything.

I've got a certain rule that I always teach my staff: It's not what you say; it's what people hear that matters. I may respond to you effectively, but if you edit it in such a way that they only hear the negativity of what I do, then that's all they're going to know. And so they're going to conclude that my profession isn't an honorable profession. And that's why how I say it has as much of an impact on what people think of me as what I say.

[Regarding consistency,] there's a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you're absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time. And it is so hard, but you've just got to keep repeating, because we hear so many different things -- the noises from outside, the sounds, all the things that are coming into our head, the 200 cable channels and the satellite versus cable, and what we hear from our friends. We as Americans and as humans have very selective hearing and very selective memory. We only hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest.

Republicans use think tanks to come up with a lot of their messages.

The think tanks are the single worst, most undisciplined example of communication I've ever seen. Cato [Institute] still calls it the "privatization of Social Security." Heritage [Foundation] did so until a couple of years ago. Every time you use the words "privatization" and "Social Security" in the same sentence, you frighten seniors, and more of them turn against you. This is a specific and perfect example of the intellectual goo-goo heads who are more interested in policy than they were in success. Changing the word from "privatize" to "personalize," which is the work that we had done, they wouldn't accept it, because to them it was selling an idea short.

They would rather communicate their way and lose the issue than communicate in a sensible way and win. The fact is, ideology and communication more often than not run into each other rather than complement each other. Principle and communication work together. Ideology and communication often work apart. ...

My job as a pollster is to understand what really matters. Those levers of importance -- sometimes they're called levers; sometimes they're called triggers. What causes people to buy a product? What causes someone to pull a lever and get them to vote? I need to know the specifics of that. And in politics, more often than not, it's about the personality and the character of the individual rather than where they stand, and that's exactly the opposite of what your viewers will think. …

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naomi klein
Author, No Logo.

… I would say that people rightly feel that corporations are more interested in their opinions than their politicians are. So once again, you see corporations sort of fulfilling a role that probably should be fulfilled elsewhere. Generally I think people don't feel terrifically listened to at work; they don't feel terrifically listened to by their politicians. Yet these brands are constantly canvassing their most minute shades of opinion.

But I don't think that's actual democracy or participation, because the stance of the consumer is not the same as the stance of a citizen. The customer is always right: "It's my money. You have to listen to me." I think if we're confusing that with democracy or actual citizen engagement, it's because we've actually lost touch with what democracy and community really does mean, because it's a much more complex give-and-take process of human beings interacting with each other and not "This is my opinion; take it; act on it," which is the consumer's stance vis-à-vis these companies. …

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bob garfield
Columnist, Advertising Age.

…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. …

..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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Mark Crispin miller
Media critic.

Is there a difference between being a citizen and being a consumer?

Citizens and consumers are two entirely different things. They have nothing in common. I mean, we happen to be citizens, and we happen to be consumers. But citizens are participants in government. Citizens are equals. Citizens are the equals of politicians. Citizens have to be taken seriously because they theoretically have the power in a democracy.

Consumers are feeders. All consumers do is consume. All they do is munch grass. They're like sheep or lambs. They are not equal to the politicians. They're not equal to the politicians' handlers. They're being manipulated necessarily. They're being manipulated to think only about the grass that they're chewing and nothing else, and manipulated into thinking about ways to get more grass. They're not operating on a sufficiently high level to participate in a democracy, at least as it was envisioned by Jefferson and Adams and those people. …


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posted nov. 9, 2004

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