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," FRONTLINE explores how the cultures of marketing and advertising
have come to influence not only what Americans buy, but also how they view themselves
and the world around them. The 90-minute documentary draws on a range of experts and
observers of the advertising/marketing world, to examine 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 a smaller segment of the
Take the 2004 presidential sweepstakes for example. Both the Republicans and the
Democrats were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to custom craft their messages.
"What politicians do is tailor their message to each demographic group," says Peter
Swire, professor of law at Ohio State University and an expert on Internet policy.
"That means…Americans will live in different virtual universes. What's wrong with
living in different universes? You never confront the other side. You don't have to
deal with the uncomfortable facts that go against your worldview….It hardens the
partisanship that's been such a feature of recent American politics."
FRONTLINE analyzes the 2004 campaign where, for the first time, the latest techniques
in narrowcasting were put into effect. The antithesis of traditional broadcasting,
narrowcasting involves crafting and delivering tailored messages to individual voters
based on their demographic profiles.
Political marketers are just now discovering new ways to use the techniques that have
long been employed by the private sector. 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.
"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."
This clutter creates a dilemma for advertisers, Garfield observes. "The advertisers
know they need to have more and more advertising to get an ever narrower slice of your
attention," he says. "And that means we are going to be ever more inundated. And then
of course ever more resistant, requiring ever more advertising, making us ever more
resistant and so on."
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, 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 proposed to HBO by Absolut's
public relations agency.
Some industry leaders claim that such tactics have evolved in response to consumer
preference. But others worry that as advertising becomes more deeply integrated into
television, movies, and music, those cultural forms will become ever more homogenous.
"The worry is not so much that the actual ads themselves will become ubiquitous," says
media critic Mark Crispin Miller. "Rather, it's that advertising desires for itself a
background that will not contradict it….The aim here is not so much to find a show
that people like and then get your ads on it. The aim here is for the advertisers to
create a show that is itself an extended ad."
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
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.
"I've interviewed people who are brand loyalists of Saturn Car Company," Atkin says,
"and they will use the same vocabulary as someone who is a cult member of Hare
Krishna. They will say that other car users need to be `saved,' or that they are part
of the `Saturn family' with no hint of irony. [They] absolutely and completely believe
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
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
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."
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