Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Persuaders, and why advertising has doomed us all.

[This is one of those posts where I talk about things that actually matter to me. No one ever seems to read them, but if you're at all paranoid about the future of our country, please, have a gander.]

So last night I watched a Frontline special called 'The Persuaders' which was about how advertising and marketing work nowadays, since we've all been super saturated with media and ads. It was really interesting, but a lot of the advertising stuff was nothing new to me; I know that advertisers spend tons of money trying to get into our heads and figure out how to make us feel like we 'belong' to a brand and therefore will spend all our money on crap we don't need. That wasn't very surprising.

What I found most interesting came toward the end of the film, when it was revealed that politicians are starting to use the same methods as advertisers. This documentary was released in 2004, I believe before Bush was re-elected, and I'd really love to see a follow up to it now, after Obama's brilliantly successful campaign in which he really did brand his administration and sell the shit out of it. But I digress...

There's this super crazy company that works for advertisers called Acxiom, and what they do is work with banks and credit card companies and all sort of other entities to gather information on each of us: what we buy, what we like, where we are in life, etc. They then sell that information to advertisers so that they can narrow-cast advertisements to us (think Minority Report with the crazy eyeball scanning thing). Apparently politicians are starting to use companies like this as well. On the one hand, this a good thing. A candidate can find the people who are more likely to vote for them and send specified messages to voters as opposed to just talking in broad strokes to everyone and not really clicking with anyone.

However, the downside to this is something that really concerns me and I think speaks volumes to our current political climate. By breaking people down into little groups, and only talking about what matters to them, you run the risk of segregating the entire nation to the point where no one can agree on anything. Here's an excerpt of the transcript that really lays this out:

STUART EWEN, Hunter College: When you start sending messages which appeal to sort of, you know, white people in pick-up trucks, and then you're also sending messages to black people in Cleveland, and it's a qualitatively different kind of message, you're really trying to stir – or you're really trying to appeal to those aspects of people which sees themselves as different from each other.

PETER SWIRE: 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.

STUART EWEN: The result is living in a society where people, rather than having an idea of the common good, increasingly see their own personal well-being or their own community's or ethnicity's well-being as the essential issue of democracy.

The film of course ends on a message of hope and how the savvier the consumers are, the better everything will be and blah blah blah. I think people are getting smarter about buying stuff (most people anyways), but the thing that really concerns me is treating politics like advertising. People don't pay attention to the government as it is, and if some politician is able to sell themselves like an iPod even though they may be corrupt and have terrible and damaging policies, we're screwed. I really worry that people are paying less and less attention to anything but themselves, and that's not going to get us anywhere but doomed.

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