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The Persuaders Documentary Review Essays

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The Persuaders

Advertising may be the modern answer to what traditionally was known as culture. A frame of reference, a pretext for reality, or an essentially targeted flow of messages – in whichever form it may appear, advertising creates the world we perceive as feasible. Advertising aspirations towards becoming the wallpaper of our world are desirable for business. Moreover, it is in the interest of the consumer. For both, the appeal of advertisement lies in its cultural freedom, its power to break down traditional borders, and finally – its accepting stance towards the consumer. In the few following paragraphs it will become clear how advertising will help the consumer.

The creator of “The Persuaders”, the writer Douglas Rushkoff opens his documentary by comparing advertising to a “skin” that covers everything. The word “skin” is appropriate because it accurately conveys the idea of the consensual reality in which it is emergent. Because everyone feels the “skin”, it must be real; its existence is not under debate. Its intention is to seamless to the extent it becomes the culture or the meaning system that consumers uses to absorb reality. Once advertisement becomes skin, it is no longer viewed as advertising. Ultimately, advertising will have been internalized to the extent that it will seem natural to the consumer; one no longer realizes the skins otherness.

From the advertisers standpoint it is important to create a culture around the product because the essence of a culture is that the consumer believes it is real. Cult brands and lovemarks are items which have realized the state of becoming part that reality. Few brands achieve this, yet some examples of products which have gained such a following are the iPod, the iPhone and the MacBook, all products conceived by Apple. In essence, Apple in its organizational structure is a set of brands. Apple does not produce any of its products, yet consumers extend extreme affection towards most of its products. Their brands are effective in cutting through the clutter of advertising because they have become a part of the culture – they are real.

From the consumers’ perspective, it is not always easy to realize what ones true instincts are (in his book “The Culture Code”, the marketing guru Clotaire Rapaille writes that “Even the most self-examining of us are rarely in close contact with our subconscious”) and one may need help from advertising. Although one may answer when asked why he needs that new BMW with a great stereo system, that new Apple iPhone with touch screen – it’s the features, Rapailles reply to that would be “we give answers to questions that sound logical and are even what the questioner expected, but which don’t reveal the unconscious forces precondition to our feelings” (Rapaille 15). So while the need for a BMW or an iPhone may be there, the reason is not the sound system in the car or the touch screen on the phone, but something deeper.

Often such brands are easy to understand. More of than not they are brands associated with a certain lifestyle or passion: with creativity, in the case of the often quoted Apple product line; with adventure, in the case of the Chivas whisky; with speed in the case of BMW. Each of these items associates with strong emotions. As Rapaille put it in a 2003 interview, “The reptile always wins” (Rapaille, The Persuaders) meaning that the prehistoric reptilian inside us – or in other words, the basic human needs, wants and urges – eventually direct the purchase decisions. The brands which are able to create a strong association with the basic human instincts will succeed.

Modern culture is exceedingly becoming what is no longer pure culture, but rather an infusion of advertising and the appealing parts tradition. With new ways of explaining the deeper needs of the consumer, researchers such as Clotaire Rapaille are beginning to make sense of how advertisement may have all the properties of a cultural entity. Because of the disappearance of a traditional culture, and certainly in the interests of the advertiser, the unrealized deeper instincts are increasingly catered for by the advertisements, and finally – by the products. Breaking through the clutter was difficult while advertising was viewed as something other than culture, or for that matter – the reality. Once advertisement truly becomes indistinguishable from culture, business as well as the consumer will have reached a new age of understanding.

Works Cited

Rapaille, Clotaire. The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do. New York: Broadway, 2006.
Rapaille, Clotaire. The Persuaders Douglas Rushkoff. 15 December 2003.


Adapted from a critique of the PBS documentary "The Persuaders" for Semester 1 Public Relations Class with Kaja Tampere. The Baltic Film & Media School Of Tallinn University

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The books a child sneaks off his parents’ bookshelves and surreptitiously reads ought to be sex books. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Memoirs of Hecate County” scandalized and educated earlier generations. The volume I made off with was a 75-cent paperback of “The Hidden Persuaders” by Vance Packard. It did scandalize me, completely. But it did so by exposing the secret world of advertising and brands. Published in 1957, it is now enjoying its 50th anniversary and a new edition from Ig Publishing, with an introduction by Mark Crispin Miller. I remember my own edition as small enough to hide — not that I really needed to — but packed with dynamite. It had a lurid cover illustration showing a barbed fishhook buried in a gleaming apple. Packard’s book reached into the darkest corners, not of sensuality, which I was sure I knew all about from television, but of the cynical selling in the commercials that ran between the shows.

I was a child of television. Whatever appeared on the color screen of our fake burled wood cabinet TV was a miraculous transmission from a better world. My devotion to television is the only way I can account for the disillusion I suffered at the hands of Packard’s book. Packard had tried to warn Americans of a new mutation in advertising. Powerful admen were working to tap the irrational in the consumer mind, using the applied psychology and sociology supported by the government during World War II. As more goods came to supermarket shelves, advertisers decided they were no longer selling just products, but malleable brand “personalities.” Decades later, I knew the results. Of course Coke was the red wholesomeness of tradition and majority taste, and Pepsi was the younger, blue, less popular choice of a rebellious new generation! My 14-year-old self was sure of it.

Vance Packard had grown up in a different world, in a Methodist farm family in Pennsylvania during the 1920s. Automobiles were still a novelty. Packard’s biographer, Daniel Horowitz, reports a family story about how his dairyman father once tried to stop the family car by shouting “Whoa!” rather than braking and crashed through the wall of his garage. Even after Packard became a sophisticated New York City magazine writer, he simmered at his Madison Avenue colleagues’ manipulation of ordinary folks, people like his childhood neighbors. His muckraking defense of traditional values with up-to-date exposés made him a household name. He had three books on the best-seller lists within four years.

Packard had lived on the cusp of two eras, and what fascinated me as a teenage reader was how close in time he had been to the invention of brands that seemed as solid and permanent to me as trees and stones. Marlboro, the essence of macho, had first been a women’s cigarette, “lipstick red and ivory tipped.” Advertisers managed to push it into a male market while holding on to its previous customers through ad campaigns of “rugged, virile-looking men” (like the famous cowboy) whom, studies proved, women liked too. Packard traced how products like gasoline and detergent, so standardized and reliable in the 1950s, needed to develop “personalities” to survive. I, for one, knew I was a Mobil guy long before I ever got my learner’s permit, though I had no idea why.

The bête noire of “The Hidden Persuaders” was “motivational research.” Rather than focusing on products, this “depth” research dug into the psychological weaknesses and needs of consumers. Packard wanted brands to certify purity or quality, to make an old-fashioned fact-based appeal to citizens who had price and effectiveness in mind. Scientists of motivation, on the other hand, were trying to puzzle out the reasons for impulsive and even self-destructive purchasing, then tailor images and packaging accordingly.

A lot of their research makes sense. People often answer questionnaires by giving idealized pictures of their habits rather than confessing their real weaknesses and needs. How can you know what buyers want unless you probe them more skillfully? Cake-mix makers, for example, had ruined their product by engineering too much for convenience: they told housewives to just add water and turn on the oven. Only after female focus groups revealed the pleasures and responsibilities of cake-making did food makers reformulate their products to require the cook to add eggs and milk, so the activity felt like “baking.”

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