Thursday, December 23, 2004

What we really want

Malcom Gladwell has been writing both explicitly and indirectly a lot about what I'll call "what people are really thinking" and in particular about how organizations and institutions can get to know it and better exploit it. Of course, it must have occurred to me that the same insights might be exploited for goals not shared by the rest of us, but I think the lure of a pure and attractive currency--"what people are really thinking"--made me eager to see a free market in it. I just noticed a terrible flaw in that vision, thanks to the PBS Frontline documentary "The Persuaders". Notwithstanding the eternal underlying motive of making money, I had been thinking that putting psychological and social science into marketing was the very opposite of the "sex sells" mentality or mission. I guess unconsciously I had assumed this science was all about the so-called "higher" cognitive processes. Or maybe I had forgotten that feelings and desires aren't pure manifestations of high-mindedness but originate in all sorts of ways, which can descend as low as cognition goes. Here's "The Persuaders" producer Rachel Dretzin commenting online

I think we are already seeing the impact of Luntz' preference for the "gut" over the rational.. and Dr. Rapaille's preference for the "reptilian" brain over the "intellectual" brain. In politics and in commercial marketing, it is our emotions that are played to most. Look at this past presidential campaign and the kind of emotional hot buttons that were pushed in voters from both parties.

So here we have a program that's even worse than "sex sells," because now we're learning how to drive shoppers and voters with forces as primal and potent as sex but which do not risk alienating the Bible Belt or baiting the FCC. Now, I'm not saying that all that's primal and potent in us is to be ignored. I want my shoes to be comfy, my TV dinners to taste good and above all I like my models' abs hard. But I also don't want individuals so tuned to the primal virtues of a Hummer that they never mull more complicated things like the societal good of controlling carbon emissions. I don't think the Sierra Club should have to put girls in bikinis on its Web site or tap mother love to sell socially beneficial policy goals. In fact, I think that in that direction there only lies peril. It's not just because I know they lack the deep pockets to compete with the oil lobby for production value. It's because for one, societies don't control the TV remote, individuals do. For another, it's the producers who are truly catering to our inner lizard in offering us something to consume. What the Sierra Club has to sell isn't even intelligible to the lizard. Likewise for what Kerry was selling versus what Bush was selling--fear.

Whither society when all broadcasting goes out on the lizard frequencies?

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