smart consumers

Lisa & Ian Murray seamus at
Wed Aug 4 15:19:05 PDT 1999

threat drivel threat drivel threat what is the advertising source of the right's insatiable desire to create enemies?? time to hurl...


> -----Original Message-----
> From: owner-lbo-talk at
> [mailto:owner-lbo-talk at]On Behalf Of Doug Henwood
> Sent: Wednesday, August 04, 1999 10:21 AM
> To: lbo-talk at
> Subject: smart consumers
> [Note the amusing hit against Baffler editor Tom Frank at the end of
> this piece. Elsewhere, Postrel has identified him as an enemy of the
> future. Wonder how the cult stud mafia will greet this?]
> Wall Street Journal - August 2, 1999
> Manager's Journal
> The Pleasures of Persuasion
> By Virginia Postrel, editor of Reason magazine and author of "The
> Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity,
> Enterprise and Progress" (Free Press, 1998).
> Obituaries for advertising pioneer David Ogilvy, who died last month,
> emphasized his respect for consumers. "The consumer is not a moron.
> She is your wife," was a popular Ogilvy refrain. "His greatest
> legacy," declared the Associated Press, "was an approach to
> advertising that assumed the intelligence of the consumer."
> How, then, do we explain the lady in the bath? She appears in a
> classic Ogilvy ad, featured in his 1983 book "Ogilvy on Advertising."
> Covered with suds, she holds a bar of Dove in her right hand and a
> telephone receiver in her left. "Darling, I'm having the most
> extraordinary experience . . ." reads the headline, followed by "I'm
> head over heels in DOVE!" The soap, our heroine exclaims to her
> absent love, makes her feel like "the most pampered, most spoiled,
> girliest girl in the world."
> The ad is so over-the-top that only the most irony-impaired could
> find it offensive. Our reaction today is to puncture it, to make
> jokes at its expense. This cynical response may be the greatest
> legacy of Ogilvy and his fellow midcentury admen. In their quest for
> perfect persuasion, they created a media dynamic that made consumers
> increasingly immune to the admen's favorite techniques. That dynamic,
> in turn, has undermined the arguments of advertising's most prominent
> critics.
> Commercials keep going -- but no one's afraid of the hidden
> persuaders anymore.
> To Ogilvy, good advertising followed clear rules. The Dove ad had a
> big photo, a long headline, a picture of the product and plenty of
> text, because those elements were the established formula for
> success. Amid her gushing, the bathing beauty articulates the soap's
> practical benefits, because Ogilvy believed that ads should always
> tell consumers why they should buy the product. (No "Just do it" for
> him.) He also believed in scientific research. "I used the word
> 'darling' in the headline for this ad because a psychologist had
> tested hundreds of words for their emotional impact and 'darling' had
> come out top," he wrote.
> This simple, static model fed criticism not only of advertising but
> of the market economy. If consumers are so predictable and so easily
> manipulated, where is their freedom of action? In this view,
> persuasion becomes a kind of force. The more the advertiser knows
> about what consumers want, and the more desires the product and
> packaging seek to fulfill, the more coercive the force.
> That was the basic premise of Vance Packard's best-selling 1957 book,
> "The Hidden Persuaders." It recounts in chilling detail how
> merchandisers use psychology and social science to probe "people's
> subsurface desires, needs, and drives . . . to find their points of
> vulnerability." These "depth merchandisers," Packard warned, were
> invading our minds and destroying our wills. By playing on consumers'
> unarticulated wants, these manipulators could sell them things they
> didn't really need, like snazzy cars or impulse long-distance calls.
> When a cocky ad-agency executive claimed in 1942 that psychology
> offered the promise not only of understanding people but of
> "controlling their behavior," Packard believed him.
> Packard's stories offer an intriguing peek into the mindset of
> midcentury advertising and social science. But the book reads as
> anachronistically--and ridiculously--as the Dove ad. It envisions
> consumers as passive dupes who never catch on even to the most
> obvious manipulations. It assumes that serving intangible desires is
> a kind of fraud. It imposes a standard of "rational" needs that
> exemplifies the worst sort of technocratic elitism. Packard worried,
> for instance, about what happened when the "depth probers" found that
> fear of stern bankers was driving borrowers to more expensive loan
> companies. Banks began training their employees to be nice so as to
> attract more business. This struck Packard as ominous, an example of
> exploiting customers' fears.
> It is hard nowadays to understand how Packard and his fellow critics
> could conceive of consumers as so powerless--or of advertising as so
> threatening. If we don't like the ads, we turn the page or hit the
> remote control. The result is intense pressure for advertisers to
> make not just their products but their pitches appealing. Today's
> consumers, and the people who study them, are more likely to
> emphasize the pleasures of persuasion.
> Consider the recent book "The 100 Best TV Commercials." Its very
> existence assumes that consumers are not victimized by ads but
> intrigued and entertained by them. Author Bernice Kanner begins with
> an explicit swipe at Packard, recounting how she once volunteered as
> the subject of psychological research for a shampoo company. She let
> social scientists probe her innermost thoughts about her hair, and it
> didn't bother her a bit. "Rather than seeing commercials or the
> research that shapes them as insidious, I confess, I see them as
> artful--a no-bones-about-it reflection of our times."
> Kanner isn't alone; lots of consumers actively enjoy advertising,
> especially fashion print ads and clever TV commercials. The nostalgic
> cable channel TV Land features not only vintage shows but also
> vintage commercials. Both Nike and Adidas delighted fans with their
> funny ads during the recent women's soccer playoffs. Commercial
> parodies and satirical allusions are a staple of comedy from
> "Saturday Night Live" to "The Simpsons."
> This shift is partly generational. Americans born since World War II
> have grown up in a media-saturated environment. From childhood, we
> have developed a sort of advertising literacy, which combines
> appreciation for technique with skepticism about motives. We respond
> to ads with at least as much rhetorical intelligence as we apply to
> any other form of persuasion. We can enjoy ads, scorn them or be
> moved by them. We can also accept "meaningless" product
> attributes--Budweiser's silly frogs, Absolut's playful graphics, the
> iMac's bright colors--as legitimate differentiators. We don't demand
> the "rationality" of new Coke, which did great in taste tests but
> lacked the emotional resonance of the classic flavor.
> In our media-savvy age, consumers are neither morons nor puritans. We
> are active participants in the exchange with producers and
> persuaders. We decide not only which products but which meanings to
> adopt--and which to reject.
> This widespread media literacy informs academic cultural studies.
> Although its practitioners almost all see themselves as leftists,
> they largely reject the old story of exploitation and trickery and
> instead emphasize audience "agency." Some scholars study how
> communities rearrange and add to the characters and stories offered
> by mass media. Others emphasize the way we define personal identities
> by selecting symbols to associate with, many of which are commercial.
> Consumers are informed, self-directed actors.
> This vision is deeply threatening to traditional leftist views of
> commerce. "It is a surprisingly short walk from the cult-studs'
> active-audience theorizing to the most undiluted sort of free-market
> orthodoxy," frets cultural critic Thomas Frank in his magazine The
> Baffler. The cultural-studies mavens are betraying the leftist cause,
> lending support to the corporate enemy and even training graduate
> students who wind up doing market research.
> To believe in "active, intelligent audiences," Mr. Frank writes,
> "makes criticism of the market philosophically untenable."
> Unfortunately for him, that belief has decades of experience behind
> it. Today advertising that respects the consumer's intelligence is
> what the market demands.

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