Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Persuaders Are After You: A Call to Arms

I no longer take anything at face value. Like Freud asking “What do women want?” I find myself asking this question without regard to gender, embellishing it further with yet other questions like: “What does he or she really mean?” or “What is he or she thinking?” or “What does he or she want me to believe?”

Perhaps being steeped in the irony of my profession as a novelist, I am getting paranoid since I have discovered that I am developing a kind of shell, an armor that is trying to protect me from manipulation. My level of distrust has expanded exponentially as I grow older. I find I am resisting all manner of attempts to persuade me about anything. As a result, I have discovered that I am subliminally blocking out all forms of commercial or political attempts at manipulating me to act in the manner that serves other people’s agendas.

When I see or hear the word “free” or “sale,” for example, I feel the symptoms of nausea. Nothing is free and a sale is dumping products that never sold. Celebrities who hawk goods strike me as an inside joke. Are there really idiots out there who believe them? Did Ronald Reagan, whose ubiquitous advertising posters were plastered all over the subways of my youth, really believe that Chesterfields were good for you? And did nine out of ten doctors prefer… was it Camels or Chesterfields? Considering how much lung cancer has inflated the pockets of doctors, one must pay attention to the laws of unintended consequences.

Speaking of doctors, there is something obscene happening today where we victims in the patient pool are being persuaded by massive advertising to try this or that prescription drug by pushing our doctors to prescribe them. Somehow it seems that it should be the other way around. The doctors should be telling us what drugs will benefit us. There is even more subtle persuasion going on here, since the advertising is also directed to those who buy these drugs on-line from websites where no prescriptions are required.

Never mind the illegalities of such ventures. Indeed, even the word illegal is taking on new connotations. Take the case of illegal immigration for example. Crime used to be defined as breaking the law. “Crime doesn’t pay” was the mantra of my youth. By today’s standards some crimes actually pay pretty well.

As a group, advertising people tend to be brilliant and cunning persuaders. (Pardon the bit of self-flattery here. I once was a member of that gang.) They have researched us down to the atomic dust in our brains and they really believe that they know all our secret urges and alleged needs.

Advertising people will tell you that what they are doing is trying to get your attention and hopefully get you to buy the product they are charged with hawking. It takes great knowledge of the craft of manipulation to dip into the mind of an indifferent public besieged by competing products and motivate them to part with their cash and choose the one they are pushing. The objective is to create a need in your mind, to seduce you into believing that this or that product or idea will satisfy an urgent or latent desire, to entice you to believe in what they are selling. It isn’t an easy job since the competition for your attention and your bucks is fierce.

Caveat Emptor” we are warned. Let the buyer beware. I am not knocking the process. Consumption lies at the heart of our capitalistic society and often the product being hawked might, just might, really improve our lives. There is a vast army of inventors and entrepreneurs who are perpetually innovating, creating, and embellishing various products that do indeed improve and extend our lives. Our judgment of the efficacy and usefulness of these products can be swift and sure. You buy it, try it, and you evaluate it. If it doesn’t work for you, you reject it.

Behind every effort to persuade us is the vast network of focus groups, pollsters, and analyzers who track what they have broken down into bits and pieces of what they allege is your psychological profile, your habits, your predilections, hoping to dig deep into your heart, mind, and soul to determine your preferences so that, as the fly fisherman say, they can match the hatch, hook you and reel you in for their own purposes.

Indeed, they believe in their results and have, so it seems, an excellent track record in predicting outcomes, but always with the caveat that their predictions can be a few percentage points off. They allege that they have worked out their tactics with scientific precision and can break you down into broad labels, like liberal and conservative, and then slice you into unlimited categories with the precision of an algorithm. Politicians and all sorts of commercial enterprises employ these professionals, whose results and determinations form the basis for their marketing ploys.

Yet, despite the fact that their conclusions are often chillingly correct, I feel quite resentful that I can so easily fit into a pigeonhole. It strikes to the heart of my individuality and mocks my own worldview and my sense of my own uniqueness. Are we so alike that we can so easily be categorized and labeled? Is our place in the culture so predictable? Are we so unified in opinion that we can be put in little lock step compartments? Such determination seems anathema in a so-called free society.

I can’t stand the idea of being categorized, dubbed a statistic, tucked away in a demographic. I hate the idea of being targeted to persuade me to buy a product or an idea based on my gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, appetite, or whatever.

Worse, I am appalled by the idea of being labeled, right, left, center, liberal, conservative, tall, short, old, young, etc. Everything in the media seems self-serving and cynical. I try valiantly, perhaps futilely, to resist this attack on my individuality. I read and view all media content with a jaundiced eye, searching zealously for signs of manipulation. Unfortunately, it is everywhere, ubiquitous, powerful, and often subtle.

The Internet with its Tower of Babel-no-holds-barred opinion machine choked with bizarre grievances, angry rants, and misinformation is a particular challenge and worrisome, but I’ll leave that for another time, since my tendency at this moment is to throw out the baby with the bath water. Never mind that I am using this media to distribute my own pearls of wisdom.

When it comes to politics, I admit I listen carefully to each candidate’s words, trying to determine what they really mean. I have found that my own interpretation is very different from what I know they want me to believe. I am immediately suspect when I see staged political rallies. Remember those brilliant films of Leni Riefenstahl depicting Nazi rallies with hands heiling in ecstasy as the evil mass murderer Adolf Hitler strode to the rostrum? It takes an enormous effort of will to resist such mass persuasion.

As a live participant in such rallies, it is almost impossible to be indifferent to the heady excitement and hysteria of such seductive crowd enthusiasm. Even observing it second hand on television and on film inspires your participation. We yearn to be part of the crowd mind I suppose.

So called soaring rhetoric, which is an integral part of these carefully staged rallies, makes me immediately suspect. I know exactly what the political manipulators are doing. I used to be one. All political campaigns are exercises in mass pandering.

But it is one thing to know you are being manipulated and for what reason and quite another to resist the invasion of your mind. The brutal fact is that you need the information, however packaged, to make a decision on anything. You can’t be part of the real world by ignoring the avalanche of information coming at you. The best you can do is filter it through your own defensive anti-pollutant mechanism.

Information, you see, is like oxygen. You can’t make any decisions without carefully weighing information, subliminally or consciously. All life is about making choices, fulfilling real or imagined needs, responding to your inner urges. Sometimes you have to take the path well worn or, as Robert Frost suggested, it might be better to take the path less traveled.

Perhaps it is the political season that prompts this call to arms against the persuaders. After working your way through the clichés and occasional nuggets of wisdom, consider this little rant a warning label from an old hand and practitioner of the art of manipulation.

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