Have you ever picked up the phone, realized the caller was from an organization you'd never considered supporting, and gone ahead and pledged a sum of money or bought a magazine subscription? How did that automobile salesman get you to pay more than you'd planned to for a car, and add more features than you wanted, even though you came armed with your Consumer Reports?
Why do the advertisements in fashion magazines make us feel inadequate, and after they do, why do we feel compelled to buy the products advertised anyway? How can we feel we're so aware of the effects of advertising and marketing, yet still succumb to them?
Why are our kids tattooing themselves with the Nike "swoosh" icon? Are they part of a corporate cult? If young people today are supposed to be beyond the reach of old-fashioned marketing, then why do they feel the need to find their identity in a brand of sneakers?
No matter how many coercive techniques we come to recognize, new ones are always being developed that we don't. Once we've become immune to the forceful "hard sell" techniques of the traditional car dealer, a high-paid influence consultant develops a new brand with an entirely new image--like the Saturn, whose dealers use friendly "soft sell" techniques to accomplish the same thing, more subtly. Media-savvy young people have learned to reject advertising that tries too hard to make its product look "cool." In response, companies now produce decidedly "uncool" advertisements, which appeal to the cynical viewer who thinks he can remain unswayed. "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything," Sprite advertisers confess to their hype-weary target market. Our attempts to stay one step ahead of coercers merely provokes them to develop even more advanced, less visible, and, arguably, more pernicious methods of persuasion.
Corporations and consumers are in a coercive arms race. Every effort we make to regain authority over our actions is met by an even greater effort to usurp it.
If we stop to think about this invisible hand working on our perceptions and behavior, we can easily become paranoid. Although we cannot always point to the evidence, when we become aware that our actions are being influenced by forces beyond our control--we shop in malls that have been designed by psychologists, and experience the effects of their architecture and color schemes on our purchasing behaviors--we can't help but feel a little edgy. No matter how discreetly camouflaged the coercion, we sense that it's leading us to move and act ever so slightly against our wills. We may not want to admit consciously to ourselves that the floor plan of the shopping center has made us lose our bearings, but we are disoriented all the same. We don't know exactly how to get back to the car, and we will have to walk past twenty more stores before we find an exit.
In order to maintain the illusion of our own authority, we repress the urge to panic. Unfortunately, the more we stifle that little voice telling us we are in danger, the more we repress our ability to resist. We deny what we are feeling, and we disconnect further from what remains of our free will. As a result, we become even better targets for those who would direct our actions.
I was not always predisposed to think this way. On the contrary, for years I believed that we were winning the war against those who would shape our wills. Through the eighties and early nineties, I cheered as cable television, video games, the personal computer, and the Internet seemed to offer the promise of a new relationship to the mainstream media and a chance to undermine its coercive nature. Home-video cameras demystified for us the process by which news is reported, and public-access channels gave everyone an opportunity to broadcast his version of what was going on in the world. C-SPAN revealed to us the pompous rhetoric of our elected representatives, as well as the embarrassing fact that they usually address an empty chamber.
Reprinted from Coercion by Douglas Rushkoff by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Douglas Rushkoff. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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