Coercion: Why We Listen to What 'They' Say
by Douglas Rushkoff
They say human beings use only ten percent of their brains. They say polyunsaturated fat is better for you than saturated fat. They say that tiny squiggles in a rock prove there once was life on Mars. They say our children's test scores are declining. They say Jesus was a direct descendant of King David. They say you can earn $15,000 a week in your spare time. They say marijuana leads to LSD, and LSD can lead to suicide. They say the corner office is a position of power. They say the elderly should get flu shots this season. They say homosexuality is an environmentally learned trait. They say there's a gene for homosexuality. They say people can be hypnotized to do anything. They say people won't do anything under hypnosis that they wouldn't do when conscious. They say Prozac alleviates depression. They say mutual funds are the best long-term investment. They say computers can predict the weather. They say you haven't met your deductible.
Who, exactly, are "they," and why do they say so much? More amazing, why do we listen to them?
We each have our own "theys"--the bosses, experts, and authorities (both real and imaginary) who seem to dictate our lives, decide our fates, and create our futures. In the best of circumstances they can make us feel safe, the way parents do. They make our decisions for us. They do our thinking for us. We don't have to worry about our next move--it has already been decided on our behalf, and in our best interests. Or so we hope.
For not everyone to whom we surrender ourselves is deserving of our trust. The pretty young "sales associate" at the Gap may not be the best judge of how that pair of blue jeans looks on us, or of which belt we should wear to a job interview. Even though she seems genuinely concerned with our well-being, we must not forget that she's been trained in the art of the "upsell" and is herself under the influence of a barrage of incentives conceived at corporate headquarters. One scheme leads her to compete with her colleagues on the sales floor for daily prizes, while another threatens penalties or termination if she does not meet a certain quota of multiple-item sales by the end of the week. The coercive techniques inflicted on her, and the ones she in turn inflicts on us, are the products of years of painstaking research into methods of influencing human behavior.
The justifiably cynical among us have come to expect this sort of treatment from the professional people in our lives. When we walk into a shopping mall, we understand that we will be subjected to certain forms of influence. We recognize that retail sales are about the bottom line, and that to stay in business, shop owners depend upon our behaving in a predictable and somewhat malleable fashion. If instructing a salesgirl to unfasten the second button of her blouse may garner a larger volume of sales, the store manager owes it to himself and his superiors and their shareholders to do so. And, chances are, it will work.
But these techniques are rapidly spreading from the sales floor and the television screen to almost every other aspect of our daily experience. Whether we are strolling through Times Square, exploring the Internet, or even just trying to make friends at the local bar, we are under constant scrutiny and constant assault by a professional class of hidden persuaders. In most cases, if the coercion works according to plan, we don't even realize it has been used.
It's not always easy to determine when we have surrendered our judgment to someone else. The better and more sophisticated the manipulation, the less aware of it we are. For example, have you ever attended a sporting event, rock concert, or political convention in one frame of mind, but found yourself inexplicably swept away by the emotion of the crowd? How many times have you walked into a mall to buy a single pair of shoes, only to find yourself purchasing an entire outfit, several books, and a few CDs before you made your way back to the parking lot?
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.
The low cost of video production and the increase in available channels gave rise to countless tabloid television shows. Like their print counterparts, these programs broadcast stories that more established news agencies would have held back--which in turn gave rise to a whole new set of journalistic standards and an unleashing of alternative news sources and outlets. Tabloid and Internet journalists were the first to publish everything from Clinton's trysts with Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky to Prince Charles's dirty phone calls with Camilla Parker Bowles. Time and Newsweek have simply struggled to keep up with the rising tide.
Internet discussion groups and bulletin boards gave us a new forum in which to discuss the information that was important to us. Online, we could access the latest word on new AIDS or cancer treatments, and then question our doctors (or our stingy HMOs) about a course of treatment. Even if all we intended to do was shop, the Internet gave us the ability to conduct instant price and feature comparisons, and to talk to others about a product before we bought it.
Meanwhile, young computer hackers had gotten their hands on the control panel of our electronic society. Bank records and other personal data that formerly were accessible only to credit bureaus and loan officers were now within the reach of any skilled fourteen-year-old. As a result, our privacy finally became an issue to be discussed publicly. We became aware of how information about us was being gathered, bought, and sold without our consent, and we supported activists, organizations, and candidates who promised to enact policies to prevent this invasion.
The Internet made us more aware of the process by which news and public relations are created and disseminated. As we gained access to press releases and corporate data, we have witnessed firsthand how public relations experts are allowed to write the evening news. In the early nineties, there was a participant of an electronic bulletin board who would post the transcripts of local news shows and then compare them, word for word, with the prepared press releases of the companies or individuals concerned. The results were embarrassingly similar, with whole paragraphs lifted directly from press release to newscaster's script.
As the coercive effects of mainstream media became more self-evident, media awareness led to a revival of cultural literacy. Our ability to see through the shameless greed of televangelists changed the way we related to the ritual surrounding the collection plate. Our ability to deconstruct the political process as it took place on TV gave rise to independent, homespun candidates like Ross Perot and Jerry Brown, whose campaigns promised direct access and accountability.
In the meantime, television programs like "Beavis and Butt-head" and "The Simpsons" were deconstructing the rest of the mediaspace for our children. With Bart as their role model, the generation growing up in the last decade has maintained a guarded relationship to the media and marketing techniques that have fooled their parents. While his dad, Homer, was suckered by every beer promotion, Bart struggled to maintain his skateboarder's aloofness and dexterity. Through Bart, our kids learned to remain moving targets.
As a happy witness to what was taking place in our culture, I began to write books celebrating our liberation through the tools of new media. Cyberia applauded the scientists, hackers, and spiritualists who were determined to design a better society with these new tools. The technological revolution seemed to me a populist renaissance through which real people would wake from centuries of heartless manipulation. Hierarchy and social control soon would be things of the past as every individual came to realize his or her role in the unfolding of civilization. I saw my vision confirmed as the Internet rose in popularity, and as the once-ridiculed nerds of Silicon Valley began to engineer the communications infrastructure for the world's business community. The Internet would not fade into obscurity like CB radio. It was here to stay. Our culture was hardwiring itself together.
I became fascinated and inspired by the organic and responsive qualities of this new mediaspace. Just as our chaos mathematicians and quantum physicists had suggested, we were venturing into uncharted cultural turf, where huge systemwide changes could be provoked by the tiniest actions. In a system as dynamic as the weather, we learned, a single butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil could lead to a hurricane in New York. So, too, was the awesome power that "feedback and iteration" offered every member of a networked whole. Now that the media had become such a system, the beating of a black man by white policemen in Los Angeles, amplified throughout our mediated culture via a single, replicated, and endlessly broadcast camcorder tape, could lead to rioting in a dozen American cities.
Spurred on by these developments, in the early nineties I wrote an optimistic treatise on the new possibilities of an organic mediaspace. I proposed that provocative ideas could be launched in the form of mutant media packages--or "viruses"--by anyone who had a video camera or Internet connection. Thanks to the spread of commercial broadcasting, almost everyone in the world had been given access to the media in one form or another. What the people who put all those wires and TV satellites in place didn't realize was that electrons travel in both directions. Home media like camcorders, faxes, and Internet connections were empowering all of us to launch our ideas into the mediaspace.
Huge, well-funded, mainstream publicity campaigns were becoming obsolete. Now, anyone could launch an idea that would spread by itself if it were packaged in a new, unrecognizable form of media. Mutant media got attention because it was strange. And there's nothing the media likes more than to cover new forms of itself. The Rodney King tape proliferated as much because it demonstrated the power of a new technology--the camcorder--as for the image contained within it. One of the reasons why the O. J. Simpson story became the biggest trial in history was because it began with a mutant media event: the nationally televised spectacle of the Bronco chase, during which Los Angeles TV viewers ran outside and literally onto their own TV screens as the motorcade drove by. Similarly, the media stunts of ACT UP activists, Earth First "eco-terrorists," Greenpeace, and even unorthodox political candidates received worldwide attention simply by launching their campaigns through media viruses.
The hegemony of Hearst and Murdoch were over. We had entered an age where the only limiting factor was an idea's ability to provoke us through its novel dissemination. An idea no longer depended on the authority of its originator--it would spread and replicate if it challenged our faulty assumptions. In an almost Darwinian battle for survival, only the fittest ideas would win out. These new, mutated forms of media were promoting our cultural evolution, empowering real people, and giving a voice to those who never before had access to the global stage.
Best of all, young people were the ones leading the charge. Adults were immigrants to the new realm of interactive media, but kids raised with joysticks in their hands were natives. They spoke the language of new media and public relations better than the adults who were attempting to coerce them. What media can you use to manipulate a kid when he is already more media literate than you are? He will see through any clunky attempt to persuade him with meaningless associations and hired role models. By the time this generation came into adulthood, I believed, the age of manipulation would be over.
Once I'd published a book announcing that we'd entered the final days of the marketing wars, I began to get phone calls from politicians, media companies, advertisers, and even the United Nations, anxious for me to explain the new rules of the interactive age. I saw little harm in taking their money just to tell them that the genie was out of the bottle. I felt like an evangelist, spreading the news that the public had grown too media savvy to be fleeced any further. The only alternative left for public-relations people and advertisers was to tell the truth. Those promoting good ideas or making useful products would succeed; the rest would perish.
At first I found it easy to dismiss the writings of naysayer cyber critics like Jerry Manders, Paul Virilio, and Neil Postman, who attacked the notion that the new media had made a positive shift in the balance of power--culturally, economically, or otherwise. There was just too much evidence to the contrary. Although I had some sense that there were people out there attempting to deploy these same innovations coercively, I believed that acknowledging their efforts would only feed their power. If we ignored them, they would go away.
My optimism--and my willingness to consort with the enemy--was met with a number of personal attacks as well. One morning in November 1996, I woke up to a New York Times article describing me as a Gen-X guru who sold youth culture's secrets to media companies for upward of $7,500 per hour. Many of my friends and readers wondered how I could have betrayed the "movement," and wrote me to voice their disapproval. Alternative newspapers who had supported me in the past now called me a sellout. Mentors like virtual-community maker Howard Rheingold and Electronic Frontiers Foundation chairman Mitch Kapor warned me that my uncritical enthusiasm might be blinding me to very real threats to the civic revival we were all working for.
"Vigilance is a dangerous thing," I wrote at the time. I was convinced that a guarded approach to the development of new media would only slow things down, giving our would-be oppressors and manipulators a chance to catch up. And even if I was no better than the scores of "cool hunters" who hoped to cash in on corporate confusion about the changing priorities and sentiments of youth culture, since the ideas I promoted were empowering ones, I couldn't see the harm. I told executives at Sony to design a video game console that allowed kids to create their own video games. I told the people developing content for TCI's new interactive television network to make programs that gave viewers the chance to broadcast their own news stories. I told phone companies that the way to please their customers was to stop treating them like criminals whenever they were late with a payment.
I went to conferences and sat on panels alongside my media-hacking heroes like Michael Moore, the director of the GM-bashing documentary Roger and Me, and Stewart Brand, one of the original band of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. I delivered keynote addresses to thousands of advertising executives and television programmers, telling them to admit to themselves that their monopoly over the public will was over. The older executives threw up their arms in disgust, while the younger ones transcribed my every word. I couldn't have been more pleased. I felt at least partly responsible for dismantling the engines of propaganda and demilitarizing the coercive arms race. Better yet, I was making good money for doing so. My books were hitting best-seller lists, and my speaking and consulting fees were going through the roof--even if they never quite reached the fabled $7,500 per hour.
I guess it was too good to be true.
In the summer of 1997, I was invited to speak about my book Media Virus at a convention of "account planners" (advertising's version of anthropologist-researchers) sponsored by the American Association of Advertising Agencies. I packed up my laptop and headed for Sheraton Bal Harbour in Miami to spread the good news. The conference theme was "Mutant Media/Mutant Ideas," itself a play on the ideas in my book. Had the advertisers come to recognize that their power was dwindling?
Hardly. These friendly, well-dressed, and articulate people had bought and read my book--but for a reason very different from the one I'd had for writing it. They were eager to learn all about the mutant mediaspace, but only in order to figure out ways of creating advertisements that were themselves media viruses! Media Virus had become a best-seller not because so many activists, public-access producers, or computer hackers were reading it, but because it was now a standard text in the science of public relations. My work was being taught in advertising school.
Before I had the chance to put on my name tag, a young creative executive asked me what it was like working on the Calvin Klein jeans campaign--the one in which teenagers were photographed in a setting made to look like a porn-movie audition.
"It was a media virus," he congratulated me. "The campaign got more publicity because of the protests! It made Calvin look cool because his ads were taken off the air!" True enough, the campaign became the lead story on the evening news once "family advocates" targeted the ads for their exploitation of young people. They never could have bought as much airtime as they received for free. But I had nothing to do with the scheme's conception.
I assured him that I had never met with the Calvin Klein people, but it was no use. He was convinced they had based their work on my book, and there was no changing his mind. Had they? I certainly hoped not.
The succession of featured speakers soon proved my worst fears. With titles like "Mutants Produce Bounty" and "Giving Birth to Mutant Ideas in a Commercial Context," each presenter sought to regain the ground lost to the chaos-thriving hackers who had taken over the mediaspace. The conference's purpose was to upgrade the advertising industry's weapons systems to the new style of war.
I was flattered--and flabbergasted. I felt honored to be appreciated, but horrified by the application of my work. No sooner had I proclaimed the revolution than it was co-opted by the enemy. And I had aided and abetted them.
It was at that moment, in the Bal Harbour hotel ballroom, that I decided to write this book. With my newfound access to the corridors of Madison Avenue and beyond, I would become a double agent--attending meetings, taking notes, analyzing tactics, and then reporting my findings.
For the past two years, I have been studying the ways marketers, politicians, religious leaders, and coercive forces of all kinds influence everyday decisions. I have sat in on strategy sessions with television, advertising, and marketing executives, and read countless documents by professionals in government, law enforcement, the military, and business. I've cozied up to automobile salesmen and multilevel marketers to pry from them their secrets.
What I've learned in my two-year odyssey is that however advanced the tools being used to sway us, the fundamental principles responsible for their effectiveness remain the same. Coercers are like hunters: They can don better camouflage, learn better ways to scent their prey, develop longer-range bullets and more accurate sights, but they still need to find their quarry and then figure out which way it's moving so they can "lead" with the gun barrel and hit it. Sonar, radar, and night-vision specs will only increase their efficiency and compensate for their prey's own increasing skill in evasion.
The prey's only true advantages are its instinct and its familiarity with its environment. Just as a deer "knows" when it is in the hunter's sights, we know on some level when we are being targeted and coerced. The more complex, technological, and invisible coercion gets, the harder it is for us to rely on this instinct. We are lured away from our natural environment and are more likely to depend on directions from our shepherds or the motions of the herd to gain our bearings. As soon as we become familiar with the new terrain--be it the mall, the television dial, or the Internet--it is the goal of the coercion strategists to make it unfamiliar again, or to lure us somewhere else.
The rapid change we have experienced in the past several decades as we have moved from the postwar boom through the space age and into the computer age has provided ample opportunity for our coercers to retool and rearm themselves. Even when a new technology, like the Internet, appears to offer us a chance to reclaim our mediaspace in the name of community or civic responsibility, it fast becomes a new resource for the direct marketer, the demographics researcher, and the traditional advertiser.
Worst of all, the acceleration of the arms race between us and our coercers deteriorates the foundations of civil society. Telemarketers make us afraid to answer the phone in the evening. Salesmen bearing free gifts (with strings attached) make us reluctant to accept presents from our neighbors. Greedy televangelists twisting Bible passages into sales pitches, and church charity drives employing state-of-the-art fund-raising techniques make us wary of religion. Our president's foreign policy is channeled through spin doctors before it reaches Congress or the people, leading to widespread cynicism about the political process. Our sporting events are so crowded with product promotions that we can't root for a team without cheering a corporate logo. Our movements through department stores are videotaped and analyzed so that shelves and displays can be rearranged to steer us toward an optimum volume of more expensive purchases. Scientists study the influences of colors, sounds, and smells on our likelihood of buying.
It's not a conspiracy against us, exactly; it is simply a science that has gotten out of control.
In a desperate attempt to use any tool available to keep up with our rapidly growing arsenal of filters, marketing professionals turned to high technology. They invented the personalized discount card at the local supermarket, which is used to create a database of our purchasing decisions. This information is bought and sold without our knowledge to direct marketers, who customize the offers filling our mailboxes to match our individual psychological profiles. Home-shopping channels adjust the pacing of sales pitches, the graphics on the screen, and prices of products based on computer analyses of our moment-to-moment responses to their offers, in real time, automatically. The automation of coercive practices is a threat more menacing than any sort of human manipulators. For unlike with real human interaction, the coercer himself is nowhere to be found. There is no man behind the curtain. He has become invisible.
And yet, even when the coercer has vanished into the machinery, we still have the ability to recognize when we are being influenced and to lessen the effect of these techniques, however they originate. There are ways to deconstruct the subtle messages and cues coming at us from every direction. No matter how advanced and convoluted these styles of coercion get, they still rely on the same fundamental techniques of tracking, disorientation, redirection, and capture. Restoring our instinctual capacity to sense what we want, regardless of what we're told, is within our reach.
For instance, as you read the words on this page, consider what is being done to you. Picture yourself reading this book, and consider your relationship to the author. Should the fact that my words have been bound in a book give them more authority than if you had heard them on the bus from a stranger?
Already you have been exposed to a battery of coercive techniques. In fact, everything you have read so far has been concocted to demonstrate the main techniques I'll be exposing in this book.
The opening paragraph, mixing humor with terror, combined a rhythmic assault with the fear-inducing creation of a powerful "they" that means to shape our destiny. The humor disarmed you just enough for the next barb.
Then came a list of rhetorical questions. Of course the answers were already built-in, but they gave you the illusion of interactivity. Like the responsive readings in a church service, they made you feel like you were actively participating in a deductive process, even though the script had already been written and you had no power to change it.
I asked you to personalize the dilemma I had been describing. I asked you to consider the authorities in your own life that act upon you in unwanted ways so that you would personally identify with the threats to your well-being. You were no longer just reading about a problem; you were now in the middle of it.
Once roped in, you could be subjected to standard fear-mongering. I personified the enemy as teams of psychologists, working late into the night to devise plans for shopping malls that thwart your natural cognitive processes. These devils hope to disconnect you from your own soul, I implied.
Then came simple presupposition. I suggested what would happen if you read on. "As we'll see," I claimed, presupposing that you will soon see things as I do. I stated it as an inevitability.
What better time to establish my own expertise? I enumerated my qualifications--how I have spent years studying the coercive techniques of leading industry experts, and how I have written books on the effect of media on human consciousness.
After the tone had been set, I was free to engage you in one of the oldest coercive techniques of them all: the story. You were meant to identify with my plight--how my optimistic naïveté about media and culture led me into the clutches of the advertising industry, turning my own work against its purpose. Like a spin doctor relating the tale of a downed jet or sexually deviant politician, I confessed my sins--exaggerated them, even--to turn a disaster into an opportunity for redemption. The comeback kid.
Sadly, my story is true; the point is that I've used the saga to gain your trust and engage you in my fight. The technique is simple. Create or present a character with whom someone can identify, then put that character into jeopardy. If the reader has followed the character into danger, he will look to the storyteller for a rescue, however preposterous. The storyteller alone has the ability to relieve the reader's anxiety, if he chooses to. And the relief I offered was to go to war against our new enemy: the coercers, who, like hunters, mean to track us down and kill us.
Then, just to avoid appearing too forceful, I briefly backed in the other direction. "It's not a conspiracy," I retreated, "just a science that has gotten out of control." I encouraged you to relax by telling you there was no conspiracy, but then I implicated the entire scientific and hi-tech community in the automated conspiracy against humanity.
Once you were reduced by my story to the role of a passive spectator in a state of mild captivation, I could lead you down to the next level of vulnerability: trance. I asked you to envision yourself reading the book in your hands right now. Like a hypnotist asking you to watch your breath, I employed a standard trance-induction technique called "disassociation": You are no longer simply reading this book, but picturing yourself reading the book. By separating your awareness from your actions, you become the observer of your own story. Your experience of volition is reduced to what a New Age psychotherapist would call a "guided visualization." From the perspective of coercion technicians who call themselves "neuro-linguistic programmers" (hypnotists who use the habits of the nervous system to reprogram our thought processes), this state of consciousness renders you quite vulnerable. The moment you frame your own awareness within a second level of self-consciousness is the moment your mind is most up for grabs.
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.