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According to categories developed by the data-mining company Acxiom, Douglas Rushkoff is a "shooting star."
He's urban, career-focused and has settled down a bit later than average. He probably likes taking a run in the morning and watching Seinfeld reruns. He's a so-called cultural creative and Acxiom http://www.acxiom.com/ recognizes Rushkoff's type. The company also knows how he and others like him operate - what they buy; how they vote; and when, on average, they'll have kids and perhaps need fertility drugs or a new crib.
All of this is useful information for Acxiom's clients, the manufacturers and stores eager to sell Rushkoff just about everything -- cars, appliances, even political candidates. Using Acxiom's sophisticated, reverse-engineered analysis of buying patterns, these companies may have a better chance at doing just that.
Cutting-edge marketing practice, including the kind of data-analysis work that Acxiom does, is the subject of The Persuaders http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/, a 90-minute documentary airing Tuesday night on PBS stations. Rushkoff http://www.rushkoff.com/, the author of several key books on contemporary marketing, is the show's host and reporter.
The Persuaders follows several marketing programs in progress: ad execs working on the launch of a specialty airline; researchers seeking the key words they believe will unlock consumers' primal impulses; political consultants figuring out how to improve the image of utility companies; car companies negotiating ways to sneak products into television shows.
This is the look of contemporary marketing, and the price is high: Advertisers will spend hundreds of billions of dollars trying to reach consumers this year.
The result? Advertising clutter. Researchers guesstimate the average American is exposed to hundreds, or even thousands, of ads each day.
But The Persuaders maintains that the marketers may be losing ground. In the film, author Naomi Klein http://www.nologo.org/ compares consumers to roaches -- we've been sprayed so much that we've begun developing immunities.
That, Rushkoff believes, doesn't make the situation any healthier.
"As advertisers develop their techniques and we develop our resistance, the landscape of American culture becomes more of a battleground," he said. "Americans have to spend more time and energy on these messages that are coming at them. That has a tangible effect on the American personality, on the way we approach the world and each other."
Rushkoff describes one result of living in a culture overrun by marketing: an increasingly fragmented society. The "shooting star" is just one of Acxiom's 70 different consumer categories. According to the company's website Taking Hold http://www.acxiom.com/subimages/1126200385918taking_hold_group_2y.pdf, Married Sophisticates http://www.acxiom.com/subimages/1126200385918taking_hold_group_2y.pdf (PDF) are childless thirty-somethings who like modern rock, golf and tennis and "are avid photographers, clay throwers and gardeners." Their favorite shows: Will and Grace and King of Queens.
Using buying patterns to home in on us as consumers is one thing; using that kind of data to pigeonhole us as voters is substantially more troubling. But that's exactly what political campaigns are doing.
The Republican Party reached out to rural white males in Georgia in 2002, tapping into anger about the removal of Confederate flags from state buildings. John Kerry sought disillusioned voters in Iowa prior to its primary.
One independent political-action group, America Coming Together http://actforvictory.org/, produced ads for specific demographics - middle-aged African-American women, say -- and had canvassers play them on their Palm Pilots.
"Everyone talks about the rhetoric of the campaign -- how we are so mean and we won't love each other any more," Rushkoff said. "But the phenomenon I'm seeing is that people are being narrowcast very specifically, so we tend to think of ourselves as living in very separate consumer tribes. We look at our democracy as consumers rather than as citizens.
"We look at Bush and Kerry and say, 'What's in it for me or my little group?' The democratic process, which should be a uniting one, instead becomes a fragmented and alienating one. Candidates are saying one thing to one group and something different to another. We are being taught to be customers of government rather than participants."
The wall-to-wall ads, narrowcasting and the growing disgust of consumers ... where will it lead? The finale of The Persuaders suggests a kind of zero-sum game, with Americans increasingly unable to separate themselves from a consumer culture they are unwillingly immersed in.
"The best case is that we become so nauseous with living this way that we begin to reach out to one another," Rushkoff said. "We see that with people moving out of cities and trying to reconnect to the land, and with kids who are engaged in a desperate search for authenticity.
"There is a profound human urge to connect with other people. I hope that those whose business it is to disconnect and fragment us to sell us products will ultimately be doing so at their own peril. I hope people's need to connect with one another is stronger than their need to get more stuff."
- "Stop Trying to Persuade Us," Jason Silverman, WiredNews.com http://www.wired.com/, 02:00 AM Nov. 09, 2004 PT http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,65640,00.html