Psychomarketing . . . or psychobabble

2 10 2006

If you glance at any of the Scienceblogs you’re likely to come across a character by the name of SkookumPlanet peddling a thesis that is either brilliant in a paradigm-shifting kind of way, or a case study in the nuttiest flavour of conspiracy theory. SkookumPlanet holds that what he deems the far right’s stranglehold over the political scene in the US boils down to its mastery of neuromarketing–or “psychomarketing,” as he terms it.

This is how Americans are exposed to politics. Media content washes over people, wave after wave. Proximity soundbites like these get heard at breakfast, during commutes, in the background of family arriving for dinner, as someone moves through an airport. These two ideas are repeatedly associated in the media environment that America lives in. People come to believe the association. It’s not something that gets reasoned out. The association becomes a fact of life that we accept as any other real-life association. I’m trained as a fiction writer, and proximity soundbites work just like fiction — they become vicarious reality. Only there is no book to alert us that it’s fiction.

During Democratic convention analysis on Charlie Rose, one guest said Kerry’s acceptance speech was one of the best he’d ever heard. Charlie seemed surprised by the effusiveness.

His guest elaborated, “You need to understand the purpose of an acceptance speech these days. Most Americans will only hear Kerry as tiny soundbites in the media. Kerry’s speech was superbly crafted so all his issues were there as compact, complete snippets that fully communicated after chopped into soundbites.” This is the reality of public decision-making in America today. Our feelings about it are irrelevant. It’s reality!

This type of technology is based on scientific understanding of how human beings process information. How we would like them to process information counts for little here. This is how Americans absorb media, media is how they learn about the world beyond their personal lives, and this is psychomarketing. It works. It usually overwhelms any other approach. It’s past time we learned that.

The “we” to whom SkookumPlanet refers are liberals/leftists, who–clinging desperately to the outmoded belief that the old rules pertaining to the normal functioning of liberal democracies still hold–lose perennially because they fail to grasp the new political reality.

Consider this post a bleg of sorts (for info, not money). I’ve only just scratched the surface of this fascinating topic, but it appears that Skookum’s ideas owe much to the work of Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, as well as to the rather less salubrious career of Republican pollster Frank Luntz (the Bush Administration’s answer to Goebbels). (And perhaps whispers of Baudrillard thrown into the mix.) And it raises some interesting questions. If the “puppet-masters” have such a profound handle on how the brain processes information, can thinking voters outthink them–and if not, what does this mean for the agency of the individual? Might John Howard’s success as a political strategist and manipulator of the truth owe something to the techniques of psychomarketing? Or does the very case of Howard’s success suggest that psychomarketing is little more than re-heated Machiavellianism–something we’ve seen many times before?

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