The Age of Persuasion

How Marketing Ate Our Culture

by Terry O'reilly and Mike Tennant

Hardcover, 324 pages, Pgw, List Price: $26 | purchase

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Title
The Age of Persuasion
Subtitle
How Marketing Ate Our Culture
Author
Terry O'reilly and Mike Tennant

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Book Summary

The creators of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's radio series The Age of Persuasion offer a witty and irreverent insider's perspective on modern advertising's history and cultural influence.

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Excerpt: The Age Of Persuasion

THE AGE OF PERSUASION

HOW MARKETING ATE OUR CULTURE


COUNTERPOINT PRESS

Copyright © 2009 Terry O'Reilly and Mike Tennant
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58243-580-0

Contents

I, ME, WE.................................................................ixWHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.....................................................xi1 CLUTTER.................................................................12 BREAKING THE CONTRACT...................................................273 THE RISE AND FALL AND RISE OF BRANDED ENTERTAINMENT.....................494 PERSUADING YOOTS........................................................735 THE YOUTUBE REVOLUTION..................................................976 GUERRILLAS IN OUR MIDST.................................................1197 THE LESSON OF CLARK GABLE'S UNDERSHIRT..................................1398 THE LANGUAGE OF PERSUASION..............................................1639 A SENSE OF PERSUASION...................................................18510 THE HUMAN FACE OF PERSUASION...........................................20511 THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT...............................................22912 THE WALL OF CYNICISM...................................................255FURTHERMORE...............................................................269ACKNOWLEDGMENTS...........................................................277NOTES.....................................................................281BIBLIOGRAPHY..............................................................301PERMISSIONS...............................................................305INDEX.....................................................................307

Chapter One

One bracing December day in 1872, just west of the Strait of Gibraltar, a ship set out to intercept the Mary Celeste, a two-mast vessel bound for Genoa from New York with a cargo of industrial alcohol. The Dei Gratia had spotted the Mary Celeste a short time earlier, drifting aimlessly under partial sail. A boarding party was dispatched. A thorough search revealed no trace of its ten passengers or crew, just signs of weather damage and a metre of water in its hold. There were no notes or writings, no signs of struggle or violence, and no indications of distress. To this day, the demise of the Mary Celeste remains a popular puzzle for historians and mystery buffs, who pore over accounts left by the crew of the Dei Gratia and the intriguing, infuriating handful of clues left behind.

Now, suppose you could look at the earth with fresh eyes, like those of the Dei Gratia's crew as they boarded the Mary Celeste. While passing from a nearby galaxy, you might notice this planet drifting erratically and drop by to investigate. You'd find everything on earth exactly as it is now-as you read this-but without a single human being to be found. What would you deduce about this world, its people, and their culture? Would you marvel at a species that produced the sonnets of Shakespeare, the prophecies of Muhammad, the solos of Miles Davis, the musings of Lao Tzu, and the engineering genius of the Robertson screwdriver?

Maybe. But not before being overwhelmed by the most conspicuous, ubiquitous force in modern culture: advertising.

You would see ads on billboards and posters, in bus shelters, covering the sides of six-storey buildings, infused into radio and television programming, and streamed to personal communications devices. Monitoring the airwaves, you'd hear a loud mashing of messages transmitted for radio, TV, and satellite. You'd find ads projected onto the floors of shopping malls, broadcast on screens in elevators and over gas pumps, wrapped around buses, and planted in roadside flower beds. You'd see ads posted in washroom stalls, in golf holes, on taxi hubcaps, and stuffed into envelopes with utility bills.

Had you stumbled upon this planet in any other era, you might have concluded that we lived in an age of stone or bronze, an ice age, an age of reason, or an age of enlightenment. But today? You couldn't help but conclude that we live in an age of persuasion, where people's wants, wishes, whims, pleas, brands, offers, enticements, truths, petitions, and propaganda swirl in a ceaseless, growing multimedia fire storm of sales messages.

When prompted to cite the greatest influences on modern culture, most people would probably name new technologies, dominant personalities, the economy, climate change, or tribal differences. Strangely, few think to name advertising, which has insinuated itself into virtually every aspect of twenty- first- century life. The age of persuasion reveals itself in us each time we flirt, date, apply for a job, buy a car, sell a home, fight a speeding ticket, heckle a referee, write to Santa Claus, pop a breath mint, or simply dress for effect. It's a cultural force we're just beginning to understand and whose language we speak better than we realize.

Way back in 1917, novelist Norman Douglas wrote: "You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements." But still, more than a century later, despite the many clues, we tend to underrate the role of advertising in daily life. It's a forgivable oversight: it's not easy to take seriously the marketing neverland where cartoon bears pitch toilet paper, where the Ty-D-Bol man patrols your toilet tank in a tiny rowboat, and where a tin of Folgers coffee can heal a marriage. Yet the influence of marketing can't be ignored: worldwide, advertisers now spend upwards of $600 billion a year trying to influence what you think, do, and buy. It took the United States four years to spend that much on its post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On a given day, at least three hundred, and as many as six thousand, marketing messages are lobbed your way. Statistics suggest that people spend more time exposed to advertising than they spend eating, reading, cooking, praying, cleaning, and making love combined. Marketing has transformed childhood games into multibillion- dollar sports empires, manufacturing heroes and sculpting our history. Does great advertising win elections? No one can say, though few doubt that bad advertising can certainly lose them.

SO ... WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MARKETING AND ADVERTISING? Marketing (possibly from the Latin word mercari, meaning "to buy") refers to all or part of the process of conceiving, promoting, distributing, and selling a product or service. Advertising (from the Latin word advertere, meaning "to turn toward") is one subset of marketing. It's the act of bringing that product or service to the public's attention, often through paid announcements or commercials.

The better you understand the ad messages you receive every day, the better you'll comprehend exactly how advertising has come to drive art, culture, and communication. A striking example is the soap opera, popularized in the early 1930s because soap makers needed a way to reach a vast audience of housewives with their sales messages. In 1966 The Monkees TV show and its accompanying band were launched as a marketing vehicle to cash in on the rock 'n' roll craze and the eyebrow-raising merchandise machine the Beatles had become. Since the 1980s Hollywood has offered a steady diet of blast-smash-shoot-'n'-slash summer movies to attract the lucrative thirteen- to twenty-four-year-old male demographic. There may have been a time when art, music, film, broadcast, and-yes-books began with an idea and then sought an audience. But in the age of persuasion, art is market driven: a desired audience is identified, then art and entertainment are conceived-not just to reach them but to connect with them as consumers.

The age of persuasion began more than a century and a half ago, with events that, once set in motion quickly accelerated and extended beyond commerce into everyday life. This is not the story of advertising-which dates back at least as far as the ancient Babylonians-but of the living, growing, all-encompassing and relatively modern culture of persuasion. Its rise is marked by a series of what screenwriters call beats: key events that move a story forward. And unlike so many of humankind's pivotal moments, its beginnings can be traced to a precise time and place-to an inventor from Charlestown, Massachusetts, who tapped out a portentous, four-word message.

(WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT)

Samuel Finley Breese (yes, Breese) Morse was a painter, inventor, professor, unsuccessful politician, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. In 1832, as he sailed home to America from Europe, he occupied himself with the idea of a device that could communicate over great distances by sending electrical signals through wires. A bit more than a decade later, by 1844, he had a design, and he then coaxed the U.S. Congress to bankroll his invention. On Friday, May 24, of that year, Morse gathered with assorted Washington muckety-mucks in the U.S. Supreme Court chamber to show how his contraption worked. Using his homemade code of dots and dashes, he transmitted a sentence, which was miraculously received by his colleague Alfred Vail in Baltimore, more than sixty kilometres away. A friend's young daughter, Miss Annie Ellsworth, had been given the honour of composing the historic message, and she had opted for the fashionably biblical "What hath God wrought?" From the Book of Numbers, it describes God's blessing of the Israelites. In the context of Morse's invention, however, it might be taken with a whiff of irony. It's as if the words meant "Yikes! What have we gotten ourselves into?" Morse's telegraph machine is rightly hailed for helping shrink the world, for enabling instant communication across entire continents, and a few decades later, for allowing messages to be transmitted around the world by transoceanic cable.

It also revolutionized marketing. The telegraph followed on the heels of the European industrial revolution, and in North America, manufacturing had mechanized and expanded. Rural families had gravitated to cities to work in the fast-growing factories, which in turn churned out products for burgeoning urban populations. With the rise of railways through the nineteenth century, goods could be transported overland, en masse, to distant markets, resulting in more product choices in stores. And how did the telegraph fit into the picture? It allowed manufacturers to communicate instantly with newspapers in distant cities and towns, buying advertisements to attract thousands of potential new customers.

DOT ... DASH ... DOT ... AN AGENCY IS BORN Barely a year after Morse dotted, dashed, and dotted his way into history, Philadelphia businessman Volney Palmer opined, quite rightly, that many manufacturers had neither the time nor the inclination to place ads in dozens-even hundreds-of newspapers on a regular basis. Palmer offered his services as a sort of middleman, buying large amounts of advertising space in several newspapers and then parcelling and selling it to businesses, who would have to create their own messages. And so ... the advertising agency was born. The explosive potential of this sexy new venture didn't prevent Palmer from hedging his bets: initially, he kept his advertising business as a sideline as he continued to sell bonds, mortgages, real estate, and coal. Inspired by Palmer's success, like-minded advertising agencies sprouted up like daisies, buying and selling vast amounts of advertising space in distant markets to expansion-minded manufacturers. Big business and "mass" advertising had come together in a union whose rumblings would be felt throughout the nineteenth century. Outfits like Procter & Gamble and, later, Coca-Cola were pioneers in early mass advertising and rapidly grew to become international icons. Morse's gizmo did more than shrink the world; it set in motion a new era of big-league consumerism and allowed marketing to blossom into a full-blown industry.

JOHN E. KENNEDY'S THREE LITTLE WORDS

The creative side of advertising, as you see it around you right now, took root on a fine spring day in 1904 in the Chicago offices of the ad agency Lord & Thomas. Throughout the marketing industry, the legend of what transpired is still sung in ballads and told around campfires. There are many versions of what happened. Here's mine:

Ambrose Thomas was at work in his office that morning when a messenger brought him a slip of paper. It read:

I am in the saloon downstairs. I can tell you what advertising is. I know you don't know. It will mean much to me to have you know what it is, and it will mean much to you. If you wish to know what advertising is, send the word "yes" down by the bellboy. [signed] John E. Kennedy.

Ambrose Thomas wasn't inclined to glean wisdom from some yahoo in the saloon downstairs, but the note intrigued his junior partner, twenty-four-year-old Albert Lasker. Six years earlier, Lasker had begun at Lord & Thomas as a $10-a-week office boy. Now he was commanding a princely $52,000 a year; thirteen times the average American salary at the time and more than a million dollars in today's money. One of Lasker's many remarkable and all-too-rare traits was his awareness that he didn't know everything about advertising. But he may have sensed something about Kennedy's gift for salesmanship simply by the pluck the stranger downstairs had shown, scrawling such a cocky note to the head of a major ad firm.

Lasker scribbled "yes" on the note and returned it to the messenger. A few minutes later, Canadian ex-Mountie John Ernest Kennedy, a vast, muscular giant of a man, presented himself. Lasker would later describe him as "one of the handsomest men I ever saw in my life." Kennedy introduced himself: he had recently arrived from Racine, Wisconsin, where he had written ad copy for The Shoop Family Medicine Company, who sold-of all things-a popular snake oil.

Lasker invited Kennedy to share his definition. While already impressed by the man, Lasker was utterly unprepared for the epiphany that Kennedy packed into his magical, three-word answer:

salesmanship on paper.

Today Kennedy might rework the phrase, first to neutralize gender and then to include all manner of advertising media, beginning with broadcast and Internet, but his core idea remains.

All these years later, it sounds ridiculously simple; it's now a given that advertising is about salesmanship. But in 1904 the idea was downright revolutionary. Until then the pioneers of advertising had simply invited or implored readers to visit their shops and buy their products. Hence, when Kennedy asked Lasker what he thought advertising was about, Lasker answered "news." "No," said Kennedy, "news is a technique of presentation, but advertising is a very different thing." In Kennedy's view, it was about giving people a "reason why" they should purchase a product. Lasker would take those words to heart, and under him, Lord & Thomas would go on to transform the advertising industry, becoming the champions of "reason why" advertising, a phrase still commonly used in the marketing world.

At a time when no Lord & Thomas copywriter made more than $30 a week, Lasker bought out Kennedy's $28,000 per year contract with Shoop Family medicines and made him a sort of personal mentor-in-residence. Within two years Kennedy' s salary climbed to $75,000 a year (something north of $1.7 million in today's dollars). In theory, Kennedy was hired as a copywriter. In practice, Lasker spent months tapping Kennedy's advertising insights, which ran much deeper than his deceptively simple three-word manifesto implied. By the time he retired in 1938, Albert Lasker had done very well by these lessons: a noted philanthropist (through his Lasker Foundation) and former owner of the Chicago Cubs, he's widely regarded as the richest ad executive in history.

Kennedy left Lord & Thomas suddenly-in some fit of temper-in 1906. A genius of the moody, temperamental variety, he was seen by co-workers as crude, vain, and unable to take criticism. After his abrupt departure, he drifted first to New York, where he ran his own agency and then, after the First World War, to California, to take advantage of the land boom of the 1920s. He died of pancreatic cancer in a Michigan sanitorium in 1928, by then all but forgotten in the ad world. Even today, few in my industry know of the peculiar genius of this father of modern advertising.

By introducing salesmanship into the equation, Kennedy helped make vocations of advertising strategy, copywriting, and design. No longer was it enough for an ad simply to appear in print; the content of an ad, the imagery it presented, the feeling it stirred, the argument it made, the unique product attributes it professed were now recognized as vital components of success. Following Kennedy's teachings, Albert Lasker would carry advertising beyond the confines of simple, bald product statements and into the limitless frontiers of emotion, effectively appealing to the right brain (considered to be the headquarters of our emotions). In the decades that followed that fateful meeting with the man in the saloon below, Lasker ruled Lord & Thomas from high atop the mountain of money it generated. Almost all the advertising you see, hear, and experience today, every enticement that causes you-consciously or otherwise-to reach for one brand over another, is rooted in the creative revolution John E. Kennedy launched with those three little words.

(Continues...)