Posts Tagged ‘Consumer’

From Science Came Mystification

Sunday, January 1st, 2017

The Western scientific program promises to reveal all the secrets of nature through systematic, rational inquiry.  In so doing, it promises certainty beyond what superstition can muster and promises technological control over Nature superior to that of magic.  As the technological products of science increase in complexity however, their intelligibility decreases.  Technology is increasingly apprehended in terms of its “magical” effects, while the rational underpinnings become increasingly obscure.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke opined that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Expressing a similar sentiment, psychologist Carl Jung wrote: “Magic happens to be everything that eludes comprehension… It is difficult to exist without reason… and that is exactly how difficult magic is.”  In its current marketing campaign, Apple Computer offers products that are “practically magic,” enabling glossy photography without knowledge of exposure, and other like “miracles.”

Early signs of trouble in the European Enlightenment Rationalist tradition emerged around World War I.  The Dada movement was not nihilistic, as is often charged, but a reaction against the moral vacuity of the modern scientific outlook, and a criticism of the notion that empirical science is an inherently a-moral enterprise.  While modern science takes its philosophical starting point from Plato’s equating of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, the advent of mechanized warfare and chemical weapons in the First World War caused a profound disturbance in the Western psyche.

dr-strangelove

 

With the nuclear arms race after World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union engineered a stalemate policy of mutual deterrence that continues to imperil all life on the planet, as satirized by Stanley Kubrick in Dr. Strangelove.  Part of what sociologist C. Write Mills referred to as “organized irresponsibility,” the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, was devised by computer scientist John von Neumann, and modeled on the principles of game theory.  For decades since, policy makers have essentially engaged in a hyper-rational planning regime for a technological apocalypse, where the flawed judgement of a single person can have catastrophic consequences globally.

Observing these developments in their infancy, Marxist psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in 1956:

“To speak of the ‘lacking sense of reality’ in modern man is contrary to the widely held idea that we are distinguished from most periods of history by our greater realism.”

“But to speak of our realism is almost like a paranoid distortion. What realists, who are playing with weapons which may lead to the destruction of all modern civilization, if not of our earth itself!”

“If an individual were found doing just that, he would be locked up immediately, and if he prided himself on his realism, the psychiatrists would consider this an additional and rather serious symptom of a diseased mind.”

Western science has largely delivered on many of the promises of magic, from practical control over matter at the subatomic level to the mastery of flight and tele-vision.  Yet where sorcery is regarded as evil and dangerous, the rational products of science — which pollute, surveil, exploit and kill around the globe — are widely praised as the crowning achievements of our civilization.

Beginning in the occult tradition at the interface of alchemy, Hermeticism, and the kabbalistic mathematics of religious thinkers like Abraham Abulafia and Ramon Llull, the return of science to “magic” suggests the failure of the Rationalist tradition is complete, and should serve as a warning that we are rapidly entering a new era of superstition and barbarism, as we gleefully destroy ourselves with a new “magic” few of us understand.

abraham-abulafia-ars-combinatoria-a-figure-color

Marketing and Manipulation

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

The Miller Brewing Company is running a TV advertisement in which they take credit for inventing subliminal advertising.  Perhaps the claim is in jest, yet there is a dark undercurrent where a large corporation brags about how effectively they can manipulate their customers.

The purpose of advertising is to manipulate the perceptions of consumers.  Advertising creates desires where previously none existed in order to create demand for the output of industry.  Discussions of economics generally assume that supply follows demand: if this were the case, however, advertising would not be necessary.  In many cases, supply creates demand — and advertising is an instrumental part of this process.

That advertising alters perceptions is not a trivial fact: it is central to advertising’s effectiveness.  Nissan is running an advertisement boasting about the safety features they incorporate into their automobile design.  After detailing the automobile’s safety features, the advertisement concludes: “the only thing left to fear is your imagination.”

An advertisement that instills the perception that driving is safe can have tragic consequences: driving is just about the most dangerous thing the typical American does on a daily basis.  In the last 13 years, 2,977 Americans have died from terrorism.  Since 2001, some 468,743 Americans have died in automobile accidents.  On average, automobiles kill more Americans every month than terrorists killed on 9/11.  Yet the policy implications of these two figures could not be more different.

Were Americans to perceive the true dangers inherent in driving, perhaps Federal highway subsidies and automobile manufacturer bailouts would arouse more indignation than they have, while the time and expense and social changes ushered in by the War on Terror might be redirected towards changing social values to discourage driving — by creating walkable neighborhoods and funding mass transit effectively, for example.  This would certainly save more lives than military adventures abroad.  Advertising and marketing exert a subtle though profound effect on the perceptions of Americans, influencing what policies are permissible.

Advertising creates reality.  Advertising creates mass psychology.  This influence is not benign, nor like the fabled boasts of snake oil salesman, but orchestrated perception management campaigns by organized industry meant to benefit organized industry.  To the extent that advertising is ubiquitous, and to the extent that everybody assumes that advertising involves exaggerations or lies, the outcome is in many ways affected subliminally — without being noticed.

Vintage Dick Cheney Trading Card

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

During the first Gulf War, The Topps Company (best known for selling baseball cards) engaged in a bit of war profiteering by selling Desert Storm trading cards.

One card featured a young Dick Cheney — then Secretary of Defense — with his menacing grin intact:

A dashing young Dick Cheney with menacing grin.

 

The back of the card gives biographical details for the military-industrial complex ringleader:

desert-storm-dick-cheney-back-details

 

A relevant feature of the military-industrial complex is its relationship with the rise of the managerial society: note that, as Secretary of Defense, Cheney controlled “budget allocations.”  Since his position was appointed rather than elected, the military resources he controlled were essentially outside the realm of democratic accountability.

Buy Now and Save

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

Walmart has figured out how to charge more for their cheap imported goods: they now offer a credit card. If Walmart customers take out Walmart credit cards, then, presumably, all the consumers living hand-to-mouth now can make their interest payments directly to Walmart, instead of to the bank. Just cut out the middle man:

The language used in the advertisement above is conspicuous for a number of reasons. The sales persons are clearly trying to mislead the customers in the advertisement, promising a future filled with impossible high-tech wonders like “jet pack tennis shoes.” This type of deception is normal only insofar as consumers are accustomed to the lies and distortions associated with marketing — on a daily basis, the typical consumer is told more lies than truths. The advertisement also conflates spending with saving — two activities with opposite implications or one’s cash flow.

Spending is saving -- get paid to shop

Spending has been equated with saving for some time. While this might sound a little “Orwellian” to some — a contradiction in terms that everybody accepts without thinking about it — this is just one more instance where PR and marketing is able to subvert human rationality.

If you assume — like most economists — that individual consumers are rational, benefit-maximizing free agents, who choose the most product for the least money, then there is no good way to account for why somebody would buy a low-end Lexus instead of a fully-loaded Toyota. One could appeal to status appeal to account for why somebody would buy a low-end Lexus instead of a high-end Toyota, but such an explanation would have to be made on sociological terms rather than economic terms. If one wants to explain this phenomenon in economic terms, one has to abandon the notion that consumers are rational. Abandoning the assumption of human rationality, in turn, can lead one in various directions: this either makes a claim about human nature, or, alternatively, one can look for influences in the culture that undermine rationality.

save

Perception management is the bread-and-butter of the PR and marketing industries. Marketing manipulates individual perceptions by creating new desires where none previously existed. PR replaces an individual’s perceptions with a corporation’s preferred perception. Spending becomes saving, you can’t live without the new smart phone — even though you’ve been living just fine for years without it. Must-have fashion accessories are not must-have in the same way as food or water, they are accessories — though the PR industry’s preferred terminology reveals an important fact of social psychology.

The tactics used by PR and marketing are able to elicit the most primal types of violent reactions among consumers seeking to gratify not basic needs, to to acquire scarce resources, but the desire for must-have accessories, and even mass-produced semi-disposable gadgets that will wind up in landfills before too long.

File Sharing is the Way of the Future

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

Since Apple switched its hardware line over to Intel architecture, Intel Insider CPU-level digital rights management (DRM) may soon be coming to the Mac.  Soon the transition will be complete, and the cloud will turn us all into the digital equivalent of tenant farmers: we’ll never actually “own” the software and music that we “buy” and, since we need to pay for network access indefinitely to “have” the things we pay for, whatever we have can also can be “taken” from us at any time.

There was, though — once upon a time — a Golden Age, when information came on floppy disks, and file sharing was a key selling point for personal computers.  Back when, corporations encouraged us to copy files freely between ourselves, and it raised nary an eyebrow to hear that “a hobbyist in Michigan starts a local Apple Computer Club, to challenge other members to computer games of skill and to trade programs.”

Proud to be Illegal

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

Brands and Branded Identity

Friday, November 11th, 2011

Consumers identify with their products.  Sigmund Freud and Marshall McLuhan both theorized about the role of technology as a prosthesis — as an extension of the body — but many consumers today take this a step further, and internalize the messages used to market the products they purchase.

Video game controller as prosthetic and umbillical

Through marketing, technology is not externalized, but internalized, and incorporated into the psyche.  As such, it is less obviously an intrusion into the lives of consumers.  Coming from the inside, it is less liable to be viewed in any way as an obstacle, and is thereby rendered a more effective means of manipulation, insofar as its influence is more difficult to discern or resist.

consumer behavior and addiction

When consumers talk about how they “need” different products, they mean different things by this.  Many people are quite dependent on technology generally: most products most consumers buy are products of industry.  Food is no exception, even if it is served up at a locally-owned restaurant: most food comes from industrial agriculture.

In many cases, however, once a product has “gotten inside” the consumer, the consumer develops a psychological dependence on a product.  Although addiction is a common metaphor used to describe this relationship, familiarity is also comfort.  For most of human history, very little ever changed.  In this era of planned obsolescence and pop culture, the brand — and, identification with branding — offers a source of continuity.

Consumers frequently purchase particular products because some symbolic quality of the product’s marketing provides a sense of comfort.  While a particular smoker may describe himself as “a Marlboro man,” people also identify as “a Coke drinker” or “a Pepsi drinker.”  Coke and Pepsi are both cola drinks, sold in cans and bottles, sold at an identical price point: they compete based on symbolism, not by offering more product at a lower cost.  Consumers internalize the symbolism of marketing, and are conditioned to accept material products as related to these symbols — even if the connection between the symbol and the product is quite tenuous.

consumers identify with their products

To the extent that consumers accept as their own views various messages offered up by marketers, individuals become little more than purchasing patterns: collections of brand preferences and demographic data.  Individuals are branded by marketing, as with a branding iron.  The degree to which this understanding of the individual has become normalized in contemporary society is revealed by the phraseology of politicians in describing the population: politicians talk about consumers with far greater frequency than they talk about citizens.

The phenomenon of brand-identification has social consequences as well: the “Twitter revolution” has seamlessly spread to the American social realm.  That #Occupy Wall Street incorporates into its name a convention specific to a particular commercial service quite easily goes unnoticed, and is therefore accepted without question or objection.  The revolution is an advertisement.

the revolution is an advertisement

The Future Will Be Awesome

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

 

What will 3D TV look like in 2020?