[sociate] Advertising is war

  • From: "Jerry Michalski" <jerry@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Sociate News" <sociate@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 11 Mar 2003 00:09:08 -0500

If you examine the language that people in the businesses of advertising and
consumer marketing use every day (and more), you'll realize that it is
dismayingly similar to the language that an Army missile battery or Air
Force bomber wing uses. Brand managers "launch campaigns" to "hit" their
"target" demographic segments with messages that might as well be missiles,
smart bombs or mortar rounds. They aim "flights" of ads at those "demos" --
the industry shorthand for demographic segments. They measure progress as
improved market "penetration." Doc often describes the military metaphors of

Are the "impressions" left by ads really dents in people's psyches? (Or burn
scars in their hides from "brands?") Those impressions, measures of
behavioral conditioning, are how companies in the ad business get paid.
Advertisers do depend largely on the memories these impressions create, so
the psychic dent is more than a metaphor.

In advertising, the best targets are "captive" audiences: people hemmed in
by checkout lines, high-rise office building elevators (note the name of the
company that puts displays in elevators) or airplane and taxi seats, who
these days have to view individual video monitors that are difficult to turn
off. Those targeted pop-up ads that will appear on our cell phones as we
pass specific stores may as well be "bounding" mines (which pop up before
exploding, rising a foot or two off the ground so they can disable more
people). The Direct Marketing Association is the officer's club in this war;
during the dot-com bubble, startups were fighting one another to become the
arms suppliers.

If this all sounds too macabre, be comforted that the business of managing
consumers probably became a military operation out of necessity. How else to
reach mass markets? The change we are going through right now (to strike a
small positive note) is from marketing as a military operation to marketing
as the building of relationships (read Cluetrain), given the novel
capabilities of the emerging infrastructure.

Notice that consumer marketing is like artillery or bombing, not
hand-to-hand combat. Distance is crucial. In On Killing: the Psychological
Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, a morbidly fascinating account
of the psychological effects of wartime killing on soldiers, Lt. Col. Dave
Grossman describes the relationship between proximity in combat and
resistance to killing. It's pretty logical: The closer the killer is to the
victim, the more he resists the act of killing. Long-range warfare is far
easier on the soul than hand-to-hand combat. That is, soldiers (or, more
likely, pilots, sailors or gunners) who cannot see their victims because
they are killing with weapons that work at long range, such as missiles,
high-level bombers and artillery pieces, suffer almost no psychological
damage from their actions, while those who kill at close range almost
invariably do.

Modern mass media is an almost perfectly anonymous medium. Media buyers and
ad servers keeps marketers and potential customers at a great distance from
one another. Nothing climbs back up the long chain of people and companies
that take a marketer's ideas about a product and get them aired on TVs or
printed in magazines. Targeted media is anonymous, too. Do you really know
who that telemarketer was? The representatives usually adopt fake names.
Sometimes, they are all told to call themselves "Bob" or "Susan," to match
the direct-mail piece they are supposed to handle, or so callers think they
are getting more personal service. Nice personalizing touch.

Grossman describes several kinds of distance that affect one's perception of
proximity to the intended victim. The first is cultural distance, which is a
function of differences of race, class or nationality between the killer and
victim. Simply put, it's harder to kill someone who is like you than one who
is different. It's even easier if you believe the different person is
somehow inferior. Military trainers have known this for years, and make sure
to paint the enemy as different, dumb, evil and deserving whatever
punishment is headed their way. You don't want soldiers to see the enemy as
similar to themselves. It might weaken their resolve and make them consider
other strategies -- or get killed themselves as they hesitate, tormented.
You do want soldiers to fight.

In mass marketing, cultural distance gives the "shooters" emotional distance
from their targets. Marketers and advertisers tend to be well educated.
Often, their targets are the less educated masses. This cultural distance is
one of the epidemics brought about by consumer marketing. Sellers who think
little of their buyers find it easier to objectify them. Marketers therefore
feel a little less like the targets themselves. As in combat, objectifying
the targets makes it easier to manage them.

The devices that separate soldiers from their targets create mechanical
distance. In warfare, intelligence units far from the battle front program
target coordinates for the next mission's smart bombs and missiles.
Artillery spotters radio in coordinates that gun batteries then translate
into directions, elevations and powder charges. In night combat, infantry
soldiers wear infrared telescopic goggles that turn humans into greenish
blobs. In consumer marketing, the people doing the selling are often
separated from the people building what they sell, and the long food chain
from marketing department to TV provides plenty more mechanical distance. In
fact, it makes it very easy for marketers to forget altogether what their
activity does. Few feedback mechanisms exist to bring market wisdom back
into the design, development and manufacturing functions. Companies consider
many of the processes that could offer feedback, such as customer service
and customer interviews, to be non-essential, so they outsource them to
third parties.

Interestingly, Grossman's last kind of distance, physical distance, isn't
really a factor in media, because the moment consumer marketers leave their
offices, they are immediately surrounded by the missiles that they sent.
They are probably more aware than most of what is going on and therefore
better able to screen it, but they can't avoid it. They have no special code
to deflect all junk mail or e-mail spam. In this sense, we're all
unavoidably targets. When advertisers, marketers and data miners leave work,
they are targets, too. They're just better informed than the other targets.
They're in on the game.

"War, indeed," you might say. "There's no violence or killing in consumer
marketing. It is harmless. It makes buying fun, and it delivers good stuff
that people really want." Perhaps so. Consumerism is a luxurious trap, not a
life-threatening invasion. But why does the military analogy fit so well? If
all ads and direct-mail pieces had to have the name, address and photo of
the actual originator, would they continue to exist? Would the phone ring
less at dinnertime if those telemarketers had to give you their home phone
numbers? Probably.

Let's find more productive ways for companies selling things to engage with
people in authentic, trustworthy ways. Only then will the idea that
advertising is war seem backward and outdated.

(Just in case: I'm not trying to brand all advertisers as evil or marketing
as bloody. Those fields attract tons of smart, well-intentioned people.
Unfortunately, the way those fields operate then forces those smart people
to do things to "consumers" that they wouldn't necessarily want done to
themselves. It is the rare marketing job that is free of this pressure.)

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