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Posted by on Jan 3, 2008 in Media | 2 comments

Persuader Blizzard Hits Iowa; NH Next

How timely, that the Sunday before the Iowa caucus, The New York Times would publish an essay about Vance Packard’s “The Hidden Persuaders.”

“Persuaders” was Packard’s book, published in 1957, that became a best-seller for, in essayist Mark Greif’s words, “exposing the secret world of advertising and brands.” In this world, media experts, beyond the public’s knowledge, created ways to use tools of manipulation and persuasion, to influence the consumer choices of that unaware public. The book’s primary focus was on product advertising, and the emergence of “branding,” but it also addressed the effects of such advertising on politics. By 1956, experts in media persuasion were figuring out ways to get political candidates, particularly presidents, elected on “personality.”

Then, in 1960, something happened that would bring Packard’s evidence into millions of American living rooms. On Sept. 26, 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for president, and Vice President Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee, met in history’s first televised presidential debate, in a CBS studio in Chicago. Don Hewitt, later of “60 Minutes” fame, was the producer.

David Halberstam, in his book, “The Fifties,” describes how Kennedy’s looks and personality gave him an appearance advantage over the dour Nixon, and how Kennedy understood the power of television in ways that Nixon did not. Kennedy came into the debate rested and prepared, Nixon came in haggard and exhausted from non-stop campaigning. Kennedy asked for only light make-up – he had been campaigning in California and had acquired a nice tan – while Nixon was pale and required something called “Shavestick” to hide a dark five-o’clock shadow.

Nixon also perspired easily, and under the television lights, he started to sweat, and the Shavestick started to run. Nixon’s managers, Halberstam recounts, actually were pleading with Hewitt to keep the cameras on Kennedy, while Kennedy’s managers started asking for more close-ups of Nixon’s pallid face and its rivers of sweat and make-up. Halberstam quotes New York Times columnist Russell Baker: “That night, image replaced the printed word as the natural language of politics.”

Half a century later, American consumers, whether of products or presidential candidates, live in a media blizzard of branding and image-making, when being a brand or an image has become a media industry unto itself. Mark Greif says the public, or at least some percentage of it, knows what is happening, but “just don’t care . . . We seem to enjoy both knowing that ads are hustling us and choosing to be hustled.”

Then Greif makes a comment that I think is among the most important issues of our time: “This raises the question of whether consumer education and advertising criticism ever help consumers, especially the young.” Greif thinks it’s possible; he said “The Hidden Persuaders” acted to inoculate him from the sophisticated attempts of hidden persuaders to manipulate his choices. There are media education programs in place and in print in 2008, but Greif sees them as not so educational, but “specially advanced therapies.”

Where is an accessible, education-based media inoculation program that might give ordinary citizens protection today from the persuader blizzard now blowing in Iowa, and next week New Hampshire, and towards November, across the entire land? Not only the public, but the democratic process, needs a formal, K-12 media education curriculum, which teaches people to read the media like a book, the same way the media reads them.

Cross-posted from my blog.