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PBS Frontline – Persuaders

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Directors: Rachel Dretzin, Barak Goodman
Writers: Barak Goodman, Douglas Rushkoff
Episode aired: 9 November 2004 (USA)
Running time: 55mins
Network: PBS
Language: English
Links: Official | IMDb

You can watch it ratio-free here: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/showspersuaders/

FRONTLINE takes an in-depth look at the multibillion-dollar “persuasion industries” of advertising and public relations and how marketers have developed new ways of integrating their messages deeper into the fabric of our lives. Through sophisticated market research methods to better understand consumers and by turning to the little-understood techniques of public relations to make sure their messages come from sources we trust, marketers are crafting messages that resonate with an increasingly cynical public.

Americans are swimming in a sea of messages.

Each year, legions of ad people, copywriters, market researchers, pollsters, consultants, and even linguists—most of whom work for one of six giant companies—spend billions of dollars and millions of man-hours trying to determine how to persuade consumers what to buy, whom to trust, and what to think. Increasingly, these techniques are migrating to the high-stakes arena of politics, shaping policy and influencing how Americans choose their leaders.

In “The Persuaders,” FRONTLINE explores how the cultures of marketing and advertising have come to influence not only what Americans buy, but also how they view themselves and the world around them. The 90-minute documentary draws on a range of experts and observers of the advertising/marketing world, to examine how, in the words of one on-camera commentator, “the principal of democracy yields to the practice of demography,” as highly customized messages are delivered to a smaller segment of the market.

Take the 2004 presidential sweepstakes for example. Both the Republicans and the Democrats were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to custom craft their messages. “What politicians do is tailor their message to each demographic group,” says Peter Swire, professor of law at Ohio State University and an expert on Internet policy. “That means…Americans will live in different virtual universes. What’s wrong with living in different universes? You never confront the other side. You don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable facts that go against your worldview….It hardens the partisanship that’s been such a feature of recent American politics.”

FRONTLINE analyzes the 2004 campaign where, for the first time, the latest techniques in narrowcasting were put into effect. The antithesis of traditional broadcasting, narrowcasting involves crafting and delivering tailored messages to individual voters based on their demographic profiles.

Political marketers are just now discovering new ways to use the techniques that have long been employed by the private sector. FRONTLINE visits Acxiom, the largest data mining company in the world, where vast farms of computers hold detailed information about nearly every adult in America. Data mining, a practice that predicts likely behavior based on factors such as age, income, and shopping habits, has been the gold standard of commercial advertisers. Acxiom promises its clients a better way to target their messages to individual consumers.

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