The Trouble With People

December 22, 2013

1. Don’t assume that people know what they want.

2. Don’t assume people will tell the truth about their wants and dislikes even if they know them.

3. Don’t assume people can be trusted to behave in a rational way.

— The Trouble with People, chapter 2 of The Hidden Persuaders

If anything, the following half century plus since the publication of Vance Packard’s examination of America’s consumers and the advertising industry that spurred them on to increasingly dizzying heights have proven the above 3 insights not far off the mark. thehiddenpersuadersDespite our increased sophistication and awareness of the ways we are being manipulated into consumer habits, it is still fanciful to imagine ourselves as any sort of rational actors, logically calculating our best self-interest in the economic realm. I point to the current attachment we bear toward our electronic gadgetry especially cell phones as an example where brand loyalty seems to be appears to trump basic common sense.

It’s just a telephone, folks; a mode of interpersonal communication not a magical device that will confer eternal happiness upon us. But that may also just be the sad digression of a sore loser Blackberry user.

Later on in his book, Packard talks about the course of action taken to deal with such irrationality. “If people couldn’t discriminate reasonably,” he writes, “they should be assisted in discriminating unreasonably in an easy, warm emotional way.” One manner of doing so, advertisers happycity(and by extension those depending on advertising’s dark arts) needed to become ‘merchants of discontent’. Stir up feelings of dissatisfaction, restlessness and frustration with what is essentially the status quo and then deliver up the latest new and improved gizmo as the singular agent of change for a better, fresher feeling future.

Unfortunately, we may have been designed for susceptibility to such a line of negative attack. As Charles Montgomery writes in Happy City, as descendants of hunter-gatherers “…who compulsively looked ahead in order to kill more game or collect more berries than they did yesterday…We have been hardwired for active dissatisfaction.” Born to be disgruntled.

Of course, such irrationality and a tendency toward seeing the glass half empty may also play a part in the political realm. It confounds logic, coming almost as it does straight from the gut. Going negative, as they say in the campaign game, seems almost natural. Get under people’s skin, get them bristling and fussy. You don’t even have to provide any reasons why everybody’s nose should be out of joint. Just pick a sore spot and poke it. discontentedRepeatedly.

Sound familiar?

In a discouraging way, it does help to explain how, when a political movement goes bad, and by bad I mean negative, stressing anger and irritation, it’s very, very difficult to counteract it. Once the mood of the electorate turns foul, they’re not looking for sunshine. It’s retribution they want, somebody’s head on a platter.

I wish there was an easy, one sentence answer to the question of how you counterpunch that tactic. Certainly Barack Obama’s Hope/Change victory in 2008 served as a good example of the power of delivering an upbeat message. It resonated enough to get him re-elected despite some of the luster coming off at least in part because he didn’t deliver enough of the promised hope and change.

The NDP breakthrough here at the federal level in 2011 could also be characterized as a triumph of our better angels although that has to be dampened slightly by the fact that the forces of darkness attained majority government status in that election. hopeGood news/ bad news. What do you want to hear first?

I’d like to believe that there’s some sort of correlation between negative campaigns and low voter turnout but I’m just not sure how robust the evidence is to back that claim up. Toronto’s 2010 municipal campaign certainly felt like a negative one. Team Ford proved to be masterful merchants of discontent. Turnout spiked. Anger and resentment can deliver voters to the ballot box.

It hasn’t done a lick of good, though, when it comes to governance. HULK MAYOR SMASH CITY!! The natural impulse to such a situation is to try and summon a new anger, an anger at the wanton disregard of how responsible politicians should ably function in the proper running of the city.

I’m Not Him. Anybody But Ford. Sound the alarms! Mount the ramparts!

Like most anger, it’s not very inspiring. Voting against something or someone instead of voting for something or someone rarely excites the electorate. It simply plays into our natural inclination toward dissatisfaction. Hold your nose and vote. Ho-hum!

We can’t just be angry. We have to know what we’re angry about. imagineArticulate what it is we’re fighting for not what we’re fighting against. We have to know exactly what it is we want because, as Vance Packard wrote over 50 years ago, people don’t necessarily know what they want and might not tell you even if they did.

We have to be merchants, not of discontent, but encouragement. Of boisterous, positive encouragement about this place we live and how everyone who chooses to be here is offered the opportunity to live here to their fullest potential.

It’s a tall order, for sure, but the alternative is just more divisive nastiness of which we’ve had too much of over the last 3 years. Let’s start demanding more, offering more. Let’s be merchants of aspiration.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


Political Genius Genus Evil

November 1, 2010

In the afterglow of Rob Ford’s surprisingly convincing mayoral victory last week came the inevitable outpouring of ink and bytes about the whys and hows of his win, complete with a revelation of a “dirty tricks” controversy. Actually, let’s call it more of a contretemps or set-to, to lessen it slightly from such a harsh moniker but mostly to cement my downtowner elitist status. Kelly Grant’s exhaustive piece in the Globe and Mail revealed a campaign team that was highly disciplined, relentless in ferreting out where its support was, tireless in punching the divisive hot-button issues that set the agenda from Ford’s entry into the race.

While I hesitate to use the word ‘genius’, as its constant misapplication drains all meaning from it, for my purposes here, let’s do so. Political genius. Eliciting the question, why does so much political genius manifest itself as the evil variety? Squandered as it is, attempting to make silk purses from sows’ ears, foisting upon the voting public candidates clearly unfit for office and out of their depth. George W. Bush. Sarah Palin. And now, Rob Ford.

Imagine if the likes of Lee Atwater (may he be roaming swelteringly the halls of Hell still), Karl Rove and now the boys of the Rob Ford brain trust applied their significant skills to the betterment of society rather than to the detriment of it. But, of course, that instantly answers the above question. They have no interest in contributing positively to society. Their political genius comes from having to mask that simple fact. On a mission to drive back the gains made for the greater good by FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s War on Poverty and PET’s Just Society (or any other government intent on making life a little fairer and more equitable), they dance and sing populist songs, with generically uplifting titles like Respect For Taxpayers while exemplifying none of it.

They are the political ‘Hidden Persuaders’, Vance Packard’s 1950s term for the marketers and ad men who convinced the public that cereals were the only breakfast food, cigarettes were the epitome of cool with health benefits to boot, and that consuming more of everything than we needed put us on the path of enlightened happiness. We applaud them for doing their jobs well, for convincing us to go against our best interests and better instincts and buy into a truly toxic, detrimental world view. Yep. They got us to put the shotgun barrel in our mouths but, damn, were they smooth!

I have little doubt that Rob Ford, like George W. before him on Ronald Reagan before him, truly believes that government in all its forms is the source of much that is wrong in society today. Raised on the teat of neo-conservatism with his beloved late father a small part of the Common Sense Revolution, Ford may be many things but disingenuous about his politics does not seem to be one of them. He is the perfect spokesman and front man for the movement of the privileged class to be embraced by a big chunk of the population that shares absolutely nothing in common with it.

What’s even more remarkable about this political sleight of hand is the timing of the current version of the trick. Economic calamity brought on by overly zealous free marketeering combined with governmental lapse of judgment and negligence of duty. Crushing private sector debt piled into the public purse, followed by immediate calls of out-of-control government spending and demands for cutbacks and rollbacks. A mere two years after a deep lingering recession brought on by neo-liberal/conservative politics, we’ve already internalized the counterintuitive belief that only neo-liberal/conservative policies and politicians can dig us out of the hole they helped us dig. It is truly a bravura performance, delivered by masters of their profession who should be richly rewarded for their outstanding efforts in pulling such a feat off.

Except that, they are amply enriched by the narrow interests they serve and protect. Except that, inevitably they’re much better at campaigning than they are governing and tend to leave big, heaping piles of steaming crap in their wake. Except that, society is that much worse off because of what it is they do, the dark arts they practice.

You can admire, even applaud, those whose brilliance is obvious even though their purpose is contemptible. The great villains are always our favourite characters. But what we really have to stop doing is handing them the keys to power. They aren’t in it to make the world, the city, the neighbourhood a better place for anyone else beside themselves, and those sharing their perspective, regardless of how much they try telling us otherwise.

People who use their talents for evil should not be expected to do good. It’s not in their nature. We need to stop expecting anything else from them. Experience should’ve told us that a long time ago.

full of goodnessly submitted by Cityslikr