FAQ: Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say

A review of Douglas Rushkoff's book "Coercion" (1999) www.rushkoff.com

Douglas Rushkoff's book Coercion has gotten quite a bit of attention, with interviews on NPR, articles, reviews, and so on. It's a critical look at advertising, media manipulation, and the Internet.

So… first of all, who is Douglas Rushkoff? As you read his book, you'll discover several different Rushkoffs:

  • Rushkoff the Media Critic: He exposes the manipulative ad agencies. He is a consumer advocate, a Paul Revere, coming to warn us.
  • Rushkoff the Media Consultant: He is a well-paid consultant ($7,500/hr) for the same ad agencies that he exposes. He feels guilty at being paid well and then gloats over getting more money. He identifies new marketing strategies (such as viral marketing,) teachs ad agencies to create yet more manipulative strategies, and then writes books about it, exposing the sleazey manipulation, so he can make yet more money. Somewhat like someone who runs over the neighborhood cat, calls in to collect the reward, brags about how he did it, gets money for the TV movie-of-the-week, and tries to think of better ways to run over more house cats.
  • Rushkoff the Media Subversive: Rushkoff writes how he joined a band of subversives in an apartment (that is, not in a company nor university,) and co-wrote a manifesto www.technorealism.org . So he's also a subversive cyber-guerrilla in an underground war against media companies. Is his poster of Che a media virus?
  • Rushkoff the Media Commentator: Rushkoff is a commentator for NPR, the New York Times, TIME Magazine, and the Guardian.
  • Rushkoff the Media Professor: Professor Douglas Rushkoff is a professor of media at New York University (NYU.)

Yes, the outsider, the insider, the commentator, and the wannabe is also a professor. He's working it from every angle. It's fine with me that he's highly paid, or a subversive, or whatever he wants to be. But it seems a bit dishonest when he writes a book to warn us about media manipulation and he is also teaching ad agencies how to manipulate us.

Rushkoff is very good at describing media coercion (perhaps it would be better to call it "techniques of persuasion.") In fact, he uses those techniques himself in his book.

  • He warns us how a slimy salesman will pretend to be on the side of the consumer, and that's what Rushkoff does, as he puts on his Media Critic baseball cap and warns us about media tactics.
  • To prove that he's right, he puts on his "highly-paid media consultant" cap to asserts his authority on media techniques. Ad agencies read his books as a text book.
  • To prove that he's important, he puts on his "media commentator" cap and lists his credentials.

Rushkoff discusses persuasion strategies. This has been discussed better elsewhere. For example, The Science of Persuasion, by Robert B. Cialdini (Scientific American, Feb, 2001) describes eight different methods of persuasion, with proofs that these methods work. Rushkoff's argument would have been more effective if he had used proofs, instead of appeals to authority. For example, Rushkoff cites the CIA as an authority, yet he doesn't discuss whether their methods really work or not. The reader should just accept the CIA's authority.

In the final two chapters (Pyramids and Virtual Marketing,) Rushkoff looks at the computer industry and the web. These are well-written chapters, and his argument is plausible for those outside the computer industry. But Rushkoff (the media critic, media consultant, and media expert) is not in the computer industry, and his explanation is factually wrong.

In the Pyramids chapter, he discusses cults, pyramid schemes, and Ponzi schemes. He then explains Apple computers by referring to a 20-point analysis of cults that he did for Wells BDDP (a mega ad agency that amusingly seems not to have a web site.) Yes, okay, Apple could be compared to a cult, but then again, the US Army, Wall Street, and just about anything can be described as a cult if you use the word as a metaphor. Rushkoff's explanation doesn't really apply. Apple isn't a secret cult. It's a public company, it reports everything about its financial status, and it's responsible to its board and public stockholders. Rushkoff's analysis is an outsider's view, using resemblances and metaphors. The chapter has no content.

In the chapter on Virtual Marketing, Rushkoff discusses marketing on the web. He describes the original vision of the web as a possibility for everyone to communicate and share information. He argues that the media conglomerates began to panic at the erosion of their mediaspace monopoly, as he puts it, and they struck back. Using manipulative images, he describes the media conglomerates as covered wagons (a post-colonialist leftist view of settlers as colonialist invaders) and the web developers and users as "an untamed, indigenous people," (users are described as native Americans, about to be oppressed by imperialist outsiders.) He writes that companies retook the media by intentionally making the web harder to use, thus users were reduced to passive viewers who didn't understand the complex and obscure systems.

This is simply false. I worked in Silicon Valley throughout the web boom (1995-2000) in more than 20 development teams, writing the documentation and web sites for many projects. I've been part of many project groups, where we discussed strategy, features, and user interface. The teams come up with new ideas and new ways of doing things. They know their competitors very well and see how others have implemented features and then try to improve these. The goal for a product is powerful features, ease-of-use, and a unifying internal design logic. The marketplace exerts a powerful selective pressure against inefficient products, unclear products, or lower-quality products. If anyone were to suggest Rushkoff's strategies ("Hey! Let's mystify the product to confuse the user!" or "Let's control those pesky varmints!,") they would have been laughed out of the meeting. Rushkoff, an outsider, has never been part of this process and doesn't understand it. His metaphors (such as cowboys and Indians) and conspiracy theories (such as the "remystification of the media") are irrelevant.

The move away from community interaction towards control of the corporate message was not a corporate conspiracy. In 1995-96, companies began to advertise on Usenet, a vast system of more than 30,000 chatlists and millions of users. A company posted their messages to the chat list, just like anyone else. However, to put it mildly, discussion groups are not the best place for a balanced discussion. If a company has two million customers and 99% customer satisfaction, that tiny 1% (20,000 unhappy users) can start an endless flamewar against the company and the product. Imagine how many flamewars could be created by users who dislike tobacco, cars, or any of the major industries, whose critics number in the tens of millions. Companies found very quickly that they should avoid Usenet. Nowadays, no major corporation has a Usenet advertising strategy.

Among many possibilities, web sites can be designed as one-way broadcast communication. The company can create what is effectively a web-based brochure to describe its corporate message, without distraction from critics. So in self-defense, companies withdrew from the open Internet and began creating closed, one-way broadcast websites. This was not a conspiracy from companies, nor a plot to enslave the rascal user. It was a reaction to the Usenet flamewars.

This is a pity, because all businesspeople know that the ideal marketing situation is one-to-one: a company designs and delivers exactly what the customer wants. The ideal goal of web marketing is to use cookies and databases to customize and personalize the offer to each user, so she get what she wants. But for whatever reason, very few companies have developed this.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, any company has critics, and those critics use email and the web to launch relentless attacks on whatever annoys them. For example, Nike customized shoes for its top atheletes by letting them choose colors and monograms. A few years ago, Nike opened this service to the public and you can have Nike create a customized shoe with your monogrammed slogan. Of course, Nike has many critics (over 1,780 web sites attack Nike's sweatshops) and someone asked for a pair of shoes with the embroidered slogan "Sweatshop." Nike refused, the guy wrote a very funny account of his emails with Nike, and posted that to the net, where it has been passed around in millions of copies. So a smartass with an email account can create more bad publicity about Nike than Nike's advertising agencies can create positive publicity with tens of millions of dollars in advertising.

Rushkoff ends with a gloomy picture of media: the media conglomerates will control the future. But his conspiracy analysis doesn't realize what happened in the last five years. The companies created broadcast sites instead of interactive sites because users easily subvert media events. A media slip can be seized upon by a clever user, turned into a satire, and released as an email that will circle the globe, forever beyond the control of the company.

This isn't just companies. Politicians contend with critics who use the instantaneous organizing power of the net. A careless statement can provoke tens of thousands of angry emails, all generated by discussion lists made up of affiliated users. In a recent election, a Republican candidate dismissed his opponent as a witch. Ah, but witches, better known as wicca, have more than 195,000 web sites, hundreds of chat lists, and they vote. The next morning, the candidate had to apologize and say that he by no means intended to disparage the dignity of Wicca voters.

In an amusing Tom Tomorrow cartoon, Rushkoff is a 35-year old guy trying to tell companies about Gen-X kids. Let's skip Gen X and Gen Y. Let's go to Gen Z, the 12-to-16 year old boys. They are very good at using the web, they understand the hypocrisy of media, and they push back (mostly because they don't realize how big their targets are.) Michael Lewis writes how a 15-year old school kid manipulated the stock market, made $800,000 in stock trades, and the SEC was unable to stop him. Forget trying to hack media ads. The kids are hacking the American economy itself, and there's nothing anyone can do. www.nytimes.com/2001/02/25/magazine/25STOCK-TRADER.html.

The best (or worst) example is fuckedcompany.com, where Gen Y and Gen Z kids anonymously post internal information to undermine a company's media message and humiliate upper management. There's nothing the company can do. Companies have lost top-down hierarchical control and they can't force the workers to be loyal. There will be more websites such as fuckedcompany and so on. There's room for websites such as fuckedchurch, fuckedpoliticalparty, and so on. (Someone out there will read this and do it...)

So... do we listen to what "they" say? Only when we want to. And if we don't like what "they" say, we write an email, post it to our online social group, all of our friends will hear what we say, and "they" can't do anything about it. Forget the wagons in a circle, surrounded by Indians. The Apaches have overrun the campsite, they're partying around the bonfire, the kids have put on warpaint and joined the Indians, and there ain't no troops coming to the rescue.