BROOKE GLADSTONE: Words can enrage, as you just heard. But they also can persuade, which is a big theme in "The Persuaders," a Frontline documentary that airs Tuesday night on PBS. It explores how the right word can sell every sort of product, including presidents, and it shows how new technology allows market researchers to find, with astonishing precision, exactly the words to move any prospective customer. The film features media critic Douglas Rushkoff, who leads us through the wonderful world of persuasion in the third millennium. Doug, welcome back.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the film offers a couple of correctives, I think, to conventional wisdom about launching a successful product. And that is, essentially, that it isn't a mass market enterprise these days. You don't appeal to a million people with one big, happy, shiny message. Instead, you craft a million messages, and essentially, in some cases literally, go door to door.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Well, yeah, well certainly in the, in the political arena, that's the new technique. They started to see America as really 250 million markets of one, and what they would do is look at a particular household and look at its magazine subscriptions, you know, how many dogs or cats they had, how far they commute to work, and from that information, they're able to model what issues those people are likely to respond to. And then they'll send volunteers or paid campaign workers to go to that person's house with a little palm pilot and play a commercial that was assembled just for that person.
WOMAN: If you don't mind, I just have a, just a one--a clip that's not even one minute that I just wanted to show you about some of the issues that I just mentioned. [TAPE PLAYS]
ANNOUNCER: African-American unemployment has skyrocketed to a 10 year high.
WOMAN: Sure has.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You spend quite a lot of time with Frank Luntz, who is responsible for some highly effective re-branding of hot button issues. For instance, he changed the lexicon to turn "global warming," which is rather a scary idea, into "climate change."
FRANK LUNTZ: It is climate change. Some people call it global warming. Some people call it climate change. What is the difference?
GEORGE W. BUSH: And we must address the issue of global climate change.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Or the "estate tax" into the "death tax." The interesting thing about a guy like Luntz is he's really issue-agnostic. Really. [LAUGHS] I mean he's a hired gun. You know, what he really is, is a master of word play.
FRANK LUNTZ: For years, they couldn't eliminate it. The public wouldn't support it. Cause the word "estate" sounds wealthy. Someone like me comes around and realizes that it's not an estate tax; it's a death tax, because you're taxed at death. And suddenly, something that isn't viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: These kind of people like to say that what they're doing is help politicians craft policies that can appeal to a larger constituency, but what they're really doing is crafting words that help them make their existing policies appeal to a broader constituency. And they do it, really, through focus groups. They'll even, you know, put those little knobs in people's hands and play tapes of people speaking so they can see what words do people react to positively and what words to they react to negatively.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So is this Orwellian double-speak or can re-branding bring clarity? I mean do you think this is always a bad thing?
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: It's almost always a bad thing. What the marketers say, as well as the political marketers, is that what they're looking for is to get loyalty beyond reason. That's really the slogan of Saatchi & Saatchi now -- it's what they say they can deliver. And I don't know if we want to live in a world that is constantly moving beyond reason. They're trying to get around our cognition and appeal to us on a completely emotional, gut, really reptilian level. I think what they want to do is get people working from their stomach and nothing else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, you end the film on a very upbeat note -- I guess it's heavy with irony -- in which you posit the idea that because of narrow-casting, because these advertisers have the technology to reach you, a demographic of one, you get precisely what you want -- you're in charge.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Well, you certainly get the feeling of being in charge. You've got a couple of hundred bucks in your pocket, and you're in the mall, it can feel pretty good for a while to have a world where sales people are nice to you, where the direct mail you're getting is for stuff you want, where the products are being made in a way that seems like they understand who you are. But then you've also got to take a step back and think what is it like to relate to the world as a consumer rather than as a citizen? In order to move beyond it, I think we've got to at least, as a first step, acknowledge that on a certain level we like it. You know? Otherwise we're never going to begin to deny ourself the almost drug-like high that you get in that short-term feeling of being recognized.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Doug, thank you so much.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Media critic Douglas Rushkoff is featured in the Frontline documentary "The Persuaders," which airs this Tuesday. [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field and Jamie York, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director, and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anne Kossef. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.