So last night I was part of a marketing research group. You know, a focus group. A long time ago I got put into a database for such things, and they call every once in a while to see if I want to take part in some study or other. Usually I get disqualified because the husband works in marketing.
But this last time, they didn’t ask. In fact, I don’t really remember what they did ask, because I was waiting to get booted by that last question. As I was heading over last night, I thought, now, what was this going to be about? Something vaguely political, I think.
That’s how I found myself in a room with 9 other women, strangers, rating commercials and offering opinions on a subject I know nearly nothing about: clean coal technology. Just typing those three words makes me want to yawn and close the laptop down.
Interesting? Not so much. Don’t get me wrong, I can get all passionate about the environment and green alternatives, but I don’t really know what I’m talking about. Nor do I really want to. Facts just bog me down.
What was fascinating, though, was the way the whole thing worked. We sat around a long table and quickly marked responses to commercials, short articles, statements made. An audio recording was made of the entire session, so frequently the facilitator said our name out loud as we responded, so that there would be a record of who was speaking. At the other end of the room was a huge mirror the length of the wall. I found myself trying to stare through it to make eye contact with whoever was watching us from the other side. It totally felt like I was in some social psych experiment from the 70’s that I used to read about in my classes. Or maybe the Dharma Initiative.
And then, as the evening went on, it became clear that the whole thing was about how best to manipulate people – people like me, with half formed opinions and not a lot of information. I know this might not seem like a startling insight to you (that’s what marketing IS, right?) but in my defense, these things are all different. This one time, I spent two hours in a room rating 30 second audio clips of Christian music for a proposed new radio station. My head nearly exploded.
Last night was not nearly so direct. The whole time we thought we were rating commercials, we were being led carefully through a series of them simply to influence our thinking. They didn’t really care what we thought of the commercials themselves – by that, I mean that we are not going to influence whether some commercials are going to get made, or aired – they just wanted to spark the discussion and drive us toward certain conclusions.
First, we watched alternative energies commercials. We looked at graphs that showed that half of our energy in the US is powered by coal. We talked about what we hoped would change in 10 years, and why people don’t like coal. Each of us, individually, had to say whether we supported or opposed the use of coal as an energy source. For the record? I opposed.
Then the clean coal commercials started, basically moving from most offensive (think high fructose corn syrup ads – you know, the ones that are just blatantly lying) to ones that were more convincing. Real people, talking about the shortcomings of coal and what work was being done to change that. Nice, but not changing my mind. We were almost done.
And then it happened. The moment where I knew I’d been had. “I just have one more thing to show you,” said the moderator, and then flipped on one last commercial for clean coal. Simple words on a black screen, laid over a clip from one of Obama’s campaign speeches.
After we watched this, the moderator made us all answer that same question again: Do you support or oppose the use of coal to generate electricity?
I can’t tell you how badly I wanted to change my answer. The only reason I didn’t, and I mean ONLY, is that I didn’t want to lose face in front of those people. Really. The girl next to me, who had been almost hostile in her environmental support? Flipped like a pancake. Like a green, all natural on one side and dusted with coal on the other PANCAKE.
Because it was Obama. We trust him. We believe in him. I left, my thoughts jumping back and forth between the realization that they really had figured out how to make me change my mind, and thinking I really didn’t expect Obama to support coal. I thought he was all about alternative energy. That is, until I realized I was missing LOST.
I shouldn’t be surprised at this, but it was fresh again, the realization of how easily we are manipulated by people who are not looking after our interests, but how to make us adopt theirs as our own. It makes me sad. I really love a great commercial.
It wasn’t until tonight that the final realization set in – that the ad is not in any way backed or supported by Obama, but simply a convenient clip pulled from a speech and co-opted by the coal industry for their own purposes.
I’m really glad I didn’t change my answer.