Agents of Distrust


July 5, 2006


Browse in Advertising

The intelligence agencies of the former Soviet Bloc were more than means of acquiring information. Equally important, they were agencies of distrust. When people didn’t know who was an informant, their inclination to confide was to that extent diminished. The risk of challenging authority was multiplied many times. When the friend to whom you might entrust an anti-regime manuscript, or even just a thought, might be in the secret employ of that same regime, you would think many times before doing it.

Distrust causes people to retreat into cocoons of self-interest and survival; and self interest ultimately is the friend of the powers that be. The corporate economies of the West have produced their own version of this socially corrosive function. An example appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s how the story begins:

He dines at Manhattan’s most exclusive eateries and glides past security at nightclubs. He wears custom-made shirts and drives an $80,000 Jaguar XK.

But can he sell cars?

Nico Bossi, a 27-year-old native of Rome, is one of New York’s beautiful people. He not only looks like a runway model, he is also a real life walking advertisement for Jaguar, the British car maker.

Mr. Bossi represents the latest step in what the marketing industry calls “product placement.” Corporations started by buying roles for their products in movies and TV shows. (I’m told that the movie “Thank You For Smoking” is replete with Coca-Cola, and not by accident.) Now they’ve moved off the screen and into life. Mr. Bossi, whose parents own a cruise ship line, and who had a BMW in high school, now tools around Manhattan in his Jaguar compliments of the company, so that he can be seen by cool people in cool places, or at least by people who think of themselves that way.

One can feel pity for someone so vacant as to offer his life as a billboard for a product. (For some reason I imagined Paris Hilton in the passenger seat.) Jaguar also has enlisted a skateboarder in Los Angeles by the name of Reese Forbes, who hangs out at fashionable venues there. But this is more than just another curious behavior of the under-challenged rich.

Buzz Marketing, as it is called in the trade, has become big business. Proctor and Gamble alone has enlisted over 600,000 mothers to surreptitiously push products among their friends and peers. Through an affiliated company called Tremor, it has over 225,000 teenagers who do the same. When you see someone reading a paperback on the New York City subways, that person might actually be an enlisted tout. You know those product reviews you see on web sites?

I don’t have to answer. You suspect already; and that’s the problem. Suspicion is viral. Once it starts it doesn’t stop. We are less inclined to join our neighbors in civic causes and the like, because…well, who knows what their motives are, really? And when selling spills out of the traditional channels of commerce, and into our personal relationships, then the capacity to have those diminishes as well.

All that’s left is me. It is the ultimate triumph of the commercial values of the corporate state, because there is no refuge from them. Steve Knox, who heads the buzz marketing affiliates of Proctor and Gamble, put it this way. “Word of mouth is among the very few techniques to infiltrate the no-marketing zones people build around their lives,” he said.

Infiltrate. Didn’t the KGB and STASI use words like that?