Category Archives: Economics

Al Jazeera Witness

Witness: To The Last Drop

An episode of the Al Jazeera documentary series Witness called To The Last Drop:

The small town of Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta is facing the consequences of being the first to witness the impact of the Tar Sands project, which may be the tipping point for oil development in Canada.

Al Jazeera Witness

The local community has experienced a spike in cancer cases and dire studies have revealed the true consequences of “dirty oil”.

Gripped in a Faustian pact with the American energy consumer, the Canadian government is doing everything it can to protect the dirtiest oil project ever known. In the following account, filmmaker Tom Radford describes witnessing a David and Goliath struggle.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Civilization Cover (Amazon)

Niall Ferguson: Civilization: Is The West History?

A 6-part documentary series from the UK’s Channel Four in which Niall Ferguson asks why it was that Western civilization, from inauspicious roots in the 15th century, came to dominate the rest of the world; and if the West is about to be overtaken by the rest. It accompanies his book Civilization: The West and the Rest.

Niall Ferguson (.com)Ferguson reveals the killer apps of the West’s success – competition, science, the property owning democracy, modern medicine, the consumer society and the Protestant work ethic – the real explanation of how, for five centuries, a clear minority of mankind managed to secure the lion’s share of the earth’s resources.

Competition: The first programme in the series begins in 1420 when Ming China had a credible claim to be the most advanced civilization in the world: ‘All Under Heaven’. England on the eve of the Wars of the Roses would have seemed quite primitive by contrast.

Science: In 1683 the Ottoman army laid siege to Vienna, the capital of Europe’s most powerful empire. Domination of West by East was an alarmingly plausible scenario. But Islam was defeated: not so much by firepower as by science.

Civilization Cover (Amazon)Property: Professor Ferguson asks why North America succeeded while South America for so many centuries lagged behind. The two had much in common (not least the subjugation of indigenous peoples and the use of slavery by European immigrants), but they differed profoundly on individual property rights, the rule of law and representative government.

Medicine: The French Empire consciously set out to civilize West Africa by improving public health as well as building a modern infrastructure. Yet in other European empires – notably Germany’s in southwest Africa – colonial rule led to genocide. What was the link from medical science to racial pseudo-science?

Consumerism: Today the world is becoming more homogenous and, with increasingly few exceptions, big-name brands dominate main streets, high streets and shopping malls all over the globe.

Work: The sixth element that enabled the West to dominate the rest was the work ethic. Max Weber famously linked it to Protestantism, but the reality is that any culture, regardless of religion, is capable of embracing the spirit of capitalism by working hard, saving, and accumulating capital.

An on-line version of the documentary was in this spot, but as can be expected, it didn’t take long to be removed from YouTube.
Other official sources: Channel 4,

You can also watch his lecture Empires on the Edge of Chaos on fora.tv (from ABC’s Big Ideas) or The Ascent of money: An evolutionary approach to financial history from Gresham College.

Another thematically related lecture: Ian Morris: Why the West Rules – For Now

Update: Does Islam Stand Against Science? (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
A contrary view of Ferguson’s output: Pankaj Mishra reviews ‘Civilisation’ by Niall Ferguson

PBS Frontline: The Persuaders

A worthwhile episode of PBS Frontline from 2004 (video at the end):

In “The Persuaders,” Frontline explores how the cultures of marketing and advertising have come to influence not only what Americans buy, but also how they view themselves and the world around them. The 90-minute documentary draws on a range of experts and observers of the advertising/marketing world, to examine how, in the words of one on-camera commentator, “the principal of democracy yields to the practice of demography,” as highly customized messages are delivered to a smaller segment of the market.

Each year, legions of ad people, copywriters, market researchers, pollsters, consultants, and even linguists—most of whom work for one of six giant companies—spend billions of dollars and millions of man-hours trying to determine how to persuade consumers what to buy, whom to trust, and what to think. Increasingly, these techniques are migrating to the high-stakes arena of politics, shaping policy and influencing how Americans choose their leaders.

Take the 2004 presidential sweepstakes for example. Both the Republicans and the Democrats were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to custom craft their messages. “What politicians do is tailor their message to each demographic group,” says Peter Swire, professor of law at Ohio State University and an expert on Internet policy. “That means Americans will live in different virtual universes. What’s wrong with living in different universes? You never confront the other side. You don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable facts that go against your worldview… It hardens the partisanship that’s been such a feature of recent American politics.” The program analyzes the 2004 campaign where, for the first time, the latest techniques in narrowcasting were put into effect. The antithesis of traditional broadcasting, narrowcasting involves crafting and delivering tailored messages to individual voters based on their demographic profiles.

Political marketers are just now discovering new ways to use the techniques that have long been employed by the private sector. Frontline visits Acxiom, the largest data mining company in the world, where vast farms of computers hold detailed information about nearly every adult in America. Data mining, a practice that predicts likely behavior based on factors such as age, income, and shopping habits, has been the gold standard of commercial advertisers. Acxiom promises its clients a better way to target their messages to individual consumers.
Douglas Rushkoff (wikimedia)
“There is an age-old anxiety among advertisers that they are wasting their money, that they cannot know whom they are reaching and with what impact,” says Douglas Rushkoff, who collaborated with Dretzin and Goodman on Frontline’s “The Merchants of Cool,” which examined the process by which corporate conglomerates have co-opted teen culture in order to capture the multibillion-dollar adolescent market. But Rushkoff predicts, “Anxiety is giving way to a confidence that they will soon have access to the core emotional needs of nearly every American shopper and voter.”

There is, however, a paradox. While the techniques of the persuaders have become more sophisticated, consumers have never been more resistant to marketing messages. Yet today, advertisements fill up nearly every available inch of the landscape.

“You cannot walk down the street without being bombarded,” advertising writer Bob Garfield says. “You go to fill your gas tank and you look at the pump and you’re seeing news headlines in advertising. You go into the bathroom and you look in the urinal and you’re staring at an ad. You look up at the sky and there’s skywriting.” This clutter creates a dilemma for advertisers, Garfield observes. “The advertisers know they need to have more and more advertising to get an ever narrower slice of your attention,” he says. “And that means we are going to be ever more inundated. And then of course ever more resistant, requiring ever more advertising, making us ever more resistant and so on.”

But clever marketers have found ways of overcoming the clutter conundrum. As television viewers have found ways of avoiding ads by using personal video recorders like Tivo, advertisers have responded by becoming a part of the program through sophisticated product placement. The documentary follows this new trend in advertising known as “branded entertainment.” Rather than marketing products around a TV show or other entertainment vehicle, industry insiders predict the future will bring a seamless blend of marketing and entertainment. Producers are already moving in that direction.

Some industry leaders claim that such tactics have evolved in response to consumer preference. But others worry that as advertising becomes more deeply integrated into television, movies, and music, those cultural forms will become ever more homogenous. “The worry is not so much that the actual ads themselves will become ubiquitous,” says media critic Mark Crispin Miller. “Rather, it’s that advertising desires for itself a background that will not contradict it… The aim here is not so much to find a show that people like and then get your ads on it. The aim here is for the advertisers to create a show that is itself an extended ad.”

As consumers grow more cynical toward marketing claims, the persuasion industries are developing and refining techniques to reinforce an emotional attachment between Americans and the brands they buy. “What consumers want now is an emotional connection—they want to be able to connect with what’s behind the brand, what’s behind the promise,” says Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi Advertising. “The brands that can move to that emotional level, that can create loyalty beyond reason, are going to be the brands where premium profits lie.”

Douglas Atkin, a partner at advertising agency Merkley + Partners, goes even further, comparing the brand loyalty that companies are trying to create to the passionate zeal once enjoyed only by cultists and religious fanatics. “I’ve interviewed people who are brand loyalists of Saturn Car Company,” Atkin says, “and they will use the same vocabulary as someone who is a cult member of Hare Krishna. They will say that other car users need to be `saved,’ or that they are part of the `Saturn family’ with no hint of irony. [They] absolutely and completely believe it.”

Although some brands have been more successful than others in making the magic connection to consumers, the techniques the marketers are developing are startling and include the hiring of anthropologists, ethnographers, linguists, and brain researchers to plumb our unconscious desires and urges so as to better influence our decision making.

But there is reason to wonder if these emotional connections are real. Says author Naomi Klein, “When you listen to brand managers talk, you can get quite carried away in this idea that they actually are fulfilling these needs that we have for community and narrative and transcendence. But in the end it is…a laptop and a pair of running shoes. And they might be great, but they’re not actually going to fulfill those needs.”

Correspondent Rushkoff observes: “We Americans value our freedom of choice—choice in the marketplace of goods, and choice in what has become a marketplace of ideas. When the same persuasion industry is engaged to influence these very different kinds of decision-making, it’s easy for our roles as consumers and our roles as citizens to get blurred. By revealing some of the most effective practices of the persuasion business, we may better understand our choices and perhaps make wiser ones.”

The video below streams from archive.org. Another way to watch is via the PBS link at the start.

Update: Superbrands’ success fuelled by sex, religion and gossip (BBC News)