"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The motivation researchers of the ’50s viewed consumers not as rational citizens, but as cooperative puppets of ad-manipulation. The consumer, researcher Louis Cheskin told Vance Packard, “acts emotionally and compulsively,” guided not by logical thought, but by “unconscious reaction to the images and designs which, in the subconscious, are associated with the product.” Packard was horrified by this mechanistic view of consumer behavior, which he viewed as irresponsible, socially dangerous and inherently involving a disrespect for the human personality. “Some of the persuaders, in their energetic endeavors to sway our actions, seem to fall unwittingly into the attitude that man exists to be manipulated,” he wrote in the conclusion to “The Hidden Persuaders.” “When you manipulate people — regardless of your motives — you take away their right to decide for themselves what they want to do and who they want to be.”
Virginia Valentine, the critical theory-trained president of Semiotic Solutions, might as well be channeling the spirit of Cheskin when she writes that “in semiotic theory, consumers are not independent spirits, articulating their own original opinions and making their own individual buying decisions.” Instead, she clarifies in a promotional leaflet, “consumers are constructed by the communications of [popular] culture … They are not prime causes. They are cultural effects.”
It’s an audacious stroke: marshaling post-structuralist literary theory on the side of the old, sepia-toned vision of consumers as compliant stooges. “Our society is but a cultural construction,” Valentine writes, quoting Foucault. “There is no concrete social world out there.” If there is no objective reality, only a whirling universe of brands, then there is no harm in offering semiotic solutions to marketing problems; in deploying floating signifiers on behalf of Safeway. As Valentine puts it, “Our interpretive role is not to look for ‘truth,’ but to crack the code on behalf of our clients.”
Not everyone supports the new creed. Humbled by 40 years of journalistic exposis and Mad magazine parodies of galvanic skin probes, peripheral embeds, and other subliminal ad-pro legerdemain, today’s self-respecting marketing executive is likely to be wary of techniques that seem exploitative or dehumanizing. At a recent account planning convention I attended in San Diego, Hal Goldberg, the focus-group hypnotist who’d so transfixed the marketers at Shell Oil, drew a decidedly mixed response from his audience of ad agency strategists. Goldberg began his speech by stressing the refreshing uninhibitedness of consumers anesthetized through hypnosis. “When respondents are awake, they’re reluctant to be frank and to tell you what they really feel,” Goldberg told the group. “You’ll find that respondents are much more willing to talk when hypnotized.”
Goldberg cues up a videotape. “Now I’m going to show you a clip from a focus group we did for a weight-loss client,” he says brightly. “Here, we were taking respondents back to the first time they realized they were overweight. As you’ll see, you get much more emotional content out of hypnotized people.”
The video shows a small, plump woman in a white blouse and bright coral scarf. She’s sitting upright in her chair, and her eyes are screwed tightly shut. “I’m 11 years old,” she says slowly. “My parents had just divorced. We had moved to a new town.”
“I want you to go back to that point in time,” Goldberg says. “I want you to tell me what’s happening.”
“I hated where we were,” the woman says. “There was nothing that was familiar. I was new in school. I had no friends. And the kids called me fat.”
“What are you thinking and feeling about that?” Goldberg probes.
“Just very sad,” the woman says, her voice breaking. “Angry, too.” Tears are rolling down her cheeks.
Goldberg stops the tape. “So you see,” he says placidly. “With this sort of information, you’re in a position to recommend some options to your clients that you otherwise might not have thought of.”
During the question-and-answer session, the account planners pepper Goldberg with hostile questions. “To me, this is a little bit horrifying,” says one woman. “I mean, this seems like ’1984′ to me. The whole notion of controlling people. Are there ethical issues you’re concerned about?” “We’re digging into areas that are not life-threatening to the respondent,” Goldberg says soothingly. “We’re just professionals, trying to get information about a problem.”
“But what about the ethical issue of digging into people’s backgrounds and minds for the purpose of selling products?” someone else asks. “I mean, the woman on that videotape seemed like she was having some sort of episode. And it just seems like you’re raising these issues, and opening this whole can of worms that you don’t know how to deal with.”
Goldberg is unflustered. “This was a young lady, remembering a sad situation,” he said. “But we then brought her back into the present time. There’s no damage done to these people.”
Not surprisingly, medical professionals who use hypnosis to treat patients are less than enthralled by these corporate-sponsored forays into the consumer unconscious. “Ordinarily, I wouldn’t use hypnosis until I had developed a trusting relationship with a patient,” says Dr. Sidney Rosen, a Manhattan-based psychiatrist who specializes in the use of hypnosis. “If you run into someone who is vulnerable, and you don’t have any expertise to deal with that, you could precipitate a nervous breakdown.” Rosen, a practicing hypnotist for 40 years, emphasizes that using hypnosis to regress a patient to a sad or traumatic time is a particularly delicate operation, requiring the utmost care and sensitivity. “There is a danger of stirring up some sort of depression or panic reaction,” he says. “You have to use all sorts of orienting suggestions, re-orienting suggestions. You want to test them to make sure they’re calm before they leave. If they’re still anxious, you might even prescribe medication.” Most importantly, he says, “you would hopefully recognize their vulnerability. You’re not just going in there to get information.”
But the ethical issues aren’t the only problem with hypnosis as a marketing tool. The whole idea that putting people in a trance will reveal their true feelings about brands is highly questionable.
“Forty years ago, we believed that hypnosis was a truth serum,” Rosen says. “Now we know it’s not a truth serum. People are very influencible. The hypnotized person wants to please the hypnotist. They respond to minimal cues from the hypnotist. And so people say things under hypnosis that are completely false.”
It’s an intriguing thought — the fate of America’s consumer brands resting on the dubious musings of a bunch of soporific focus group respondents. But if some marketers have their doubts about such subterranean forays, others are leaping confidently into the fray. As a lead strategist at Hal Riney & Partners, Mark Barden recently used hypnotized focus groups as part of a presentation to Starbucks. “One of the issues we’d come across in doing standard focus groups was that hip young people were down on Starbucks,” he says. “But they weren’t really very articulate or forthcoming in telling us why. All they would say is, ‘It’s corporate coffee, man.’” Intrigued, Barden probed deeper; but all he got was “posturing,” he says. “What kept coming up was the usual stuff that had been in the media,” he says. “‘They’re kicking out mom-and-pop coffee shops.’ ‘It’s a shallow packaging of coffee culture.’ ‘There’s one on every corner.’ That kind of thing. And so we hit upon the idea, ‘Why not hypnotize them?’ That way we can dig down to the real objections.”
So Barden brought in a hypnotist to take the slackers under. “It was interesting,” he recalls. “He was asking them questions like, ‘You’re walking down the street. You see a Starbucks. You go into the Starbucks. You look around. What do you see?” The answer, Barden says, was an eye-opener. “We asked, ‘Who are the customers?’” he recalls. “They described guys in suits in their 40s. ‘Yuppies,’ they said. We asked: ‘Anyone in there like you?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are you sure? Look around.’ ‘No one,’ they said. ‘Just the guy behind the counter.’”
The implication, Barden said, was all too clear. The hip young people “felt they were on the wrong side of the counter,” he says. “And it made them uncomfortable.”
Hal Riney & Partners rushed to the Starbucks executives with this grim news. “We went to the client, and we said, ‘These people do not feel that they belong in your shop,’” Barden recalls. “The brand doesn’t have any room for them at this point. Maybe it’s the tone of voice of the advertising. Maybe it’s all that Kenny G. music that you play. But you need to find ways to make your brand more accessible to younger people.” Though the latte moguls have yet to act on his recommendations, Barden remains a true believer. “Through hypnosis, we were able to identify what the issue was,” he says. “And the issue was, ‘I don’t belong here.’”
Domaine Chandon is another convert. Last month, the California sparkling-wine maker unveiled its new advertising campaign, based in part on insights gleaned from hypnotized focus-group participants. “We were looking for new information, information that people might not want to share, because they’re too inhibited,” says Diane Dreyer, account supervisor at D’Arcy, Masius, Benton & Bowles, Domaine Chandon’s Los Angeles-based ad agency. “We wanted to get people to regress, to remember specifically the first time they drank champagne or sparkling wine.”
You might not be surprised to learn that the exercise triggered pleasant, even romantic associations; but D’Arcy says he was blown away. “It was a much more feeling-driven, emotion-driven — as opposed to occasion-driven — response than what we had expected,” Dreyer told me. “People were talking about going down in their parents’ basement and seducing their girlfriends. What that did is, it validated that there is something going on beyond occasions to motivate people to drink sparkling wine.” Impressed, the agency uncorked a new series of ads, featuring images of utter abandon and wild surrender. “Drink it in, drink it in, drink it in,” urges the copy.
Diane Dreyer credits the hypnotic focus groups for alerting the agency to the little-known fact that people view champagne as a romantic drink. “What the [groups] taught us is that this is a very emotionally laden category,” she says. “There is always the potential of a realized sexual encounter. That’s something you don’t necessarily learn unless you can tap into that subconscious level of the brain.”
Stuart Grau, vice president for account planning at Avrett Free & Ginsberg in New York, used hypnotized focus groups as part of a research project for a client, Bath and Body Works. “We really wanted to tap into the in-bath experience,” he says. “Now how am I going to do that? I could hear it from you second-hand, in focus groups, or by doing some in-home interviews. But I can’t get in the bath with you, can I?” Hypnosis, he decided, was the second-best alternative. “When you talk to people, and ask them to recall experiences, it’s all filtered through the here and now,” he says. “There’s a censorship, both conscious and unconscious. What hypnosis allowed us to do was to bring our respondents back into the bath experience as if they were actually there. It was as if we were taking a bath or shower with them, almost.” I asked Grau if the experience ever felt a little creepy, a little voyeuristic. “No, no,” he said. “If they did go places that were inappropriate, we stopped them. There’s no point in putting people through that.”
Just as Diane Dreyer of Domaine Chandon credits the groups with establishing the link between champagne and passion, so too does Grau credit hypnotism for helping him realize that when women use scented bath products, it’s not just about getting squeaky-clean. “There is something underpinning the appeal of these products that is not related to the functionality of the products,” Grau muses.
That something is that women hope these fragrant potions “will make them attractive to the opposite sex.” It was, Grau says, an insight that Bath and Body Works would never have gleaned through awake groups alone. “You get rational answers in awake groups,” he says. “You don’t get the true emotional content. Especially when it comes to sensitive subjects.”
Notwithstanding these groundbreaking revelations, the use of hypnotized focus groups is disdained by marketing theorists offering rival routes to the unconscious. “I’m not a big fan of hypnosis,” says Dr. Sam Cohen, the object-relations psychiatrist turned marketing consultant. “Respondents go into zombie-like states. While you do get insights, you don’t learn enough about the defenses of the consumer. So you wind up creating advertising that makes the unconscious totally conscious.” Cohen points with disdain to a recent campaign for British Airways, a campaign developed based on input from hypnotized focus groups. The ads, he says, pound home a truth that should only be hinted at — the need of the business traveler to feel coddled and babied while en route. “You see a man who’s a man on top, wearing a suit, but then the bottom half of him is a little boy in a diaper,” Cohen laments. “They have made the unconscious totally conscious, in a way that’s threatening to the consumer.”
As a counterexample, Dr. Cohen modestly cites his recent work for Delta Airlines. Probing the unconscious minds of business-class travelers, he discovered a class of “big strong men and women” who nevertheless needed to feel cared for and fussed over. “Traveling on an airplane stirs up feelings of regression and helplessness,” Dr. Cohen explains. “The plane is almost a womb. So you go into this womblike place. You’re trapped in a chair. Now you’re going to be flown off somewhere.” In this scenario, Cohen explains, “the flight attendant becomes the all-good mother. It’s a regression into helplessness that is defended against through heightened grandiosity. And if the airline catches that, if they understand the grandiosity need in this regression to feel powerful and special — that’s the airline you’re going to want to fly.”
The key, Cohen stresses, is that the flight attendant must materialize at the traveler’s side without being summoned. “If you watch the advertising, you’ll see that the stewardess comes over without being asked,” he says. “That’s so important. If I have to ask, ‘Can I have a magazine?’ ‘Can I have some more water?’ that breaks the spell. It means I’m not that special or powerful a businessman. The idea is that you don’t have to ask that the stewardess, like the all-good mother, will meet the anticipatory need.” The desired result, Cohen says, is that the viewer subconsciously associates Delta with toasty mother-love. “He will think: ‘If I go with Delta, I will have a mothering experience. And if I have to go to a meeting, I’ll perform well, because the flight attendant has brought me magical supplies to empower me for my trip.’ The coup de grace, Cohen says, is the final shot of the ad, which invariably shows the business traveler bounding confidently down the steps of the plane. “The airline took you in its womb, it flew you off, and while it did that, it gave you psychic supplies,” he says triumphantly. “It’s one of the most impactful dramas in advertising.”
Cohen also points with pride to his work for Pillsbury Cinnamon Buns. Here too, he says, the human need for mother-love and for oral gratification opens up vistas for the savvy advertiser. “The advertising is centered around the buns coming out of the oven,” he explains. “The mother is coming downstairs. The buns are out. The Pillsbury boy is there. You see the smell coming upstairs. The smell is going to wake the family up.” Cohen contrasts this to real life, where “the mother trying to get the family downstairs is seen as a tyrant.” Instead, in the advertising, “the bun becomes the oral gratification that entices the entire family, perhaps through its smell. So now the family unites. And now the mother has her own unconscious needs met. Pillsbury has leveraged its brand for maximum unconscious impact. That’s very powerful advertising.”
In his focus groups, Dr. Cohen makes use of some classic Freudian projective techniques — free association, structured sentence completion, dream work. The latter, he says, “is something that’s unique to my company. It’s something that I created.” Cohen cites his work for Procter & Gamble as an example of how dream-work methodology can be applied to consumer brands. “A while ago, I was doing some groups for Tide,” he says. “And I said to the respondents: OK. Let’s say you’re having a dream about Tide — and Tide is represented by something other than laundry detergent. What would that something be?”
Take a wild guess. “Guess what it showed up as? Mother!” Cohen says triumphantly. “What we learned is that Tide also means ‘Tied.’ Tied to the old connection you have with your mother. As long as you use Tide, you’ll always be ‘tied’ to her. You’ll never have to lose her. It’s quite moving, actually.”
Ruth Shalit is an account planner at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a New York advertising agency. For more columns by Shalit, visit her column archive.More Ruth Shalit.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)