Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Stealth Marketing

There really should be a Department of Irony in the U.S. Government. After all, one of the oddities of contemporary life is that we now have .gov sites masquerading as .com sites, because certain kinds of commercial sites would be more trusted by average people as objective sources of information. Medical marketing may be the model for this kind of persuasive site in which various diagnostic tests and advice from experts is offered to visitors to their pages. A case in point is, which clearly belongs in the .gov domain, as it is an explicit recruitment arm of the U.S. armed forces.

As social marketing, this campaign differ greatly from anti-drug efforts that encourage parents to take charge of the dialogue. Instead, Today's Military praises making parenting a "two-way conversation" in which authority figures should be receptive to teens' wishes to enlist. There's even a section for educators!

From the student side, site pages contain extensive materials encouraging young people to identify their personality types, a common practice in corporate America, which Barbara Ehrenreich recently tried to debunk in Bait and Switch. I took the online test, the Keirsey personality sorter (all 70 multiple choice questions) and discovered that my personality type was "Rational." Supposedly, I should reflect upon whether I am an "architect," "mastermind," "inventor," or "field marshall." Unfortunately, it would cost me a non-taxpayer-subsidized $14.95 to find out exactly which one I am, so that route of self-discovery is closed to me. But at least now I know the following complimentary nugget of wisdom: "Rationals have an insatiable hunger to accomplish their goals and will work tirelessly on any project they have set their mind to. They are rigorously logical and fiercely independent in their thinking--are indeed skeptical of all ideas, even their own--and they believe they can overcome any obstacle with their will power." Apparently also "Rationals don't care about being politically correct," are "pragmatic," have a "problem solving temperment," and are fascinated with "systems" of all kinds.

The prose reminded me a lot of a detailed horoscope, which was funny given the test's institutional authority. The testing service also informed me that I should feel flattered, because "Rationals are very scarce, comprising as little as 5 to 10 percent of the population." Of course, I have a relatively rare blood type as well, and blood types used to serve a similar function as a categorization tool in the not so distant past.

The persuasive hook is obvious. A teen goes to the site and takes this test (for which no studying is required) and is told that he or she has this terrific personality (because all of the temperment types are good) and that he or she is endowed with all the special traits of an Artisan, Guardian, Idealist, or Rational. As a bonus, the teen's parents are even put in their place, and their status as experts is contested. This destabilizing of authority might be the one good thing about this website, I would say, as a parent myself, albeit one who hopes never to send a child to war.

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