- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

By Geoffrey Miller
Viking, $26.95, 374 pages

In the late 1990s, Geoffrey Miller landed a research job with University College of London’s Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution. Mr. Miller’s heroic challenge was to “get evolutionary psychologists” — members of his particular academic guild — “and game-theory economists to work together.”

How well did that go? “It was the most frustrating experience of my professional life,” Mr. Miller confesses in his second book, “Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior.” It was apples to aliens: “[W]e psychologists just did not understand the economists, and they did not understand us.” They didn’t think the same thoughts and they barely spoke the same language.

Mr. Miller’s “crisis point” came in 1999 during a conference in London. The psychologists thought the economists might enjoy learning about their “preference experiments,” but it became obvious the assembled dismal scientists believed that consumer preferences were mere “psychological abstractions — hidden hypothetical states that cannot be measured or explained apart from the purchases that they cause.”

Now, he can chalk that one up to being ahead of the curve. In 2002, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his development of Prospect Theory, which helps economists to better model real-life choices. Economics research has since shifted in a radically hands-on, experimental direction that is far more open to input from other disciplines. Many universities today express a marked preference for experimental economists for new hires.

But he couldn’t have known that back at that conference in 1999. Fortunately, there was a rather large consolation prize to take away. Mr. Miller writes, “[T]he economists gradually drifted away from the conference, leaving the psychologists to nurse our bruised egos, in the company of some strange-looking folks we hadn’t seen before.”

These “strange-looking folks” were marketers who turned out to be “hot for psychology.” Imagine that: “They actually cared about people’s preferences — where they came from, how they worked, and” — let’s not forget — “how to profit from them.”

In talking to the marketers, Mr. Miller explains, “[A] new world opened up.” He started reading as much marketing literature as he could get his hands on and now believes marketing is “not just one of the most important ideas in business.” It’s become “the most dominant force in human culture” as well.

The author understands that this claim is open to charges of hyperbole. He replies that marketing is much more than mere advertising. Marketing-oriented companies “help us discover desires we never knew we had, and ways of fulfilling them we never imagined.” And this is taking place on a massive scale. In 2004, the United States had about 37,000 philosophy professors to 212,000 market and survey researchers.

Most of this research takes place without drawing much notice. For 2006, you’d probably recognize the world’s four largest media companies: TimeWarner, Disney, NewsCorp and Vivendi Universal. Now try to name one of the four largest advertising holding companies. They were Omnicon, WPP, Interpublic and Publicus. Don’t feel bad if you missed these.

Whether mass marketing is a good thing is a matter of some scrutiny. Mr. Miller says that there are basically two models for understanding it: the “Wrong Conservative Model” and the “Wrong Radical Model.” He proposes his own, third “Sensible Model.”

Via medias “middle ways” are great rhetorical devices. (George W. Bush borrowed Goldilocks’ line “This one’s just right” to help sell his tax cuts.) However, they often fail to tell us a whole lot. In practice, Mr. Miller’s model is much closer to one than the other. The Wrong Conservative Model is described as “human nature + free markets = consumerist capitalism,” and “Spent” merely insists that it’s a bit more complicated than that — a proposition that many economists have already endorsed.

Perhaps a more accurate label would be the “Modified Conservative Model” or the “Nontriumphalist Conservative Model” even the “Right Conservative Model” — that also considers Darwinian pressures, social norms, new technologies, ideologies and history.

Mr. Miller endorses mass media and most of the fruits of marketing and globalization. He makes the extravagant claim that “American and French revolutions brought the marketing concept to politics long before it gained a toehold in business.” He writes that “marketing zealots might even take the view that the marketing revolution renders most of Marx irrelevant: What meaning could ‘alienation’ and ‘exploitation’ have when businesses work so hard to fulfill our desires as consumers?”

The conclusions of “Spent” are mostly sensible, but they aren’t radical. Mr. Miller occasionally says, Wait a minute. Let’s think this through. He believes that because of evolutionary adaptations, we are a little too hard-wired to buy goods and services that advertise our sexual fitness, often needlessly: Bling really can be overdone. Children especially are vulnerable to the lures of marketing and their parents should do a better job of reining them in.

He also has a sense of humor about it. “Spent” relates the story of a time-traveling pitchman who goes back to the Pleistocene era, tries to talk the cavemen and women into adopting modern hyper consumerism, and fails miserably. The “Cro-Magnon matriarch” finally looks him “straight in the eye and asks, with infinite pity, ‘Are you out of your mind?’”

Jeremy Lott is author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.”

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