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Clotaire Rapaille, We Salute You

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G Clotaire Rapaille on Fox NewsThis will be an unconventional We Salute You.  If you’re new to Brainsturbator, we do an irregular series of profiles on folks I consider to be Important Humans.  In the past, that’s included such admirable primates as Aubrey DeGray, Jacques Vallee, Yoshiro Nakamatsu, even UFC fighter Jeff Monson.  These are all people who are, in their own way, making a positive contribution to the human species.

G. Clotaire Rapaille is not.  At all. Rapaille is a marketing consultant, one of the highest-paid, highest-profile experts on the hidden psychological forces that drive consumers.  He is a very wealthy and successful man, and he has no qualms about the serious social damage that his work has done.  So why write about him—why “salute” him, especially?

I am writing this because Rapaille is a con man.  Rapaille is, near as I can tell, one of the most accomplished, audacious and ambitious con men alive today.  He has woven a tapestry of pre-existing ideas into something he claims is radically new—and he’s convinced the many of the most powerful people in the world that he’s right.  Considering consensus reality is against me here, you might be thinking I’ve set the bar too high—if the Fortune 500 says Rapaille is right, who am I to say he’s wrong? Just a hick with a sharp eye, folks.  I’m not asking you to agree with me, but I do think you’ll enjoy chewing this over.  Let’s take a closer look behind this curtain.

Meet the Frenchman

G Clotaire Rapaille mansion cars

I think it’s only fair that I let Rapaille introduce himself.  Here’s his bio from his corporate site:

Dr. G. Clotaire Rapaille is an internationally known expert in Archetype Discoveries and Creativity. His unique approach to marketing combines a psychiatrist’s depth of analysis with a businessman’s attention to practical concerns.  He has written more than ten books on these topics.  One of his books, Creative Communication, has become the standard reference for the French advertising industry.  He is a sought-after lecturer on creativity and communication.

Dr. Rapaille’s technique for market research has grown out of his work in the areas of psychiatry, psychology, and cultural anthropology. His work is an extension of the work done by many of the great scholars of the twentieth century, including Jung, Laing, Levi-Strauss, and Ruth Benedict.

Dr. Rapaille’s psychiatric work and research with autistic children led him to develop a new process for understanding how children are imprinted for the first time by what he calls the Logic of Emotion, which is the code of each Cultural Archetype in the collective unconscious of a given culture.

Dr. Rapaille’s world travels, a term in the diplomatic corps, and extensive marketing research on product archetypes for international corporations, have given him a fresh perspective on American business and American society.  He received a Masters of Political Science, a Masters of Psychology, and a Doctorate of Medical Anthropology from the Universite De Paris - Sorbonne.  He is fluent in English, French, and Spanish.

Douglas Rushkoff Media Virus CyberiaAs he remarks—constantly—more than half of the Fortune 100 are clients of his.  Rapaille is very frank about his methodology, and if you’re interested, I would recommend watching the classic Frontline documentary The Persuaders, produced by Douglas Rushkoff.  Rushkoff was given apparently total access to Rapaille on several occasions, and it’s clear that Rapaille has no illusions about what he’s doing.  One of Rapaille high-profile recent successes was the Hummer SUV, and he discusses it here:

My experience is that most of the time, people have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing. They have no idea. So they’re going to try to make up something that makes sense. Why do you need a Hummer to go shopping? “Well, you know, in case I need to go off road.” Well, you live in Manhattan. Why do you need a four-wheel drive in Manhattan?

Rapaille’s core insight—and it could be argued that it’s not his, mostly because it’s not—is that as humans learn language, each new word has an unconscious association. He frequently uses the metaphor of coffee, claiming that the smell of coffee brewing evokes memories of home life, of our parents waking up.  Therefore, more than the taste or caffiene buzz, people drink coffee to evoke unconscious memories.  As a coffee drinker myself, I suspect it has more to do with a biochemical dependence on caffiene, but that’s Rapaille’s whole point—I would say that.  So would every other coffee drinker, and we’re all wrong.  The real root of our behavior is unconscious and fundamentally irrational.

Rapaille’s discussion of the human mind centers around two concepts: the Cortex and the Reptilian.  The Cortex is the conscious, rational mind, and the Reptilian is, obviously, the feed-fuck-sleep-repeat engine.  Rapaille borrows his foundations from Carl Jung’s concept of Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, but it’s more interesting, and informative, to look at his contemporaries in the field of media persuasion and branding, especially Douglas Atkin, the author of The Culting of Brands, which is a pretty remarkable book.

Douglas AtkinAtkin is an advertising excecutive himself, so these are not idle insights.  Atkin realized that some companies evoke “loyalty beyond reason,” that people are enthusiastic about Nike or Starbucks for reasons that have nothing to do with shoes or coffee.  So he decided that in order to understand this phenomenon better, he should start studying cults.  The concept of Branding, and the culture which surrounds it, is fascinating, important, and beyond the scope of this article.  We will definitely be revisiting this terrain in the weeks to come, but in the meantime, this excerpt from Rushkoff’s interview with Atkins is worth considering:

Douglas Atkin Culting of BrandsWhat do you mean by “cult branding?”

Well, I believe that there is a very, very close relationship between cults and the best cult brands in the sense that people join and stay with cults for the exact same reasons as people join and stay with brands. The reason why is pretty obvious if you think about it: The desire to belong to something, to make meaning out of something, is universal. What’s changed nowadays is, as we’ve become a more consumerist society, the institutions that become vessels for making meaning or venues for creating community have in turn become more consumerist, so the kind of functions that cults and religions used to perform years and years ago are increasingly being taken over by brands. I’ve interviewed people who are brand loyalists of Saturn, 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. Whether they’re a retailer or a car driver, they will say, “We are the Saturn family,” with no hint of irony. They absolutely and completely believe it.

Is that bad?

I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think that the profound desire to make meaning and belong to something is part of the human condition. Consumerism is such a feature of our life that the venues are increasingly consumerist. I don’t think we can make a value judgment about that; it just is happening.

Feed the Gaping Maw

corporate logo flag

It works.  Good marketing research works. When we say “it works,” we mean that marketers understand the real needs of the customers—sometimes unspoken—and they deliver.  “Give me what I want.”

Thailand McDonalds Buddha RonaldThat’s Rapaille again, and that’s his central rationale and justification. 

You might already be asking yourself—is giving people what they want nescessarily the Right Thing to Do? What if people are tired of conventional pornograpy, and they want to watch women get raped and killed on pay-per-view?  Of course that’s an extreme example, but as I’ve noted before, it’s also a lot closer than any of us want to think. 

This is a question too tangled to resolve, or even adequately explain here.  Rushkoff refers to this puzzle as “The Feedback Loop”: do people really want more sex and violence on TV, or does sex and violence on TV just desensitize people?  Does marketing to people’s most basic, irrational instincts condition them to be more irrational?  Should the architects of consumer culture be held responsible for the damage that a consumer culture creates? 

Later in The Persuaders, Rushkoff confronts Rapaille about the Hummer:

RUSHKOFF: What about the environment? If the lizard wants the Hummer --

RAPAILLE: Right.

RUSHKOFF:—then—and the lizard’s not going to listen to the environmentalist --

RAPAILLE: Right.

RUSHKOFF:—then isn’t it our job, as aware people, to get the reptile to shut up and appeal to the cortex, to appeal to the mammal?

Rapaille never really answers the question.  (The transcript is here.) Rapaille doesn’t address Rushkoff’s point, but continues to affirm that irrational behavior will persist no matter what, so we’re either complaining about something that will not change, or we’re accepting that and making money off itThere’s no denying the man has a point.

SO WHAT GIVES, THIRTYSEVEN?

G Clotaire RapailleWhy am I saluting this man? First, let’s take a look at how Clotaire Rapaille conducts his focus groups and does his research.  Rapaille is a very comfortable man with a very secure gig, and that makes him cocky.  Like so many intelligent men, myself vehemently included, his sin is Pride...and Rapaille showed way too many of his cards to Douglas Rushkoff.

When Archetype Discoveries Worldwide goes to work, the enviroment is rigorously controlled.  Rapaille uses theatrics, misdirection and deception to extract what he is looking for from his test subjects without them ever realizing what happened.  All focus groups start out with conventional question-and-answer sessions.  People understand that they’re being asked their opinions, or as Rapaille puts it: “We start with the cortex because people want to show how intelligent they are. So give them a chance. We don’t care what they say.” He continues:

Nothing new there. And then we have a break. They’re usually very happy with themselves. “Oh, we did a good job,” and so on. When they come back, now we’re going to the emotions. And I tell them, “You’re going to tell me a little story, like if I was a 5-year-old from another planet.”

So suddenly, they are into a mindset that is completely different. They don’t try to be logical or intelligent, they just try to please the 5-year-old from another planet.

They don’t understand what they’re doing anymore. Good! That’s what I want. At the end of the second hour, when we go to the break, they say, “This guy is crazy. What is he doing? I thought I understood what we were doing. Now I don’t understand anything. I mean, I get paid to do that?” This is excellent. This is what I want.

Clotaire Rapaille at home

I would submit to you, the reader, that Rapaille treats his clients just like his test subjects.  I would propose that it is centrally signifigant that Rapaille does his consultations and meetings at his enormous mansion in Upstate New York.  I would suggest that Rapaille’s greatest success is not any of the work he’s done for major corporations—it’s himself.  He is a living brand, and in many ways quite similar to a cult leader (Rael comes to mind).  Business executives around the world are utterly devoted to Rapaille—“loyalty beyond reason”—and this is something that many of the articles on Rapaille mention, so I’m not making a radical observation, here.

“They only have ideas.  They don’t have any results.”

That’s G. Clotaire Rapaille, dismissing his academic critics.  It’s an unusually superficial response, and if you pause for a few seconds and think about it, you might even conclude he’s wrong.  And there’s the trap, eh? Let’s put the factual content of that statement aside, because the real meat is the assumptions behind it.

Question: Can you achieve good results with bad ideas?

Although it would seem that any discussion of people’s unknown, unconscious, hidden motivations is a blank check to just make shit up, please remember that Rapaille has to deliver actual results in order to keep dressing in tuxedos and buying new cars.  He makes a minimum of $125,000 per consultation, he charges $30,000 to speak for 45 minutes—so he must be delivering something, right?  There must be measureable results involved.

Maybe not.  Let’s pause for a second: maybe not. Just consider that possibility—consider that maybe, Rapaille’s real target for his lexicon of persuasive techniques isn’t the audience, the masses that he’s allegedly manipulating.  Maybe his real target is CEO’s themselves.

PT CruiserThe project Rapaille flaunts most avidly is his work on Chrysler’s PT Cruiser, the retro sedan introduced to acclaim in 1999. Rapaille says he advised Chrysler to design something people would either love or hate. To be “on code” across different cultural markets, he says, Chrysler connected with America’s “I do” ethos via an aggressive Al Capone design, and with the “I think” psyche of France by marketing the Cruiser as infused with “ideas"-- like a luggage area that can be converted into a table. ("I discover the code, and--bingo!--the car sells like crazy.")

Talk to Chrysler, though, and it sounds as if Rapaille is inflating his contributions. “Absolutely he was involved...as one form of validating our design,” says Sam Locricchio, a Chrysler spokesman. “But to take full credit for sales and success is not correct.” Chrysler isn’t the only one to call Rapaille out. Douglas Rushkoff, author of Get Back in the Box, says Rapaille’s persona eerily echoes that of Ernest Dichter, a psychologist from Europe who in the 1950s introduced marketers to psychoanalytical techniques out of his lavish New York estate. “The thing that makes Clotaire so striking to me is how closely he modeled his whole pitch on Dichter and how well his technique works on marketers,” says Rushkoff. “He appeals to these executives on the most base level of their most childlike needs for comfort and authority and a sweet, eccentric French uncle.”

Further Reading for Curious Primates

Crack This Code, by Danielle Sacks.  An oustanding introductory article from Fast Company magazine, which for my money is the best business publication on the planet.

Dr. R’s Blog.  Stay up to date with Rapaille himself.

Douglas Rushkoff’s site.  If this subject interests you, the best favor you can do for yourself is get familiar with the work of Douglas Rushkoff.

The Wizard of Lizard, by Brooke Gladstone.  An interview examining Rapaille’s core concept about the reptilian brain.

A Transcript of Rushkoff’s interviews with Rapaille for The Persuaders.

I would also most highly recommend the Adam Curtis documentary series The Century of the Self, which can be found on google video.  I would go so far as to call this series motherfucking essential.

Full Interview from PBS.  As in, much more talking than what actually made it into the documentary.  In fact, here’s one nugget that serves as a perfect final note for this peice:

My theory is very simple: The reptilian always wins. I don’t care what you’re going to tell me intellectually. I don’t care. Give me the reptilian. Why? Because the reptilian always wins.

David Icke fans take note.

5 responses to "Clotaire Rapaille, We Salute You"

  • avatar

    May 16, 2007 at 7:30 PM
    thirtyseven
    says...

    “I want to live in a house that’s an archetype,” Dr. Rapaille said. “I want a car that’s an archetype, a jacket that’s an archetype.”

    He has succeeded on all counts, playing the role of the archetypical French aristocrat. Dr. Rapaille, 63, wears a black velvet frock coat, starched collar and cravat rather than more standard daytime attire. He is doted upon by a white-gloved servant and a new bride half his age. His French accent makes his grandiose pronouncements sound whimsical and his hair flies every which way, mad-genius style.

    From this NYT profile: http://tinyurl.com/ytt57l

  • avatar

    May 16, 2007 at 7:54 PM
    Weasel85
    says...

    Well the reason to salute this man, IMO, is that he serves a purpose.  His methods accelerate the bonding of consumerism to the reptilian biological imperatives.  While this in itself is not a very beneficial thing for mankind, the purpose it does serve is to throw that bond into sharp relief when an individual gets their wake-up call.  The more people buy in to shysters like this, the more drastic the shock is when the curtain is drawn back, and the truth is revealed to them.  When someone asks them why they drive that Hummer in Manhattan and they realize they’ve been letting themselves get played.  He’s P.T. Barnum without the punchline.

  • avatar

    May 16, 2007 at 8:56 PM
    thirtyseven
    says...

    ^^Thank you for that.  That’s an angle I’d never even seen while I was working on it, but hot damn, you’re right.  This is why I love Brainsturbator...it’s a win/win/win situation.

  • avatar

    May 16, 2007 at 9:03 PM
    Captain Marginal
    says...

    “He’s P.T. Barnum without the punchline.”

    ...excellent

  • avatar

    May 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM
    Lance Strate
    says...

    Doug Rushkoff asked me to be on a panel discussion following a screening of The Persuaders at the Museum of Television and Radio in NYC, and I did it, and this fellow was also on the panel.  And my impression is very much in line with your own.  At one point, I just said that everything he was saying about culture was just basic freshman communication class content.  It’s not some mystical or arcane archetype or specialized research, it’s a basic understanding of culture and communication.  Good job, good to know you.

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