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Selling products, manipulating public opinion and influencing public policy: What the speaker at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce annual event had to say

January 17, 2017


On Tuesday, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce held it’s annual meeting featuring Dr. Jonah Berger, Author of the books Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Invisible Influence.

People reading this blog might find it strange for GRIID to be at the Gand Rapids Chamber annual event. The fact is that part of the work we hope to accomplish through GRIID is to present information and analysis of those with power, specifically in West Michigan.

It is problematic for those who identify as being in favor fighting against systems of oppression, to ignore those who perpetuate and benefit from the same systems of oppression.

The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce is one of those entities that perpetuate and benefit from systems of oppression, particularly neoliberal capitalism. Rick Baker, the President and CEO of the local chamber, is also one of the main organizers with the West Michigan Policy Forum, which is a major lobbying group representing the elite private sector. 

In addition, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce does its own lobbying in West Michigan and at the state level. According to their 2016 annual report, 93% of Chamber endorsed candidates won in the 2016 General Election, which included candidates running political office at the city and county level. Lastly, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce spends tens of thousands of dollars on an annual basis to influence public policy at the state level.

2017 Annual Meeting Keynote Speakerhqdefault

As mentioned, the keynote speaker for this years annual meeting was Dr. Jonah Berger. Berger teaches marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The basic message of his presentation to members of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce was this – How we are influenced and how we can use those same techniques to our advantage.

Berger was funny, spoke well and in a way that was engaging. he told jokes and presented his information with slides and video. The author talked about embracing the ways in which we are influenced by others, products and public opinion and then figuring out how we can use that “to our advantage.”

Berger talked about how it is important for us to be chameleons and to imitate or mimic what other do that is effective in terms of how well it influences others. Most of what he presented had to do with how our behavior is influenced, but also how products and brands are are influential.horsey_horseless

One example from history that Berger gave was how the auto industry influenced people to want to buy cars. He cited the work of Uriah Smith, who assisted the auto industry with finding ways to help people get over their mistrust of buying cars. Smith came up with the idea for the horsey horseless, which was a car with a fake horse attached to the front (pictured here).

While we recognize that Uriah Smith’s horsey horseless may have played a role in normalizing the use of cars as transportation in the US, the larger reason why the public eventually succumbed to depending on cars was due to the fact that General Motors bought up the street cars across the country, forcing people to either ride the bus (which were inefficient) or buy cars. This topic is investigated in the powerful documentary, Taken for a Ride, which you can watch here.

What the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce keynote speaker did not talk about was his own role as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies to assist them in being more effective in influencing consumers.

Berger’s own website says he assists corporations in doing the following:screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-12-41-52-pm

• Why products and services catch on

• Understanding customer behavior

• Marketing and advertising in the digital age

• Making ideas spread

• How to be more influential

Berger also lists some of the companies has consults for, companies that have a track record of engaging in censorship, collaborating with state surveillance, profiting from the military industrial complex and human rights violations.

The speaker encouraged those in attendance to use his workbook with the staff that those in the audience were in charge of.

Essentially, the primary reason for bringing Berger to speak at the Chamber’s annual meeting was not just to share some quaint ideas about how to influence people, rather the speaker’s role was to get those in attendance to think about how to more effectively sell their products, manipulate public opinion and influence public policy. This is exactly why GRIID was there to report on what it is that the organizations and individuals with power in this community are up to so we can be better prepared to counter whatever it is they have in mind to do.

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