The Code According To Rapaille

Ordinarily, I steer clear of books like Clotaire Rapaille's The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy As They Do. The word "buy" in the subtitle is usually enough to repel me. It's not that I'm not selling anything. I'm honest enough to admit to being curious about the "market" for this site and for Portico - although usually all I have to do is mention the business term, to blush for foolishness. I have doubtless, in consulting no one but myself in the endeavor to provide a Web site that presents "interesting" content on a "reliable" schedule, alienated more potential visitors than I've attracted. So, every now and then, I look around to see if anyone's checking me out, and, if no one is, I stoop to go looking for practical (read="vulgar") pointers. In the event, Mr Rapaille's extremely lively and readable book of insights into "the market" greased this accommodation by structuring itself as "cultural anthropology." I might not learn how to build a better Blague, but I'd learn - something.

Dr Rapaille, who came to the United States from France in the Seventies, began life as a psychiatrist with an anthropological bent that led him to spend time researching the psyches of tribal people in remote areas of the globe. He became interested in the idea of "imprints," the powerful - and emotional - associations that children form between people and objects outside of themselves, on the one hand, and their chances for happiness on the other. These imprints he calls "Codes," and in the marketing profession into which he was drafted, by corporate executives clever enough to see the utility of his work, Dr Rapaille has made an exhaustive study of the different Codes that evolve in different cultures. The French and the Americans, it turns out, are always shaking their heads in disbelief at one another because their Codes for the basics of life are so different. More about that later.

As an interrogator of cultures, Dr Rapaille learned right away that people rarely say what they mean when they're responding to pollsters. (Indeed, The Culture Code is the strongest condemnation of political polling that I have ever encountered, even though the author has an almost cynical lack of interest in the subject.) So, he structured what he calls the three-hour "Discovery" session. As outlined on page 8 of my paperback edition (Broadway, 2007), the Discovery session sounds like a much-improved version of hypnosis. First, subjects clear their minds of rational opinions by sharing them. They say what they think they're supposed to say (we are a vain species indeed). Then they fiddle with magazines and scissors and paste together collages that tell the good doctor a "story" about their associations with whatever it is that he has been paid to research (coffee, cars, Lego - you name it). Finally, the subjects are stretched out on pillows and soothed by anodyne music. In this relaxed state, they're asked to go back and remember their first positive and negative impressions of something. These recollections are assiduously noted: sifting through them will yield the pay-dirt, the secrets that motivate people - the Codes according to which our  lives are lived, or at least, to which we make our purchases.

In his chapter on food and alcohol, Dr Rapaille has a few words to say to you, gentle reader of Portico, convinced as you may be that your third-hour revelations would not betray a common streak.

America has a subculture of food aficionados, "foodies," who admire food and take pleasure in its masterful preparation. We have a twenty-four hour cable television network devoted to food, dozens of food magazines are published monthly, and there are fine restaurants (some of the finest in the word) all over the country. Yet the responses of the vast majority of participants in the discovery suggest that the foodie subculture, vibrant though it might be, is not representative of the way most Americans feel about food.

The overwhelming majority of responses I received spoke not of the pleasures of the palate, but rather of the function of food. "Good nutrition that they can fill up with quickly." "Bacon cheeseburgers for lunch every day and I actually had more energy." "There's no point in eating if the food doesn't keep you healthy." "I really only do it to keep going." For every gourmet who spoke about taste, texture, and savoring a meal, there were two dozen people who talked about filling up and eating as a necessity instead of a pleasure. The message that came through loudly from these stories was that the body is a machine and the job of food is to keep the machine running.

The American Culture Code for food is FUEL.

Ka-chink! Each of Dr Rapaille's chapters uncovers, in capital letters, at least one Code word, and the Codes are always a little bit surprising, at least at first. In an early chapter, Dr Rapaille reveals that the American Codes for Seduction, Love, and Sex are, respectively, Manipulation, False Expectation, and Violence. He attributes these characteristics to a factor that he makes much of: that American culture is essentially adolescent. Having thought the same thing myself for decades (I'm not exaggerating), I've become dissatisfied with the analogy between the ages of man and the ages of cultures. If American culture is adolescent, I suspect, that's because colossal marketing budgets have been deployed to advertise adolescent values in the most desirable light. But my quibbles with Dr Rapaille's methods and findings don't begin to tempt me to dismiss his work as flawed. On the contrary: once I accepted the fact that Clotaire Rapaille is a marketing guru who has mapped some very bankable connections between merchandise and the primitive, "reptilian" brain that, according to him, governs all of our important decisions, I could sit back and enjoy his book at least as a sort of grown-up Ripley's Believe It Or Not. I was almost sorry not to be in my twenties, for at that age I'd have insisted that everybody I knew learn the Code According to Rapaille. Manipulation, False Expectation, and Violence explain a lot about everyday life in America. So does the Code word for alcohol, which is GUN.*

Although I hold out hope that the reptilian brain can, with a great deal of discipline, be overruled, I think that it is very naive to deny its power, as people routinely do these days (but traditional religions never). Certainly the Enlightenment's foundational flaw was its endorsement of the idea, first floated by a handful of ancient Greek philosophers but never, I suspect, shared widely enough to be described as "Greek," that "man is a rational animal." No, Virginia, there are no rational animals, not even us. If nothing else, The Culture Code just might introduce a measure of mature self-awareness into our youth-crazed culture - and I won't be surprised if it's the young ones who come round first. After all, as Dr Rapaille teaches, they're the ones who are still open to imprints. (November 2007)

* I found this Code word very useful when, shortly after reading The Culture Code, I realized that I would have to give up hard liquor if I wanted to live another few healthy years. I couldn't quite believe that I associated alcohol with the reckless and final danger of firearms, but it was not difficult to work my way to an association that is strongly related to guns, with which it has gunpowder in common: FIREWORKS. And I saw, too, that hard liquor and guns share the meretricious illusion of glossy, shiny GLAMOUR. Similarly, Mr Rapaille's conclusions about obesity in America, the Code word for which is CHECKING OUT, gave me a lot to think about when I gave up my very fattening martini diet.

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