January 3, 2011 § 10 Comments
“You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines, machines which have become the key to economic progress.” — President Herbert Hoover, (to a room full of public relations and ad men.)
Few things are creepier than the president of a country comparing its people to machines.
In the 1920’s and 30’s Freud popularized the idea that man, though perhaps appearing tame, has irrational, libidinous, uncontrollable animal desire raging just below the surface of his well-groomed exterior.
Edward Bernays, considered the father of modern commercialism, applied his uncle Sigmund Freud‘s theories of the Unconscious Mind to advertising and revolutionized commercials from a plodding industry reciting the practical virtues of products to a psychologically savvy form of not-so-subtle brainwashing.
When cigarette companies came to Edward Bernays in the late 1920’s and asked him how to improve sales to women, Bernays paid top dollar to get leading NY psychoanalyst A.A. Brill ‘s opinion on the question of what would make women smoke.
Brill told him the cigarette was a phallic symbol and represented male sexual power. If he could find a way to connect cigarettes with the idea of challenging male power, then women would smoke because then they would “have their own penises.”
Using this dubious little psychological gem, Bernays staged a spectacle at the New York Easter parade when he hired a group of good-looking young women to walk together in the parade, each secretly holding a pack of cigarettes somewhere on her person. At his sign the girls were to light up in unison. He informed the press that he’d heard a group of suffragettes were planning on attending the parade and lighting up their “torches of freedom.”
The girls lit up, the newspaper reporters snapped their picture, and all over America, cigarettes were suddenly linked to independence, freedom and equality.
It had been considered socially taboo for a woman of good moral character to smoke in public. (In 1904 a woman named Jennie Lasher was sentenced to thirty days in jail for “putting her children’s morals at risk” by smoking in their presence!)
So the connection between women’s liberation & cigarettes was emotional, but not rational. For the first time, Bernays showed American corporations that irrelevant objects could become powerful emotional symbols—embodying how people wanted to feel and be seen.
During this time, leading political writer Walter Lippman spearheaded the idea that if, as Freud suggested, human beings were driven by irrational forces, then perhaps it was necessary to rethink democracy. What was needed, he said, was a new elite to manage “the bewildered herd.” This would be done through psychological techniques that would control the unconscious feelings of the masses. In Propaganda (1928), Bernays argued that the manipulation of public opinion was a necessary part of democracy:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
By stimulating people’s inner desires and then sating them with consumer products, Bernays argued, he was creating a new way to manage the irrational force of the masses. This way the masses remained docile, while the economy remained stimulated. Bernays called this marketing strategy,“The engineering of consent.”
If that term doesn’t give you the willies, the following quote by leading wall street banker, Paul Maizer, ought to do it:
“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
These words were spoken the better half of a century ago in the 1930’s, and it appears the manifesto has become prophecy.
In an age when Americans seem to be consumers first and citizens second, when the industrial spirit of creation has been overshadowed by the insatiable zeal to consume and invisible architects are burning the midnight oil trying to figure out how to better engineer your consent — every act of independent thought is a small but meaningful triumph.
Read Part 2: “The Engineering of Human Desire”