The Engineering of Human Desire

April 26, 2011 § 2 Comments

By Tai Carmen

In an earlier post, Invisible Architects, we explored the birth of a fascinating marriage in American consumer culture: psychoanalysis and marketing.

To recap briefly, the original, pre-commercial boom advertisements were simple, innocent. They highlighed practical virtues and were basically very straight forward. There weren’t girls eating hotdogs in bikinis or anything like that, stirring subconscious connections between sex, desire and sandwiches.

Then Edward Bernays entered the scene in the 1920’s. Freud’s nephew, he applied his famous uncle’s ideas about the inner wild beast within man’s psyche (also known as the “Id“) to better hypnotize the public into associating certain products with fulfillment of these inner libidinous impulses. He is now considered the “father of public relations” and a pioneer in the field of advertising. A dubious honor.

Bernays felt quite high and mighty about his role as public perception manipulator, having the view — shared by many in the elite corporate world, then and now — that the masses were a “bewildered herd,” whose riotous urges needed to be channeled in positive directions. For them, this positive direction was consumerism. This way, the masses were docile and the economy boomed.

The hay day of this phase of marketing is epitomized by the now-cheesy typical 1950’s commercial we’ve all come to associate with the era of conformity.

What no marketing guru could predict, was the liberation from social conformity that happened in the cultural renaissance of the 1960s.

The inner wild beast was certainly loose. Suddenly American youth began to reject homogenous mass-produced products. The international political situation became more important. Liberating the individual spirit of each human being became more important. Corporations began to take a serious hit as the hippie culture began to spread like wildfire throughout American consciousness.

A very ancient tribalism began to re-emerge — transcendence through disorientation of the senses. It had been happening since the festivals of Dionysus in ancient Greece, it had been happening among native tribal cultures for centuries, and now the spirit had been taken up by American youth.

These wild impulses could not be channeled into the purchase of a new toaster. The ad companies were flummoxed.

Though the hippie radicals had a moment in the sun, soon enough, what with student demonstration beatings, the assassination of various symbolic “hope figures”, such as JFK and John Lennon, a disillusion began to brew — free spirits wondered if they really could change Washington with a few marches, or the paradigm of the world with a drug-induced vision, etc.

A slow turning away from politics, towards the self, began to take place in response. “Be the change you seek in the world” became the primary mantra of the burgeoning Human Potential Movement. Not a bad thing in itself, if a little sad considering where the movement began — with a greater, more far-reaching hope towards universal peace and love.

All this time the public relations and marketing gurus — inspired by Edward Bernays’ marriage of psychoanalysis with advertising — had been scrabbling to find a market in the changing times. And when the Human Potential Movement hit its stride, advertisers began to see a window.

This new breed of people, the maturing hippies and all those influenced by the philosophy of the 60’s, did have desires which could be met by mass produced products, they were simply more specific, more nuanced, more particular than before.

These people went hiking after all, and hikers need apparel, tools. They played music — musicians needed instruments. They read books, etc.  These were all untapped marketing opportunities, the corporations now realized with the help of a new creation: focus groups.

The corporations learned that the more specific the questions, the more enthusiastic people were in answering them. People simply loved to think about their answers, talk about themselves, etc. And they gave the advertisers exactly what they wanted: the keys to the psychology of the new consumer.

A new marketing system was developed, addressing people’s values. Lifestyle marketing was born. The reasoning went like this: if a new product expressed a particular group’s values, it would be bought by them. And they were right.

These new beings were consumers after all, the ad companies realized, but they no longer wanted anything that would place them within the narrow strata of  American society. Instead they wanted products that would express their individuality, their difference in a conformist world — the very things US corporations had not, until that point, been able to manufacture. But with the advent of focus groups, they developed specific categories of “nonconformist consumer.”

Among others, (like the “outward bound/adventurer” type, to whom they could sell sporting goods) there were the “self-directeds” also known as “self-actualizers” : inner-directed, artsy, socially aware, bookish types who were curious and interested in the world around them, as well as in distancing themselves from conformist society (in short, the very free spirits marketers had given up on.) Advertisers realized that these new creatures would buy products which symbolized or accentuated their identity as “individuals.” Oh, the irony.

“Be anything you want to be” became “buy anything you want to be.” Products became extensions of personal identity and individual expression. The corporations and marketing gurus had adapted.

I know it’s “in” to hate on American corporations, and I want to be clear that I’m actually not jumping on that band wagon, though it may seem I am, because I believe that putting caps on corporate expansion (even while the homogeny is boring and the monopoly is rather terrifying) is a fascist road.

Yes, it’s gross and creepy that a single corporation can secretly own hundreds of seemingly separate business entities, but to governmentally enforce restrictions is to invite a new kind of oppression. I would rather advocate responsibility and awareness — conscious consumerism — within the strata of freedom.

Responsibility in this context means buying local when possible, supporting individually owned businesses, and not allowing media mind-washing machines to convince us that our identity can be bought. Buying a new brand-name technology is not revolutionary. Thinking for yourself is.

*For more detailed information on this subject, watch The Century of Self documentary series. 

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