Vance Packard was a ground-breaking social critic best known for `The Hidden Persuaders', which detailed how behavioural scientists recruited by the American advertising industry were increasingly using psychological techniques to increase sales. Motivational Research aimed to discover the reasons people bought one brand over another, fuelled purchasing `crazes', and generally spent in a seemingly non-logical or irrational way, revealing much about themselves to the observant analyst. Our subconscious attitudes, they discovered, are far from being the entire explanation of our buying behaviour, but manipulating them went a long way to help companies overcome hostility to their products.
Since this information has increasingly been traded, in order to persuade us to buy any number of goods, often in a manner cynically eroding individuality, Packard believed consumers should develop a `recognition reflex', to protect against the merchandising manipulators, or persuaders, because ultimately assuming that Commerce is merely supplying what we, the consumer, demands, is outmoded and simplistic.
Packard believes we are far more cautious about religion and politics, even though both can use alarmingly similar techniques to manipulate. Interestingly, many see the world as comprising these three elements; namely Religion, Politics and Commerce.
Most of us would like to think of ourselves as shrewd, careful, hard-headed consumers, highly individual, informed and enlightened. Ironically, this very image, by appealing to our vanities, is the one most favoured by the agencies persuading us to buy their products, from cars, insurance, foodstuffs, tobacco, clothing and cosmetics (specific products focused on in this book).
In another context, manipulation of our children's minds would trigger a storm of protest, but parents are now familiarly harassed by children into buying heavily advertised brands, starting with relatively low-cost items - fast-food, cereals, toys, but as children grow, advertisers pitch for increasingly expensive items - cars, computers, mobile phones, etc.
Do we only buy goods with our cash? One advertising executive thinks not. He used the example of a 25 cent bar of soap and a $2.50 jar of skin cream. "Why are women so willing to pay for beauty products? soap only promises cleanliness. The skin cream however, promises beauty, youth, success. Women are buying a promise. Cosmetic manufacturers are not selling skin cream, but hope." We no longer buy fruit and vegetables, we buy health and vitality. We do not buy cars, but prestige, not holidays, but travel experiences.
A writer quoted by Packard stated, `We are now confronted with the problem (to commerce), of permitting the average American person to feel moral even when he is spending not saving, taking two vacations a year, and buying a second or third car (not to mention increasing personal debt). How then to give people the sanction or justification to enjoy it, and demonstrate that a hedonistic lifestyle is moral not immoral. This permission... must be one of the central themes of advertising.' Reminded me of Gordon Gecko's motto `Greed is good' in `Wall Street'.
Many of the points made in this book are familiar to us, for example, criticism of tobacco advertising and sponsoring. When this book was published, in 1957, these were revelations. The original message still remains powerful. Packard believed the fundamental threat was to our rights of privacy and choice. Fifty years on is that not even more relevant? As the man said, "I prefer by my own free will not to be logical or rational if I so choose. I do not prefer my spending to be manipulated." I suspect the most sinister manipulation is carried out without any conscious knowledge on our part at all.
on 9 September 2013
It is staggering that a book published in 1957 should remain so relevant, vibrant and important over 5 decades later. This is the story of how the consumer society was created by motivating the public to desire, consume and replace what they probably don't need and didn't know that they wanted. All the techniques described continue to be used to manipulate the public and drive an economy based on consumption, built in obsolescence and fad.
This should be essential reading for all young people in secondary school. However, unfortunately, the power of the persuaders is so great and our will, mine included, so weak that even knowing we are being manipulated for other's profit we continue to fall for it over and over again.
Reading this some 60 years after it was written provides a fascinating insight into society, particularly American society, at that time. Smoking was openly promoted despite the health scare as filters were believed to prevent harm. Women stayed at home, men were the breadwinners, and the problem of society was how to keep the economy growing. The answer - more sophisticated advertising to encourage people to buy stuff they didn't really need. This was a time when the average American man had fewer than 2 pairs of shoes, and when fewer than 10 million women worked. The housewife, concerned with the home and her husband and children only, had more time on her hands due to freezers washing machines and the like. But how to make people want more, to keep the wheels of manufacturing turning?
Ah, make people dissatisfied with what they have - and how to do that was through researching motivation. The author was rather appalled by all this change, and by the idea that people might be encouraged to buy what they din't actually need. And yet today we all are doing that whenever can- fashions, variety, new technologies - ever changing mobile phones, and improving TV pictures, drive us on and on to earn and to spend. And more people live longer more fun lives as a result, without half of the population of the developed world being subservient to the other half. I quite like all that, and am off to buy another book i don't need now...great fun reading this though
A book written in 1957 about advertising which is eerily non academic and filled with anecdotes should have been superseded by 2016. So you would think. However this is still a tour de force and I can see why it hit the best sellers list in the 1950's and how he made his name, ironically by exposing advertising. As the intro states, it details how savvy consumers were before the big inner reflection post 67. The US public was always aware of the manipulation but there was also a sense of agency involved.
This details how the advertising cynicism pervaded everyday life and is a companion to De bord and Vanegeim in their later exposes of the ennui created of everyday life. Packard takes the opposing view to Bernays but manages to still detail the inner workings of the propaganda industry and how consumer projections are marshalled to entice and fit into desire. Within he exposes the cynicism, manipulation, greed and rampant desire to make money from other people's misery. The techniques that advertisers use in making people uncomfortable about their bodies, forming in groups and out groups drawing on Tajifel (1979) or ensuring that people conform similar to Asch (195!) - these are still with us. Except unlike the 1950's many people see advertising as a norm, rather than something to be resisted Once it becomes a norm people adapt to it and the irony of the advert becomes lost.
Packards book is an expose of why you did what you did and buy what you buy, but moves beyond Skinner and Behaviourism - the focus of Bernays, to look at how advertising colonises dreams, aspirations, visions and desires. It is much deeper than stimulus and response but aims to inhabit how the individual thinks about themselves and others. The advert begins to frame existence itself because the individual has few other anchor points.
Therefore for anyone involved in self awareness, this is part of the journey. It is a book you cannot afford not to read. And that says a great deal about its power within the 21st Century, written at a time when consumerism was just taking off big time, post war, after the misery of the 1932 Depression.
So for anyone involved in industrial psychology, situationism or critical studies - this book carries heavy water.