I find few things more degrading than watching grown men fight over cut-priced consumer goods on a shopping mall floor like starving, agitated beasts on Black Friday. It always makes me wonder: how has human civilization gone from Plato to this? Everyone is sweating over the fact that Trump is going to get access to the nuclear codes soon, but watching violent Black Friday videos on YouTube makes me think that might not be such a bad thing.
But going back to my rhetorical question, how has humanity managed to go so far astray? Although our species has always lusted over inanimate objects like gold or diamonds or oil paintings or just about any other functionally useless signifiers of wealth, the sort of rabid desire that sparks Black Friday brawls is a much newer phenomenon that only really came about in the 20th century.
Fundamentally, consumerism is a socioeconomic model built upon the engineering of desire. That materialistic urge that powers capitalism has always existed within the human psyche, but in the early years of the 20th century, the advertising industry began to use psychological techniques to pour gasoline onto those flames of yearning, making us want harder than ever, to the point that some of us are now prepared to throw punches over discounted TVs.
While consumerism’s original purpose may have been to drive economic growth by manipulating people into spending more, it quickly evolved into a tool for social control. I know: angsty high schoolers and Rage Against the Machine have been saying this for years, but it’s actually true. Here’s a history lesson.
It all started in the 1920s with an Austrian-American individual by the name of Edward Bernays, who also happened to be the nephew of famed psychologist, Sigmund Freud.
Throughout World War I, Bernays worked as a propagandist for U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, drumming up support for the war effort by convincing the American public (who preferred isolationism over meddling in foreign affairs at the time) that by intervening in WWI, they would be “bringing democracy to all of Europe” – and who doesn’t love democracy?
Having tasted the power that comes with shaping public perception and being amazed by how easily so many people had fallen for a cheap slogan, Bernays began to wonder after the war if those same techniques could be used during peacetime. Because “propaganda,” with its ties to the Germans, was and remains a dirty word, he came up with a new term: public relations.
Yup, PR – an offshoot of propaganda. Bernays drew on the theories of Gustave LeBon, a key theorist in the field of crowd psychology; Wilfred Trotter, an expert on herd thinking; and the psychoanalytical techniques of his uncle Freud –who was becoming a bit of a star at the time– using them to tap into the subconscious and unconscious minds of the masses.
He was quickly hired by corporations to help them sell more products. One of his earliest clients was the American Tobacco Company, who wanted to lure in more female smokers. Smoking was considered unladylike at the time, which meant that tobacco companies were missing out on 50% of potential consumers. Bernays was tasked with changing that.
To destigmatize smoking amongst women (some women did smoke, but it was mainly done in private, rarely in public), he staged a bogus protest at the 1929 Easter Day parade in New York, marching out a group of good-looking, fashionable, cancer stick-toking young women and branded their cigs as “torches of freedom.” The press obviously lapped it up, broadcasting Bernays’ stunt across the country, helping glamorize cigarettes to potential female buyers.
The reason why this proved so effective was because women had just won the right to vote, and this utilization of the word “freedom” tapped into the spirit of female emancipation that was so prevalent at the time.
Smoking was reframed from an unfeminine taboo to a expression of gender equality. By lighting up, women were tokenistically rejecting the notion that, like voting, smoking should only be enjoyed by men. Cigarette use quickly proliferated amongst the female populace as a result, while these sort of cynical deceptions cemented themselves as a cornerstone of the marketing industry.
What Bernays figured out through his understanding of psychology was that selling people an idea or a feeling was much more powerful than simply listing the practical qualities of a product, or pitching its objective superiority to one offered by another manufacturer. This might seem obvious now, but that’s because it was so effective that every other brand and marketer in the world decided to mimic his methods.
Now I haven’t got enough of a word count to thoroughly explain how he used psychology to influence consumers (Google it, dude, or watch this brilliant documentary by BBC journalist, Adam Curtis), but I’ll give you an illustrative example:
In the 1950s, baked goods brand, Betty Crocker, launched a line of instant cake mixes targeting busy wives who didn’t have time to cook cakes from scratch. These mixes shortened and simplified the process – all you had to do was add water, stir, stick it in the oven and wait for a cake to come out.
Despite the convenience of the product, consumers just weren’t buying it. To figure out why, the brand brought in a team of psychologists to conduct focus groups and dig into the minds of potential spenders. They found that most women felt guilty about presenting their families with such an effortless dessert. The lack of labor was seen as deceptive and devoid of affection and care. So what did the brand do? It changed the recipe to include an egg.
According to Freudian thinking, by adding an egg to the cake mix, housewives subconsciously equated a chicken egg to their own eggs, which, as the first stage of pregnancy, symbolized life-giving and birth. Sure, it sounds ludicrous, but it worked: Betty Crocker stuck the words “add an egg” onto the packaging and sales skyrocketed. Roll your eyes all you want, but the results can’t be argued with.
Edward Bernays labelled his techniques as the “engineering of consent” and wrote numerous books on the topic, one of which, Crystallizing Opinion and Engineering Consent, became a particular fave of Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels.
U.S. corporations and politicians worshipped Bernays. Republican president Herbert Hoover praised him for transforming Americans into “constantly moving happiness machines.” Calvin Coolidge, hired him to soften his public image. To do this, the PR guru organized pancake breakfasts at the White House attended by Hollywood stars like Al Jolson – an early example of celebrity endorsement, which the press and public lapped up, helping engineer Coolidge’s resounding election victory in 1924.
Freud’s beliefs were heavily shaped by WWI, the barbarity of which convinced him that a violent savagery lurks deep within human nature that needs to be controlled. This resonated with Bernays, who, despite using democracy to sell the war effort to the American public, actually wasn’t much of a fan of it at all.
Instead he preferred what might be called “enlightened despotism” – authoritarian rule by an enlightened leader that served their people rather than themselves. Although I’m sure Muammar Gaddafi or any other dictator would argue that they were doing exactly that.
According to a later interview with his daughter, Anne, Edward Bernays didn’t trust the democratic judgement of the masses, who could “very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing” – in fact, he believed that a stabilizing, fundamentally undemocratic force was needed to keep the savagery of human nature in check and society peaceful, which he outlined in his seminal 1928 text, Propaganda:
“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. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”
Consumerism keeps society functioning smoothly because it distracts from the brutality that lurks deep within the human psyche through a sort of temptation-and-reward system. Many of us work jobs that we hate to earn money to buy things we’ve been conditioned into lusting over.
Shopping gives us a cheap dopamine rush that not only satisfies us briefly on a chemical level, but spending our hard (or not-so-hard) earned cash creates a feeling of achievement: we worked, we earned it, and now we are rewarding ourselves for it with a very tangible trophy for our efforts.
It’s a cheap and easily-attainable feeling of success that briefly makes us feel good about ourselves, thus placating us. Not everyone has the talent or drive to direct an Oscar-winning movie or realize their ambitions, whatever they may be, but anyone with enough money can buy the post-purchase glow that comes with a new iPhone.
Furthermore, if advertisers, marketers and PR agents can keep us distracted with flashy cars and expensive watches, we are, in theory, less likely to stumble into that dormant part of our nature that drives people to commit senseless acts of violence and cruelty. It also distracts us from things that truly matter, like politics.
Why protest and organize politically to pressure politicians into rolling back state surveillance programs or abandon trade deals like TTIP, which would give corporations the right to sue governments if they pass laws that hurt their business, when you can buy the illusion of freedom through cigarettes, to use a Bernays-created example?
If you straddle someone with debt, tie them down to a mortgage and the risk of losing their home if they fall back on payments, is that person likely to risk getting arrested at a protest? The answer is no.
Not only that, but the endlessly churning hype machine and the manufacturing of cheap, quickly disposed trends are destabilizing forces that imbue us with a sense of panic. They amplify the ever-changing nature of the world by creating artificial change and convince us that we need to keep up with trends, which ultimately makes us anxious.
As Naomi Klein outlined in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, “in moments of crisis people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure – whether the crisis is a financial meltdown or, as the Bush administration would later show, a terrorist attack.”
Trends, hype and designed obsolescence serve a similar purpose. By doping this feeling that the world is frighteningly unstable, we’re more likely to submit to authoritarian politicians who offer easy solutions to complicated problems, just so we can reclaim some sense of stability.
Bernays would go on to work for the next four presidents after Coolidge, all the way up to Eisenhower in the late ‘50s, a position of influence that helped weave consumerism into the fabric of the American society. Cultural historian, Ann Douglas would later describe him as the man “who orchestrated the commercialization of culture” and he would inspire countless other marketers and corporate psychologists-for-hire over the decades, who would further reinforce his vision of the world.
But while Bernays was convinced that he was helping stabilize a savage world and protect democracy from the bestial tendencies of human nature through consumerism, some would argue that he did the exact opposite. Most notable of which was a prominent left-wing philosopher by the name of Herbert Marcuse.
Marcuse, whose teachings and book, One-Dimensional Man, became cornerstones of the 1960s counterculture, argued that the sense of achievement we get through spending and consuming is actually a hollow one that conversely makes us unsatisfied.
In a 1967 TV interview, Marcuse argued that “this prosperity, at the same time, consciously or unconsciously, leads to a kind of schizophrenic existence. I believe that in this society an incredibly quantum of aggressiveness and destructiveness is accumulated precisely because of this empty prosperity, which then… simply erupts.” As far as I can tell, what he means by “schizophrenic existence,” is the disconnect between spending and satisfaction.
It’s said that money can’t buy you happiness, and we consistently read about depressed millionaires who spend fortunes on therapists, or child stars that ruin themselves through drug addiction or simply lose their shit like Britney Spears did when she shaved her head.
I think this comes from doing what you’re told will make you happy, like working, earning, and spending, only to find that the internal void doesn’t grow any fuller. So we work more to earn more so we can spend more, hoping something will change. Maybe we turn to drugs or sex or religion. And if that doesn’t work, feelings of despair, depression, anger or betrayal are the logical next step.
It’s interesting to note that, looking back at his life and creation at the age of 100, Edward Bernays once told an interviewer: “sometimes it seems sort of like having discovered a medicine to cure a disease, and then finding out that so much of it is being administered that people are getting sick from the overdoses.” Sick indeed.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
- Lead Image: Ray Tang / REX