The “Secret” History of Advertising Pt 2


I was browsing through the print edition of my old nemesis The Economist when I saw a very informative (and accurate) article that made me realize I need to follow up on my original post The Secret History of Advertising, which I know some of you enjoyed. Considering that even we here in the “hinterlands” of Romania are under sustained marketing attack due to the Christmas season, I felt it was relevant.

The Economist article focuses mainly on a man named Ernest Dichter, who like Edward Bernays (see my original post), was both originally from Vienna, Austria and a keen disciple of Sigmund Freud’s work on psychological impulses, using this new knowledge mostly to peddle commercial shit to people.

The article discusses one of Dichter’s most famous projects:

Baking is an expression of femininity, he explained, so when a woman pulls a cake or loaf out of the oven, “in a sense it is like giving birth”. Thus mixes that require the cook to add only water are threatening to women, since their role is marginalized; these days, thanks to Dichter, nearly all such mixes involve adding eggs, a symbol of fertility.

That’s a good summary of what Dichter brought to the marketing field but it’s a story that deserves a little more explanation.

First of all, some of you reading this have baked hundreds of cakes while others of you have baked one or two or none at all. As part of my extensive and surrealistically long work history, I once was a cook and I have made lots and lots of cakes. I can tell you that the recipe for any cake “from scratch”, or from basic ingredients, is very simple – it’s mostly flour, water, sugar, fat, eggs and a leavening agent, generally baking powder (Rom: praf de copt). People have been making cakes for hundreds of years without any need for a factory “mix”.

But during the 1950s in America, there was a rising tide of prosperity as well as a trend towards turning food into products. Food was no longer assembled from raw or basic ingredients but was “futuristic” in the sense that it came from a box. Betty Crocker, a leading manufacturer of food products, was quite interested in selling boxes of cake mix to women who now had modern, temperature-controlled ovens. Sales, however, were not quite where they wanted them and so they called in Dichter.

Dichter’s contribution was to remove the binding ingredients from the cake mix so that the woman baking it at home was required to add an egg. His motivations for this are explained in the quoted paragraph above. Sales for pre-made cake mix took off after this change and now (at least in America) almost all cake mixes are sold with the requirement that an egg be added and millions of people no longer know how to bake a simple cake on their own.

What gets me and Bill Hicks and a handful of others so angry is precisely because so much time and energy (and money, let’s not forget the money) is spent specifically researching how to manipulate people’s emotions solely for the sake of making enormous profits. Cake mixes aren’t sold to be useful for a beginning baker, they’re sold to give people unconscious access to feelings of love and fertility.

Dichter recognized that in the new world of America, brands had become “a substitute for nobility and a family tree”. People seek out products that correspond with the group they want to associate with. Every object has a special meaning—one that often relates to sex, insecurity or a desire for prestige.

Dichter might have been working in the United States but his ideas (in their ever more developed form) are in force just as much in Romania and almost everywhere else on the planet these days. I myself have sat in bars and in people’s houses, astonished to hear ordinary people (i.e. not marketing executives) discuss how brand X means a person is like this and brand Y means a person is like that, even when there’s little difference between the two products other than the labels. I doubt 1 person in 100 could identify a brand of jeans if the labels were removed but if you go down to the mall you sure know the difference when it comes to the price, don’t you?

All of this seems “normal”, this extreme manipulation of people’s emotions and psychological health for the sake of profit. Heck, it’s even celebrated and worshiped with everything from entire TV shows of the “best” advertisements to film festivals to individual people on my Facebook feed posting advertisements that they like. God knows right here in Unicorn City there are thousands of students queuing up to study marketing and propaganda techniques in order to become future manipulators of the public psyche.

But if you think about it for a minute you’d realize just how evil this is. If I, on an individual level, deliberately went up to a woman, expertly manipulated her insecurities and sense of well-being solely for my own profit, it would clearly be repugnant behavior. If I got her to fall in love with me, feel “fertile” and joyful, feel useful and attractive, all for the sake of me taking her money, I’d be a real asshole. But if you do it on a collective scale to millions of people, why then you’re a genius and someone to be admired.

Dichter (and Bernays as well, to a lesser degree) were also definitely crazy. They weren’t just manipulating people’s insecurities to peddle shit, they also thought it served a higher purpose:

For Dichter, the ability to express oneself through shopping was a matter of great importance.

He also viewed Americans as a puritanical bunch, incapable of embracing change without anxiety, or spending money without remorse. He worried that this inability to enjoy progress would cripple the country’s economy, which served as a crucial bulwark against the Soviet Union. If consumer culture was America’s best defense against communism, then motivating materialistic desires was an investment in the country’s future.

Bernays, for his part (as outlined in my original post), did the same in Guatemala in 1954 for the same reason – to fight off Communism and make the world a “better place”. Well there are a million corpses rotting in the ground in Guatemala and Coca-Cola is sold on every corner but I wouldn’t say that life is all that good there. But I guess it is nice to know that abused women no longer have to dig through gigantic trash dumps in order to survive, eh?

We’re coming up on Christmas here and I’m old enough to remember when Christmas actually started…well on Christmas Day, December 25. There’s a famous Christmas song (in English) called the 12 Days of Christmas, which I still regularly hear and yet it makes no sense these days because those 12 days begin on December 25. And yet even here in good old “ex-Communist developing nation” Romania, the malls were decorated and whoring out their Christmas products more than a month ago.

Bernays ended his life content in his penthouse in New York City. Dichter ended up as a raving lunatic, all alone in a remote farmhouse. Sigmund Freud died of cancer in 1939 after years of being a drug addict but not before screwing up his daughter (and protege) Anna‘s life, a woman who never married, who was believed to be a lesbian (at the time that this was considered a mental disease) and who earned herself the nickname the “Black Devil”.

Anna, who not only inherited the “mantle” from her father but became a distinguished psychologist in her own right (specializing in and sometimes credited for inventing the field of child psychology) caused the suicide of her “special friend” Dorothy Burlingham’s child, who was living in Anna Freud’s home at the time and under her (Anna’s) care.

These are the people who invented the modern world of propaganda and marketing, along with Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler, in order to deliberately craft mechanisms by which public opinion and the emotions of millions of people can be deliberately twisted, manipulated, used and abused solely for the purpose of material or political gain.

Those crazy old bastards might all be dead but their ideas live on:

“We’ve come back full circle,” confirms Baba Shiv, director of the Strategic Marketing Management Program at Stanford. “Emotion is back in, the unconscious is back in.” It is now fashionable to study brain waves to see what lights up upon hearing the words “Coca Cola”, or to measure pupil dilation in response to brand logos.

I leave you with a clip from the TV show Dollhouse, from the original, unaired pilot episode, a show that still gives me the shivers when I think about the overall plot, that humans themselves are deliberately programmed to become the ultimate product (to Joss Whedon’s credit, this does bring about the apocalypse, which seems a fitting end).

Nonetheless, this monologue from the never-broadcast pilot episode really slams home my message to you today. In this clip, Boyd, the black guy in the suit, is questioning Topher about whether programming the “dolls” (humans) is moral.

Indeed.

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