Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
The Wizard of AdZ
(This is the fourth entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
As a young college student in the mid-1960s, I was very impressed with the writings of journalist/social commentator/social critic Vance Packard. I had several of his books, including The Waste Makers, The People Shapers, and Nation of Strangers. But like most people, his first biting commentary I read was his first best seller, from 1957, The Hidden Persuaders.
His introduction explained what he meant by the title:
This book is an attempt to explore a strange and rather exotic new area of American life. It is about the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness; so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, “hidden.” The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.
Some of the manipulating being attempted is simply amusing. Some of it is disquieting, particularly when viewed as a portent of what may be ahead on a more intensive and effective scale for us all. Cooperative scientists have come along providentially to furnish some awesome tools. The use of mass psychoanalysis to guide campaigns of persuasion has become the basis of a multimillion-dollar industry. Professional persuaders have seized upon it in their groping for more effective ways to sell us their wares—whether products, ideas, attitudes, candidates, goals, or states of mind. This depth approach to influencing our behavior is being used in many fields and is employing a variety of ingenious techniques. It is being used most extensively to affect our daily acts of consumption.
The rest of the book explained how central understanding “the subconscious” was to the methods used by these hidden persuaders.
The findings of the depth probers provide starling explanations for many of our daily habits and perversities. It seems that our subconscious can be pretty wild and unruly. What the probers are looking for, of course, are the whys of our behavior, so that they can more effectively manipulate our habits and choices in their favor. This has led them to probe why we are afraid of banks; why we love those big fat cars; why we really buy homes; why men smoke cigars; why the kind of car we drive reveals the brand of gasoline we will buy; why housewives typically fall into a hypnoidal trance when they get into a supermarket; why men are drawn into auto showrooms by convertibles but end up buying sedans; why junior loves cereal that pops, snaps, and crackles.
And it gave numerous explanations of specific “tricks of the trade” contemporary advertising experts of the mid-1950s were using to affect the buying habits of the American public. For instance, they had noticed that “impulse buying” of groceries had grown by leaps and bounds for nearly two decades. Housewives (and husbands, and kids) seldom went to the store with a complete list of groceries they “needed.” And they seldom came home without a significant collection of items they had not intended to buy.
A “motivational analyst” named James Vicary wondered why. He …
…suspected that some special psychology must be going on inside the women as they shopped in supermarkets. His suspicion was that perhaps they underwent such an increase in tension when confronted with so many possibilities that they were forced into making quick purchases. He set out to find out if this was true.
The best way to detect what was going on inside the shopper was a galvanometer or lie detector. That obviously was impractical. The next best thing was to use a hidden motion-picture camera and record the eye-blink rate of the women as they shopped.
Blinking eyes? What on earth does that have to do with buying groceries?
How fast a person blinks his eyes is a pretty good index of his state of inner tension. The average person, according to Mr. Vicary, normally blinks his eyes about thirty-two times a minute. If he is tense he blinks them more frequently, under extreme tension up to fifty or sixty times a minute. If he is notably relaxed on the other hand his eye-blink rate may drop to a subnormal twenty or less.
Mr. Vicary set up his cameras and started following the ladies as they entered the store. The results were startling, even to him. Their eye-blink rate, instead of going up to indicate mounting tension, went down and down, to a very subnormal fourteen blinks a minute. The ladies fell into what Mr. Vicary calls a hypnoidal trance, a light kind of trance that, he explains, is the first stage of hypnosis.
… Interestingly many of these women were in such a trance that they passed by neighbors and old friends without noticing or greeting them. Some had a sort of glassy stare. They were so entranced as they wandered about the store plucking things off shelves at random that they would bump into boxes without seeing them and did not even notice the camera although in some cases their face would pass within a foot and a half of the spot where the hidden camera was clicking away.
So what happened at the end of this sleep-walking shopping excursion?
When the wives had filled their carts (or satisfied themselves) and started toward the check-out counter their eye-blink rate would start rising up to a slightly subnormal twenty-five blinks per minute. Then, at the sound of the cash-register bell and the voice of the clerk asking for money, the eye-blink rate would race up past normal to a high abnormal of forty-five blinks per minute. In many cases it turned out that the women did not have enough money to pay for all the nice things they had put in the cart.
In this beckoning field of impulse buying psychologists have teamed up with merchandising experts to persuade the wife to buy products she may not particularly need or even want until she happens to see them invitingly presented. The 60 million American women who go into supermarkets every week are getting “help” in their purchases and “splurchases” from psychologists and psychiatrists hired by the food merchandisers. On May 18, 1956, The New York Times printed a remarkable interview with a young man named Gerald Stahl, executive vice-president of the Package Designers Council. He stated: “Psychiatrists say that people have so much to choose from that they want help—they will like the package that hypnotizes them into picking it.”
He urged food packers to put more hypnosis into their package designing, so that the housewife will stick out her hand for it rather than one of many rivals.
Packard went on to describe numerous methods the advertisers used to “put more hypnosis” in their package designs.
Fast forward 45 years. I’m now in my 60s. I long ago forgot almost everything I read in Packard’s books, including The Hidden Persuaders. Maybe I internalized a tiny bit of it and it fortified my resistance to the persuasive methods…for many years I really have had a complete shopping list almost every time I go to the grocery store, and almost never buy anything on impulse.
But in general I went on to having interests in a wide variety of other topics over the years, and didn’t spend much time ever on thinking about those hidden persuaders lurking out there. I do however remember assuming at the time back in the 60s that this was a thoroughly “modern” phenomenon. Probably developed by MadMen on Madison Avenue starting some time in the late 40s or early 50s. Packard implies as much in his book, even starting his introduction with the term “exotic new” when speaking of tactics aimed at our subconscious.
So imagine my surprise a few months ago when I discovered that this was a misperception on Packard’s part. Either he just hadn’t done much historical study on advertising, or there were limited resources available for such study in the mid-1950s. This is certainly understandable. In the past decade the Internet has created an explosion of easily accessible information in vast quantities regarding just about any historical subject imaginable. Information that might have taken years, even decades, to ferret out from the book stacks and periodical collections in musty libraries fifty years ago is just a google search away now.
Oh, there may be a few tricks of the trade that are fairly new in recent times. But there was an astonishing amount of hidden persuasion going on in America a century and more ago, much of it perpetrated by the advertising industry and used to get people to spend money they couldn’t really afford on things they didn’t need, and to hypnotize people into choosing one brand over another for totally subconscious, even completely irrational, reasons. And people back then were little the wiser about how they were being manipulated than most people are now.
Let me take you behind that long-ago curtain, and meet the Wizard… of AdZ.
In the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie, “Oz the Great and Powerful” was just an illusion made with the proverbial smoke and mirrors.
When he was separated from all his methods of illusion, the character played by Frank Morgan wasn’t imposing and fearful at all.
In the same way, Edward L. Bernays didn’t look powerful. He was short, plain. In fact, some might say he appeared rather wimpy and ineffectual in person.
Don’t let appearances fool you. Eddie Bernays, as he was sometimes called by friend and foe alike, manipulated masses of people more powerfully than most men before or since. Obviously, we know that looks can be deceiving.
After studying his life and accomplishments, I have come to realize that Eddie Bernays is one of those “most influential people you’ve never heard of.” In fact, although I don’t remember ever hearing or reading his name before a few months ago, since the first time I noticed it I seem to see it everywhere in my reading now. He’s a little like the fictional “Forrest Gump” character, showing up unexpectedly in all sorts of settings.
Back in his heyday Bernays was somewhere around the fringes when all sorts of big things were happening…pulling strings but choosing to stay out of the public eye personally. You can see him in a pic at age 26 in France at the end of a line of people at the Paris Peace Conference that ended WW1. Or here he is on the right at 50 at an event with Eleanor Roosevelt.
He is considered by many to have had the most historical influence of any one person in the creation of the modern role of the “Public Relations man.”
Eddie did P.R. (Some claim he personally even coined the popular use of the term “public relations.”)
Not just “advertising,” he would be very quick to point out if you called him an “Ad man.” The typical ad man, from Eddie’s point of view, was a fellow who badgered people into buying a product, usually with methods that emphasized, either truthfully or deceptively, the details of the alleged fine qualities of the product that made it superior to similar products, and what a great value it was for the price. This is what “advertising” typically meant at the turn of the last century. Like this information from a Sears Roebuck catalog of 1908 on rocking chairs.
This kind of “ad” was purely informational. Catalogs of the time were typically full of this type of advertising. It emphasized paragraph after mind-numbing paragraph of teeny print describing every excruciating detail of the bargain you were being offered, along with close-up photos or artist renderings of the item showing its every feature. Why?
Because the typical advertising man of the time was convinced that what people really wanted in order to make buying decisions was practical information, information they could use to make rational purchasing choices.
But you see—Eddie Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud! He had studied his uncle’s writings, and even arranged to have Freud’s “Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis” notes from 1915-1917 translated into English and published as a book in America, the first popular exposure American readers had to Freud’s theories.
Yes, Eddie knew all about the unconscious. He knew better than to think that the mass of humankind are coolly “rational beings.” In addition to the theories of his Austrian “Uncle Siggie,” Eddie was strongly influenced by the writings of the French author Gustave LeBron (who popularized the theory of “crowd psychology” with his 1895 book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind ) and the British pioneering neurosurgeon Wilfred Trotter (who wrote a famous book in 1916 titled Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War.)
As a result of these influences, Eddie had been one of the first of his generation to realize—and act upon—the understanding that “persuading” people…to buy a product, to support a cause, to vote for a candidate…was much more effectively done by applying principles from psychology and psychiatry than by trying to “sell” it to them with a frontal assault on their “rational mind.”
Bernays had been acting on this understanding in his business career for barely a decade by 1923 when he wrote the very first book on the topic of Public Relations, Crystallizing Public Opinion. Listen to his opinion from that book about the ability for rational thinking of the common man:
The average citizen is the world’s most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts. His own ‘logic proof compartments,’ his own absolutism are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group reaction.
Five years later, in 1928, he wrote another book on the topic, titled Propaganda.
Listen to the “underpinnings” of his PR efforts on behalf of American businesses (as well as his role in “selling” more than one president to the public, the “selling” of more than one war to the public, the “selling” of much more…):
If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.
He went on to pontificate:
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. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
He meant this to be encouraging! Otherwise, he insisted, there would be chaos and anarchy.
Does this sound all a bit creepily familiar? Perhaps that is because it was a well-known fact that Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, was an admirer of Eddie’s writings. Yes, Crystallizing Public Opinion and Propaganda were in Goebbel’s personal library.
I remember a book I read called PR: A Social History of Spin. The author discussed how the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Josef Goebbels, was an ardent student of Mr. Bernays, despite the fact that Mr. Bernays was Jewish. Goebbels desperately wanted to meet Mr. Bernays and apparantly sent numerous books to him to be autographed. We don’t know if Mr. Bernays autographed them, but Goebbels claimed that he did. Goebbels, who had a PhD in philosophy (which is crucial in terms of understanding how he was able to understand Bernays and apply his writings in the way that he did), apparantly had an even larger library on propaganda than Mr. Bernays and had not only read all of his books, but had largely memorized a good deal of them as well. Goebbels was able to utilize Bernays’ ideas on propaganda in a manner that was the most malicious and homicidal ever seen in the 20th century: to support the Final Solution. [Source]
Eddie regretted this unwelcome connection when its significance became clear in later years, but didn’t take it as “criticism” of his theories—just an example of how they could be used by unscrupulous people. In the right hands … they were the “tools of democracy”!
In Eddie’s own hands they were tools over the years to promote a wide variety of products, ideas, people, causes, and even wars. His corporate clients had included, among many others, Procter & Gamble, the American Tobacco Company, the United Fruit Company (remember Chiquita Banana?), General Electric, Dodge Motors, and Knox Gelatin. Causes he had helped promote included the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation (he was the one who encouraged them in about 1949 to shorten the name of the disease in their promotional materials to simply MS), the NAACP, and the fluoridation of water. He helped with the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Calvin Coolidge in 1924. He helped promote US entry into World War 1, the overthrow of the democratically-elected president of Guatemala in 1954, the interests of South Vietnam in the early 1960s. And he was the publicity director for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Eddie was SO influential in so many areas that he and his tactics are going to deserve several entries in this blog series. In the next entry, we’ll watch the Wizard of AdZ as he orchestrates and choreographs one of his early elaborate PR schemes of Hidden Persuasion: