Monthly Archives: July 2016

‘The Hidden Persuaders’ Exposed the Snap, Crackle, and Pop of Advertising in the 1950s

In 1957 Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders described how advertisers used depth psychology and motivational research to manipulate the public: Americans were consumers who could be sold products not because of their qualities, but because they spoke to buyers’ wishes, fears, hopes and self-image. The reading public was stunned. They were being psychoanalyzed to figure out whether they would buy Palmolive soap over Ivory. The Hidden Persuaders went through twenty-seven printings between 1957 and 1974. But the book’s benefit, it turned out, was only educational; it influenced advertising and buying not a whit.

Fiftieth anniversary edition in 2007.

Fiftieth anniversary edition in 2007.

Vance Packard was born to a Methodist family in Pennsylvania before World War I. His biographer, Daniel Horowitz, reports a family story about how his dairyman father once tried to stop the family car by shouting “Whoa!” rather than braking and crashed through the wall of his garage. Never comfortable with the go-go world of Mad Men even after he became a writer for New York City magazines, Packard disliked how the Madison Avenue crowd was manipulating the kinds of folks he’d grown up with. His muckraking defense of traditional values with up-to-date exposés made him a household name. He had three books on the best-seller lists within four years: The Hidden Persuaders, The Status Seekers, and The Waste Makers.

For Packard, the “hidden persuaders” were not the purveyors of subliminal messages, but the practitioners of psychoanalytical techniques such as depth interviews which were believed at the time to reveal unconscious motivators that could be tapped in advertising messaging. The goal of the interviews was to get consumers “musing absentmindedly about all the ‘pleasures, joys, enthusiasms, agonies, nightmares, deceptions, apprehensions the product recalls to them.'” Free associating, in other words about the images and feelings that the item in question brought to mind. With such insights, the creatives could produce more effective advertising.

He sees you when you're sleeping' he knows when you're awake.

He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.

Why was this seen as a threat, which resulted in The Hidden Persuaders becoming a bestseller? In an era when robots were fascinating, the idea that people could be manipulated into having “mechanical appetites,” as one critic of the book expressed it was troubling. And the implications extended into every walk of democratic life, as Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations pointed out in The Engineering of Consent in 1955:

“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.”

But in the end, these revelations about the machinations of Madison Avenue didn’t make any difference. Americans became sophisticated at critiquing consumer culture without changing their habits. We all suspect that Rinso doesn’t get stains out of shirts “As Seen on TV.” We also know we buy irrationally; we just don’t care.

What Distinguished Michael Herr’s Writing about Vietnam

Michael Herr’s writing in Dispatches (1977), a memoir of his time as a correspondent in Vietnam, reminds me the lyricism of British writers in the trenches of World War I. It isn’t romantic: it’s acutely observational and informed by sense of history— or more simply put, just time. This is Herr:

“And at night it was beautiful. Even the incoming was beautiful at night, beautiful and deeply dreadful.

“I remembered the way a Phantom pilot had talked about how beautiful the surface-to-air missiles looked as they drifted up toward his plane to kill him, and remembered myself how lovely .50-caliber tracers could be, coming at you as you flew at night in a helicopter, how slow and graceful, arching up easily, a dream, so remote from anything that could harm you. It could make you feel a total serenity, an elevation that put you above death, but that never lasted very long. One hit anywhere in the chopper would bring you back, bitten lips, white knuckles and all, and then you knew where you were.”

And then this, randomly chosen from the memoir of World War I soldier Henry Williamson:

“The order came for the company to carry on the attack. Survivors, coming back through theimages wood, wet through and covered with mud, uniforms ripped by barbed wire, were stumbling as they passed through us. When they had gone away – away from the line, death behind them – a clear baritone voice floated back through the trees, singing Oh, for the wings, for the wings of a dove – far away, far away would I roam. They were wonderful, remarked a sergeant, a rugby-playing Old Blue in peacetime. Yes, because they were going out, I thought; they were euphoric, hurrying to warmth and sleep, sleep, sleep.”

A book never equaled about literature and war is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory.

More here about Michael Herr:

Source: How Michael Herr Transcended New Journalism

Et in Arcadia Ego: Professors Having ‘Irregular Romances’ With Female Students in the 60s

During the Middle Ages, there was a custom known as the alleged right of a medieval feudal lord— doit du seigneur— to have sexual intercourse with subordinate women on their wedding night. In the 1960s, on college campuses, a similar “right” was practiced by middle-aged college professors— that is to pluck (and rhymes with pluck) female students. Daniel Aaron, a professor at Smith, writes in his memoir The Americanist:

Édouard-Manet-Le-Déjeuner-sur-lherbe_detail2“Palo Alto and Berkley had become gilded Botany Bays for middle-aged East Coast professors in flight from sagging marriages undermined by their irregular romances with students: the West Coast represented a paradigm shift, new love in a new clime. Here was the stuff for a spate of tragic-comic college novels with an archetypal plot: a professor falls in love with a young woman prettier, smarter, and more exciting than his shopworn wife, who has drudged for him, raised their brood in mean surroundings, and grown obsolescent in the process; the professor feels he has earned his eminence and can no longer deny himself what Providence has decreed, so he dumps the wife with varying degrees of anguish and remorse.”

And that’s not to say that some female students didn’t enjoy the status of bagging an instructor, either— they did. How much coercion was involved, nobody knows; rumors abounded. Never mentioned, for some reason, is the amount of resentment this caused among male students who had no recourse other than to accept that older men with more power could do as they pleased. As a female friend of mine once said about going to bed with younger men, “It’s such fun to teach.”

Certainly gives a different connotation to the term “ivory tower” doesn’t it?

You’re in the Army Now— Or Standard Oil, Same Thing?

The number of Americans who served in World War II was 16.1 million. Though that generation’s experience with the military gave rise to the word SNAFU (situation normal: all fouled up), it nevertheless also accustomed them to the benefits of planning and regimentation.

Anyone who came through the Great Depression would attribute postwar prosperity in part to the benefits of organization and hierarchy.

A book that was hugely popular and became a film was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in 1956. An ex-GI, Tom Rath enters the corporate world and discovers that what was morally acceptable under the duress of war doesn’t wash in private life. Tom is not overly upset about the amount of killing he did during the war; what torments him is having to tell his wife that he has a child living in poverty in Italy. The carryover implication is that being a good soldier in corporate life— although it may feel at times like being in uniform— doesn’t offer same camouflage for objectionable acts. Tom tells his boss that he’s going to turn down a promotion to spend more time with his wife and family.

From Wikipedia:


Google workspace in Mountain View, California

“Historian Robert Schultz argues that the film and the novel are cultural representations of what Adlai Stevenson had described in 1955 as a ‘crisis in the western world’, ‘collectivism colliding with individualism,’ the collective demands of corporate organizations against traditional roles of spouse and parent. That increased corporate organization of society, Schultz notes, reduced white-collar workers’ (represented by Tom Rath and the other gray-suited ‘yes men’) control over what they did and how they did it as they adapted to the ‘organized system’ described and critiqued by contemporary social critics such as Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills, and William H. Whyte, Jr.”