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.
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.
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.