Development of the atomic bomb. The Red Scare, the McCarthy hearings and the anti-communist hysteria. The USSR and the Sputnik satellite. That’s the darker side of the 1950s in the United States, and paranoia was widespread. So when Vance Packard came along in 1957 with a book about the rise of subconscious psychology in advertising, Orwell’s novel “1984” probably began to seem like it was coming true. 47 years later, many are inclined to dismiss “The Hidden Persuaders” as part of the Cold War hysteria. But what’s Packard saying? Is it valid today; was it even true a half-century ago?
Packard’s book was the first to expose the new tricks of Madison Avenue. The advertising world was using “depth psychology” and motivation research. He warned that “large-scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions and our thought processes” and that “typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness; so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, hidden.”
The basic thesis that drives most of Packard’s writing is that by the time the ‘50s had rolled around, the usual troubles with capitalism—production and distribution of products—had been solved. In turn, consumers had to be stimulated to spend, buy and consume at higher levels. Advertising turned to psychology to find out why people buy and what makes them tick. Ads were intensified accordingly.
In the ‘50s, one problem that advertisers recognized was that people are too easily satisfied. As such, one of the biggest components of the advertising revolution was to create “merchants of discontent” to play on people’s wants. They created wants that people weren’t even aware they “had” so that people would think that what they did own was “psychologically obsolete.”
Packard looks at many things. He addresses self-images, products as coping mechanisms, eight “hidden needs,” sexual overtones, impulse shopping, brand-name loyalty and more. Packard goes on to warn that as we're being turned into more compliant consumers, even the values of our society begin to change. And these new tricks begin spilling over into politics, and the “media politicians” like Nixon can basically be sold to the public like they were just making a purchasing decision. Packard wonders about the ethical issues of the new values of groupthink and consumption that motivation research is creating, like the notion that behavior can be controlled electronically, and the assumed right to manipulate human personality.
What’s important in this theme is in Chapter 12, “Selling Symbols to Upward Strivers.” In what was the onset of an age of consumerism and materialism, the ‘50s began to see the notion of “keeping up with the Joneses” arise as well. We’re social strivers but most of us won’t admit it. Packard says that the advertisers realized this. We modify our buying habits according to the group that we want to be associated with—usually a higher-class one than our own. Products with implications of status were sold to people using three strategies: offering bigness, price exclusivity or celebrity endorsement. In Packard’s time, these worked. People wanted the biggest car, the most popular dress color and even the perfume or pen that cost the most. Some of those three strategies still remain in use today, along with some new ones.
This first ad says “generations of belonging.” Near the bottom it says “generations of style.” We're shown two couples, dressed alike, walking through a field on a nice fall day. The keyword “generations” implies that this is probably parents with their grown children or parents with one child and his/her spouse. Or maybe it's two sets of friends? Either way, the other keyword is “belonging,” and says “sense of togetherness.” Everyone gets along and all are well-to-do people. What does clothing have to do with it? People who are alike dress alike—and stay together. It’s selling us that togetherness in the form of nice clothes.
This ad is straightforward. Notice Pella’s slogan, “Viewed to be the best”? Below that it says “The door will make a great first impression even when you don't.” Know what's going through the couple’s minds? Oh, look, dear, we have company. We're just rolling out of bed, our hair's a mess, and I'm having my coffee. We must look awful! Know what's going through the ad's mind, and supposedly that of the unseen guests? Wow! The door is beautiful. Who cares how you folks look; we know you're classy. Here the door is the status symbol, and supposedly nobody will think less of you because that door says it all. Is it expensive or not? It doesn’t matter; it looks it.
Here we have a Gucci ad. It looks minimalist, but the implications are huge. Everything’s a symbol here. Gucci offers that price exclusivity—the snobby, “only-the-richest-can-afford-this-brand” attitude. What the story seems to be is, some woman went to a very upper-crust party and met a man there. Both had a drink; one had a smoke. From the spilled drink with the lipstick to the ashes to the Gucci with the unlaced strap… they partied hard and, let’s be frank, probably had a romantic fling. The ad’s selling proposition is that if you're good enough to afford Gucci, you’ve got enough to get whatever you want. Be envied and desired; you’re high-class. It doesn’t sell the shoes as equaling success; it sells the image of the wearer as being successful and thus being able to afford and reach “the finer things,” thereby associating the shoes with success.
The last ad shows Pierce Brosnan. He’s in a hotel room, looking over one of his 007 scripts. Of course, not only is Pierce Brosnan considered by many women to be a sex symbol, but so is James Bond, and the ad knows that Bond’s the first thing we think of when we see Brosnan. Here he’s unwinding, relaxing, and we all know he’s a very rich man. All the ad has to say is, “Pierce Brosnan chooses Omega.” Period. That’s the extent of the message, too: just a celebrity endorsement, with the suggestion to “be like Pierce Brosnan by choosing Omega.” Associate yourself with someone successful.
These ads all promote the idea of upward mobility: being perceived as rich or famous or successful by buying that status. This type of ad implies that if you aren't rich, you can still affect others' perception of you by buying something you normally wouldn't… and that if you are relatively well off, the best way to prove your success is to buy only the best. The underlying theme, however, is that these ads and techniques play on insecurity. We want to have a strong sense of self-worth, and these ads all show us people who appear to be successful because they can afford nice things or hang out with sophisticated groups. They buy these things so others will accept and envy them, or at least what they seem to be.
So the ads I've looked at show two of the three types of techniques that Packard’s Chapter 12 outlined. All of them emphasize class. The one trick about offering bigness isn't quite as meaningful anymore; nowadays “good things in small packages,” including sporty compact cars, are prominent. But overall a lot of what Packard has to say is still valid! That “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, whether the Joneses are someone famous on TV or your next-door neighbors, remains, too. Some of the types of manipulation Packard looks at are really just examples of “doing your homework” and marketing to very real needs. Nowadays some of those hidden persuaders aren't quite so hidden. Today, we pretty much accept that advertising tries to persuade consumers on all levels, many of which beyond the grounds of reason, and many of which are, arguably, morally questionable. We also acknowledge that marketing involves psychological manipulation aimed not only at conscious thought and emotion, but also at subconscious and unconscious levels: instinct and reflex perception. Packard argues that once we understand the process that created this vast consumer culture, though, we can then begin to figure out how to reclaim our humanity. What is being described in “The Hidden Persuaders” is the creation of a system to manipulate us.