“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.” - Daniel Kahneman
One man was primarily responsible for creating our modern consumerist culture.
But strangely, for someone who’s had such a significant impact in shaping our world over the past century, most people today have never heard of him.
His name was Edward Bernays, and he was the nephew of the renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud.
The impact he had on advertising was so revolutionary that the history of modern advertising can be divided into two – Before Edward Bernays and After Edward Bernays.
Back in the early 20th century in America, most people only bought what they needed, saved the money they earned, and rarely indulged in any conspicuous consumption.
After the end of World War 1, big businesses in America were facing the problem of overproduction. Corporations realised that to increase profits there needed to be a shift in the mindset of the masses.
Their feelings were summed up aptly by Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers, who wrote,
“We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man's desires must overshadow his needs.”
Advertising at that time was a means of communicating the features and the functional benefits of a product, and most marketing messages appealed to people’s rational minds.
During the 1920s, Edward Bernays came on to the scene armed with the knowledge of human psychology thanks to studying the work of his uncle Freud.
One of Freud’s main theories was that human behaviour is driven more by emotion and irrational forces in their subconscious than by logic and intellect.
Bernays believed the masses were stupid and could be easily manipulated to consume more.
He did this by showing American corporations how to make people want things they didn't need by marketing products to people's emotions and unconscious desires.
His campaign for the American Tobacco Company was a classic example of this.
Torches of Freedom
George Hill, the President of The American Tobacco Company, was unhappy that they couldn’t capitalise on almost half their consumer base because it was perceived as immoral for women to smoke cigarettes.
In 1928, he hired Bernays to shatter the taboo against women smoking.
Every year, New York held an Easter Sunday parade to which thousands came. Bernays decided to stage an event there. He persuaded a group of fashionable young women to hide cigarettes under their clothes.
Bernays then informed the press that he had heard that a group of women were preparing to protest by lighting up what they called torches of freedom.
Then at a given signal from him, they lit up their cigarettes dramatically. He portrayed cigarettes to the press as “Torches of freedom” — linking them to women empowerment and a challenge to male authority.
His publicity stunt recieved news coverage world-wide, and women began to identify smoking cigarettes with power and independence.
Now of course, if one were to look at smoking from a rational perspective, it had nothing to do with freedom or independence. But the association stuck, and it was highly successful in increasing cigarette consumption among women.
On the contrary, Bernays did not smoke cigarettes himself, and the irony was that back at home he was trying to get his wife to quit smoking.
The father of Public Relations
Bernays introduced many of the advertising and marketing techniques we see in our world today. He pioneered the practice of product placement in movies and celebrity endorsements.
Before Bernays came along, automobiles were marketed on their features and functional benefits. He on the other hand, promoted automobiles as a symbol of male sexuality that could also improve one’s self-esteem and status.
For his campaigns he also employed doctors and psychologists to issue reports that said certain products were good for you and then pretended they were independent studies.
During the early 20th Century having a light breakfast was the norm in America. On behalf of his client, he convinced Americans that they needed to have a heavy breakfast and that eggs and bacon were a part of the true all American breakfast — a notion that persists even to this day.
For his Dixie Cup campaign, he used fear to convince consumers that only disposable cups were sanitary by linking the imagery of an overflowing cup with subliminal images of vaginas and venereal disease.
He paid celebrities to repeat the message that you bought things not just for need but to express your inner sense of yourself to others. In one of his client's promotional videos, celebrity Mrs. Stillman tells women,
“I wonder why you all want to dress always the same, with the same hats and the same coats. I'm sure all of you are interesting and have wonderful things about you, but looking at you in the street you all look so much the same. And that's why I'm talking to you about the psychology of dress.”
Bernays is considered as the father of Public Relations. In fact, he was the first to coin the term “public relations”, and used it in favour of the term propaganda because it had too many negative connotations.
His clients included General Electric, Procter & Gamble, the American Tobacco Company, CBS and he even worked closely and adviced several American presidents.
Despite being a Jew, he was offered to work for the Nazis, which Bernays turned down. However, Joseph Goebbels the Director of propaganda of Nazi Germany became an avid admirer of Bernays’ writings and used it to devastating effect in World War 2.
In his book Propaganda (1928), Bernays wrote:
"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits 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 moulded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of... It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind."
“If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it. 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."
By the 1950s, consumerism had become such an integral part of American society that the economist Victor Lebow would write:
"Our economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption.
The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns […] We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption."
He may have written these words almost 70 years ago, but they remain as relevant as ever today, not only in America but all over the globe.
Some shocking facts from the world’s biggest consumerist market
The average American household contains more than 300,000 possessions.
Throughout her lifetime, the average American woman will spend more than 8 years shopping.
If everyone on earth lived like the average American we would need 5.2 planets to support us.
In 2014, Americans spent $57.4 billion on Black Friday Weekend alone
Black Friday — probably the best example of mindless consumerism
Mindless consumerism is having a devastating impact on our planet and its natural resources.
Life is not a game where one with the most toys wins. We cannot find our salvation in stuff, no matter how much advertisements bombard us with the message that their products will make us powerful, sexier, confident or happier.
I’d argue that many of our purchases are simply a result of social conditioning. (Conditioning that people like Bernays have played a big hand in shaping).
Mindless consumption has become such an ingrained part of our collective psyche that we seldom question ourselves to see whether we actually need the stuff we purchase.
When it comes to consumerism, I believe the least we can do is to ensure that whatever we purchase adds real value to our lives instead of buying something because everyone else does or just because something is for sale.
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