1917 - the Emotional Root of our Desires
Edward Bernays (1891-1994), the father of public relations, is the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the son of Freud's sister and Freud's wife's brother. At just 26, he was asked to join Woodrow Wilson in creating a "Public Relations Council" to promote the war effort. He used conversations with his uncle Freud, whose ideas were soon after published in General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, to understand how people make decisions. Freud's writing was just about understanding why we act. Bernays used that framework of the psyche to develop a means to influence the collective behaviour of the masses.
As much as we like to think our reasoning abilities make us markedly different from other animals, we can be easily persuaded to act if someone plays on our irrational emotions. Bernays' first experiment to test the idea involved marketing cigarettes to women, which involved breaking a strong social taboo at the time. He convinced some suffragettes to march in the Easter parade, smoking, and called the cigarettes "torches of freedom." He spun the taboo into an oppressive restriction to be overcome, which made smoking immediately a symbol of power and independence. This was a brand new way of marketing products.
There was a growing concern with industrial overproduction, so Bernays helped the US shift from a culture focused on satisfying needs to one obsessed with fulfilling desires. He promoted the idea of regular citizens buying shares in companies, and he got film stars to come to parties at the White House, forever after linking politics with celebrity right up to today when Americans are choosing between Meryl Streep and Scott Baio.
1920s - Consumerism Will Save Us from Ourselves
Bernays arranged for Freud's works to be published in the U.S. and gain a widespread audience. He was his unofficial agent in the U.S. Freud wrote about how easily unconscious aggressive drives can be activated in crowds, concluding that man is a sadistic species. Bernays decided that if people are driven by irrational forces, then they need to be guided. If he could stimulate the inner desires of people and satiate them with things, then they wouldn't act on their aggressive impulses. Consumerism was a means to pacify the people as well as to make profits. He developed a system some called "enlightened despotism," or, as Walter Lippmann called it, "the manufacturing of consent, " a term made popular by Chomsky. Bernays saw how ads could create desire which could be easily satisfied and thus transform people into happiness machines.
Herbert Hoover agreed, and democracy became palliative. Democracy was no longer about challenging the relations of power, but about sustaining them.
1930s - Roosevelt Appealed to our Reason
Freud wrote Civilization and its Discontents and clarified that civilization is a necessary means to restrain our animal forces. Individual freedom is impossible and far too dangerous, so we must be controlled externally (to suppress our violent and sexual urges), and therefore we will always be somewhat discontented. It's necessary to be limited individually in order to survive collectively but that's not to say, as Bernays suggested, that we should be controlled en masse to pacify the masses or otherwise (increase profits). But Bernays was right that we can be.
After the market crashed, the U.S. faced angry mobs out to fight corporations. Government used the power of the state to control the market (Roosevelt's "New Deal"). Roosevelt worked with George Gallop to poll people's ideas. They rejected Bernays' ideas, instead believing that people could be trusted to make wise decisions. They were going to avoid any manipulation and appeal to citizens' rational faculties.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Hitler abolished the huge numbers of parties running, and the National Socialists were elected. They took control of business with a motto of "service not self." He aimed to channel desires towards a better society rather than satisfy the selfishness of individuals. Joseph Goebbels was in charge of promoting ideas to the people, and he admired the way Roosevelt was controlling markets. Goebbels went further to encourage aggressive forces in citizens as he believed officials could control them to serve their final ends. He was right.
In 1936, Roosevelt pressured more control over big business and was re-elected. Businesses fought back with help from Bernays, starting an ideological warfare against the New Deal. They created the National Association of Manufacturers, which launched campaigns to create emotional connections between brands and businesses. He filled papers with the messages that business, not government, created America, and he created a vision of a potential utopia for the masses that couldn't happen with government restrictions on the market. The government was worried about the affiliation between the press and corporations and started creating national newsreels to teach people how to check for bias in the news, but it was just a matter of time before controlling the markets in any way, even price controls to benefit the poorest in society, would be linked to fascism.
Bernays' methods were instrumental in persuading the public towards a pro-corporate stance, and he was called to help the CIA to reestablish government control over citizens. He appears to have had few allegiances except money and maybe the thrill of figuring out what persuasive measure would work in a given situation.
1940s - We Can Be Masters of Our Domain
After Freud's death, his daughter, Anna Freud, began writing and speaking more. She started with her dad's premise that people must be controlled for society to work, but she believed people could be taught to control themselves. Freud thought we need to understand our desires and the unfortunate necessity of external controls, but Anna believed we could train our desires internally by changing how children are raised. She started by experimenting on two depressive children, and became close with their mother. When she saw the results of the Nazis unleashing the instincts of their citizenry, she started working intensively with large groups of children in need. Primarily she thought children need to be trained to conform to rules of society as a way to strengthen their ego, which will in turn help them control their own unconscious. (She also established specific defence mechanisms well beyond her father's work, yet they're almost always credited to Sigmund.)
Almost half of the returning soldiers suffered mental breakdowns. Psychoanalyst Martin Bergmann was recruited by the U.S. government to interview returning soldiers, and it was the first time people started exploring and discussing feelings. Bergmann decided that stress and mental breakdown are not caused from conflict, but from soldiers' personal childhood desire for aggression. According to him, they weren't traumatized by the aggression itself, but by their eager participation in it, by their own letting go of their instincts to fight. He further surmised that chaos at the base of human personality can infect society, so people need to internalize democratic values. This led Truman to create the National Mental Health Act to deal with the number of unstable men returning from war.
Psychiatrist brothers, Karl and Will Menninger, wanted to use Anna Freud's ideas on a wide scale to control the unconscious desires of citizens, so they invented Guidance Counselling Centres everywhere and encouraged everyone to go. Their focus was on controlling the "fire of emotions" within.
1950s - Identifying with Brands is Promoted as Therapeutic
Things shifted a bit as Harold Blum came on the scene and thought we could be "appropriately emotional," that we should be allowed to let go within limits since we can master our own passions. And Ernest Dichter, Freud's old neighbour, set up Motivational Research centres. This was the dawn of the focus group and the Mad Men style of marketing. Focus groups would have people free associate about products, encouraged to express their feelings and associations. A famous case is when they asked women why they didn't buy instant cakes, and realized just letting women add an egg to the mixture would increase sales dramatically. The underlying idea driving Dichter was similar to Bernays: that we can use the environment to strengthen and stabilize human personality; it's therapeutic and confidence-boosting for people to identify with specific brands. It was also hugely profitable, which likely didn't hurt. It's hard to say which was more important for the psychiatrists.
Bernays worked with Howard Hunt of the CIA to launch a "terror campaign" and stage a coup in Guatemala by making the conditions in the public and in the press more amenable to such a thing after a more socialist leader insisted on better working conditions (and thus lowered profits) in the American-owned United Fruit Company. The psychological warfare worked enough to provoke the army to stand down. They linked the former leader to communism, made the previous government seen as a threat to democracy, and made business interests seen as democracy incarnate. Bernays openly believed that most people are terribly stupid and can be manipulated to act like automatons.
Government money was given to psych departments in universities to do experiment on brainwashing. Ewing Cameron, of UCLA but working in at McGill in Montreal, used drugs and electroconvulsive therapy in an attempt to wipe and replace people's memories. It didn't work the way he hoped (with some horrific results); and he surmised that people are more affected by external persuasion than internal manipulation.
Anna Freud kept working on children conforming to social norms. She was friends with Ralph Greenson, Marilyn Monroe's therapist, who got Marilyn to move into his home as he decided that his family was the social model to follow.
1960s - Anti-Conformity Rebellions Led to Corporate Losses
After Monroe's suicide, Arthur Miller argued against this psychiatric method that suggests any suffering is a problem. Miller insisted we must let suffering inform our lives, not try to cure any and all tumults we feel. The method advocated by Greenson attempted to control people rather than free them.
Wilhelm Reich challenged Freud's premise that people are driven by animal instincts and society is a controlling force that keeps our raging inferno of emotions in check. He countered that our drives are positive and repression by society distorts them. Reich thought violence is a result of denying our libido full expression; neurosis is a result of ineffective orgasm. And then things got really weird with the Human Potential Movement and confrontational experiences and encounter workshops that involved violent and sexual release. Werner Erhard got on board with the EST movement, believing that we can create ourselves individually, only the individual matters, and we can largely ignore society. Students and young adults became less political as they became more self-obsessed.
The downside of all this self-exploration was a corporate loss, particularly to life insurance companies, which are built on the protestant ethic prompting us to sacrifice for the future. Too many people were living for today. The new enlightenment needed products to help people express their individuality, but, at the time, variety wasn't cost-effective for factory production.
1970s - We Can be Reduced to a Lifestyle
The Stanford Research Institute (SRI) was used to measure and test desire satiation. Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist famous for his self-actualization test, also created a tool to measure people's values on a hierarchy of needs that rises as people liberate their feelings. This was the beginning of categorizing society for marketing purposes. He believed we can be defined by the choices we make, and he surveyed people to see how people fit a set of identifiable types he called: lifestyles. The Values and Lifestyles survey (VALS) categorized people into more specific purchasing types than could be determined by age or income: Mainstreamers have a need for security and belonging; aspirers have a need for status; succeeders have a need for control; and reformers have a need for self-esteem. If a product reflects their attitudes, people will buy it. Instead of focus groups discussing products already invented, they used market research to invent new products. This would soon help elect politicians as well.
1980s - We Can Buy our Identity
Self-actualization seminars from the likes of Wayne Dyer and inner self work became more popular (polls showed an increase in interest from 5% in 1970 to 80% in 1980). Reagan ran on the new individualism model with his speech "Let the People Rule" (his We the People speech 8 years later has a similar flavour) knowing that people now embrace whatever gives the illusion of independence. It polled well and many former republicans voted conservative because of the PR spin, which allowed neo-liberalism to thrive. People feel entitled to have the best and to have power over their leaders, and they want their every whim satisfied.
New technology allowed short runs of consumer goods, so people were now able to buy their identities. They felt liberated, yet were more dependent on business than ever. Products were now necessary to their happiness and their very sense of self. Without things, people no longer have any identity. Scary.
Matthew Freud, of Freud Communications (great grandson of Sigmund, and son of an MP accused of pedophilia), helped manufacturers get control over how their corporation appeared in print. And Rupert Murdock's right in there too, of course.
Robert Reich laments that we no longer have a society, just a bunch of individuals focused on themselves. Bernays found a way to get people to see goods as a means to respond to deep emotional yearnings. Politicians used these business methods to find out what voters want and give it to them, and they stopped caring about having a clear and specific mandate. They summoned the greediest aspects of human nature by focusing on individual personal satisfaction. It was a triumph of the perspective that individuals are purely emotional beings easily led off a cliff.
According to Reich, the left used to persuade people we have common interests. Roosevelt persuaded people to join together in labour unions, which drove the democratic party. The worst thing Reagan did was to make denial of compassion a respectable trait.
1990s - Fluctuating Desires Drive the New Democracy
To get re-elected, Clinton bowed to this pressure to satisfy individual voter concerns. (Tony Blair did the same thing in Britain.) It turned politics into a consumer business that can fulfill personal desires. They could learn what voters want and move themself there. Clinton conducted neuro-personality polls to find day-to-day concerns and ran on a platform of V-chips for TVs and mobile phones on busses rather than the typical foreign and domestic policies discussed in previous elections. This was spun as a means to end elitist politics in that the people are now being heard, but the practice suggests that democracy is nothing more than pandering to primitive desires. It's a politics of the self. It's a problem because people are contradictory: they want lower taxes and better public services. We're trapped in short-term, conflicting policies.
This isn't a better form of democracy, a "continuous democracy," it's just propaganda for corporations. Remember that Bernays didn't believe democracy could work and that the masses had to be led, that it's too dangerous to let people have control over their own lives. Consumerism is a way to give the illusion of control while allowing the responsible elite to continue managing society. This is the end result of that premise. We just feel like we have more say now. People's desires are in charge instead of their will. Democracy has been reduced from something that assumes an active citizenry to something which now is increasingly predicated on the idea of the public as passive consumers.
We have to appeal to the public to care for others more. We forgot that we can be more than our immediate desires. Reich summed up the two views of human nature: essentially emotional or rational. The Freudian view suggests we're just bundles of emotions, and businesses have honed their skills at responding to that. But politics must be more than that. Politics and leadership are about engaging the public in a rational discussion and deliberation about what is best for society. People need to be respected for their rational abilities to debate what is best.
2000s - Do We Know Enough to Change?
Now we know, or think we know, about neural pathways. The more we restrain ourselves, the easier it gets to avoid certain stimuli. If we have chocolate around, but stop ourselves from eating it, it will get easier to avoid it, and eventually we'll stop being so drawn to it. I practice this myself by actively avoiding social media at certain times of day, and it's something I don't have to actively work at quite so much anymore. The corollary is also true, that the more we do something, the easier it is to do and the more likely we are to do it. The more we allow ourselves to have public outbursts, the more likely we are to have them. We have to practice self-restraint.
This leans towards Anna Freud's work, but she went too far dictating what all needs to be controlled, and not far enough with other tactics to help alleviate profound depression. I think it's less a training that we need, but more of a constant reminder about our goals for ourselves as people so we're not led astray.
Today we also know about neuromarketing. They don't need market research or focus groups when they can look at our brains directly to find out which ads cause a dopamine spike. The masses can clearly be led towards consumerism or acts of genocide, so we need to be ever vigilantly thinking about why we feel like we need new clothes or why we feel a hatred for one group or another.
The fact that Bernays and others are able to manipulate society is testament to Freud's original theory hitting a nail on the head in determining how our drives affect us. But what some people do with that understanding is frightening. This clarifies a pivotal role for schools (complete with lessons on Freudian theory) to ensure we wake people up to their own decision-making as well as to their internal drives. We need to demand a democracy based on collective will for the benefit of society, not individual desires for the benefit of the self.