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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

It's All Freud's Fault, Well. Sort Of

There is, or at least was, a group of people in the habit of blaming Sigmund Freud
for Everything Wrong with Modern Society. Well, while Freud's seeming emphasis on the Sex Drive being responsible for everything from choice of automobile to choice of whether or not to smoke certainly didn't make him any friends among the Status Quo powers of Early-20th-Century America, they did find enthusiastic support within the new Mercantile Class. Or so goes the premise of one episode of a BBC short series [four, one-hour episodes] that I discovered recently while cruising a social site [the series can be found here ].

Actually, the person responsible for the Cult of Consumerism wasn't so much Freud, as his American nephew, Edward Bernays. Forgotten today, he may have been the most important man of the 1920's in America. Bernays:

-translated many of Freud's observations into usable information for business. After the First World War, American Industry was running at near-top levels, from manufacturing war materiel for the Allies. Manufacturers wanted to keep their factories putting out product. But, to make that work, Americans had to be convinced to purchase for pleasure, not out of necessity. Bernays helped sculpt advertising that addressed those purposes, based on Freud's observations on what pleased humans.

- "invented" the concept of public relations; may have been the first person to call himself a PR expert. Bernays saw the Populace, in general, as something to be feared, as it could easily be "herded" by Authority [as he had just seen happen in World War I]. He hoped to turn the techniques of persuasion over to the Private Sector, who, he believed, would use the power for marketing their goods, instead of promoting political ideas [which, with few exceptions, is the way it's all played out].

-created the first "media events" for promotional purposes. Bernays was once hired by a major cigarette manufacturer, who had a little problem: in the 1920's, the link between cigarette smoking and cancer, emphysema, and other debilitating illnesses had not been discovered, but there was a traditional taboo which forbade women from smoking openly in public. In a famous experiment, Bernays hired a group of attractive women, and told them to join the line of march for New York City's Easter Parade. On a signal from him, they were simply to light up, and smoke in public. Then he sent cleverly-written press releases to local newspapers, alerting them that "attractive women" would be taking part in a "women's rights march", lighting "torches of freedom" during the parade! The papers, for the most part, got the hint, and wrote articles noting that women had smoked in public, without the Republic collapsing.
-created the concept of "product placement". When Bernays was at his peak, it was not unusual to see an actor or actress [whom Bernays worked for], promoting a product [whose manufacturer had also hired Bernays], in advertising [created and sold by Bernays], in popular magazines like Cosmopolitan [which Bernays was a consultant to]. The modern idea of interlocking promotions is at least 85 years old...
I guess what intrigues me the most about Edward Bernays is that, after creating most of the modern advertising culture we live in, he disappeared into the background, and is virtually unknown today. Well worth a few minutes of your time to watch the video hyperlinked above [besides, American Idol has only been on one night, and already I'm bored! Can't we just move along to Hollywood? Please?].
-Mike Riley

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