J.D. Luedi is a listener from Canada and contributing writer for Stimulatedboredom.com. Images and minor edits by Dana.
Once again we find ourselves in the midst of another frenzied shopping season. Black Friday saw hordes of Americans cram into various retail outlets and malls in order to be the first person with the most stuff at the cheapest price and in the shortest time possible. Crowds trampled an elderly man who was having health issues, several people were shot, and a woman in LA pepper-sprayed twenty people (children included), in order to get a new Xbox 360. The manner in which consumerism has come to epitomize the ‘American Dream’ is a distinctly modern phenomenon. In this piece I am going to explore how the spectre of consumer culture came to prominence in America. From its beginnings as war-time propaganda to the emotional cues in advertising, the art of ‘public relations’ has drastically shaped contemporary socio-economic and political relations.
A hundred years ago, the idea of a ‘consumer’ did not exist. Individuals were described by both the powers that be, and themselves as workers, producers, owners, renters…and most importantly as citizens. During the first half of the 20th century, these and indeed all other modifiers became subordinate to that of ‘consumer’. This change was brought about in part to turbulence of history, social upheavals, paradigmatic shifts etc. Yet all these factors were merely tools and opportunities for one man; Edward Bernays – the man who single-handedly engineered this new order – and who everyone seems to have forgotten.
One of the leading influences in the first half of the 20th century, was Sigmund Freud, who as part of his creation of psycho-analysis posited the existence of innate urges and forces within the human psyche. Freud believed these impulses, although part of the unconscious mind, influenced our behaviour and operated independently of reason. Following the outbreak of WWI, Freud became increasingly pessimistic concerning human nature, viewing the horrors of the war as evidence that these forces had been unshackled.
During this time, Freud’s American nephew, Edward Bernays was working in New York as a press agent. When America joined the Allied war effort in 1917, Bernays was hired by the newly created Committee on Public Information, to promote America’s war aims and efforts in the press. Bernays was highly skilled at promoting Woodrow Wilson’s ideals of democracy and self-determination, so much so that Bernays accompanied the President to the Paris Peace Accords in 1919. Bernay’s efforts helped create the image of Wilson as a liberator, with European crowds feting the President. “Make the world safe for democracy”, that was the slogan according to Bernays, who began to wonder whether similar methods at mass suggestion could be applied during peacetime.
Due to the negative connotation surrounding ‘propaganda’, Bernays simply created the Council on Public Relations – and the PR industry was born. Bernays set up the first public relations office in New York, and began to read his uncle’s works. Bernays became convinced of the validity of Freud’s thinking, and indeed was the main driving force behind the widespread publication and mainstream acceptance of Freud’s works in America. Bernays realized that one needed to play to people’s unconscious forces, and that traditional marketing methods were insufficient. One of Bernays’ first clients was George Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Corporation. Hill wanted Bernays to find a way to get women to smoke, since social taboos existed at the time discouraging women from doing so.
Bernays consulted A.A. Brill, a psychoanalyst who determined that cigarettes were linked to male dominance, and represented a symbolic penis. If Bernays could associate cigarettes with challenging male power, he could get women to smoke (for then they would have their own penises). Bernays convinced a group of rich debutantes to all light up in public during the New York Thanksgiving Parade. Bernays had also tipped off the press, by claiming that a bunch of radical suffragettes were going to smoke in public. This caused a sensation and the press was on hand to capture the scene and trumpet it around the country. Bernays coined the term ‘torches of freedom’ to describe the cigarettes, linking them with the sufferance movement’s aim of equality. This in turn linked smoking with female strength and independence, and tobacco sales to women exploded during the 1920s.
Bernays realized that the way to sell products was not to appeal to reason (as many advertisements only emphasized a products utility, durability and cost), rather one ought to sell them at an irrational, emotional and personal level. With the emergence of mass production in America, US corporations began to fear the issue of overproduction. Corporations realized that they needed Americans to shift from a needs based, practical view of products to an emotional, desire based conceptualization:
“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 has been entirely consumed…we must shape a new mentality in America, Man’s desires must overshadow his needs” – Paul Mazer (Lehman Brothers) 1930.
Prior to such thinking there was no ‘American consumer’. During the 1920s, American banks helped fund chains of department stores across the country, as outlets for these new mass-produced goods. Bernays created many of the now common place advertising tools, such as organized fashion shows in department stores. Bernays worked together with William Randolph Hearst, owner of Cosmopolitan and many other magazines/newspapers, to cross-promote various products of Bernays’ other clients. Bernays also developed the idea of celebrity endorsements, linking products to beauty, wealth and glamour of the stars such as Clara Bow. Bernays also paid celebrities to wear and use the products of his customers, and he also invented the process of product placement in films. Rather dubiously Bernays also commissioned psychologists to issue reports claiming certain products were good for you, and then claimed that these to be independent studies.
It was Bernays who convinced the American public and government that:
– Water fluoridation was healthy & beneficial by working with the American Aluminium Company, and Dental Association
– Bacon and eggs was the true all-American breakfast option
– That cars could be sold as sex / status symbols
– Ballet was fun to watch – following Diaghilev’s 1915 Ballet tour
– That only disposable cups were sanitary – in cooperation with the Dixie Cup campaign
– That everyone should own stocks – helping fuel the stock market boom in the 1920s
– To use hairnets at work
– That Ivory soap was medically superior, and that soap in general was an accessory / beautification item
Bernays’ talents were sought by both businessmen and politicians, who having read Freud, worried about the potential negative externalities which might arise in the age of mass democracy due to these irrational forces. Bernays claimed to have the answer by stating that one simply needs to excite the emotions of the masses and then sate them with consumer goods, thus making them docile and society peaceful. Bernay’s called this the ‘engineering of consent’ – “the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.” Bernays helped President Coolidge public image by having him sit down with famous celebrities for a pancake breakfast. Bernays also worked with Herbert Hoover, who in 1928 proclaimed that consumerism was the paramount aspect of American life, and that it had turned Americans into “constantly moving happiness machines”. An anonymous lament from a New York reporter in the same year also states that “a change has come over our democracy, and it is called ‘consumptionism’, the American citizen’s first importance to his country is now no longer that of citizen, but that of consumer.”
Following the election of Franklin Roosevelt, and the implementation of his New Deal, Bernays worked with American industry and corporations to counter Roosevelt’s notion that government could change society for the better. Industrialists rallied against Roosevelt for his heavy handed economic policies and commissioned Bernays to help promote the narrative of private business vs. government. To this aim, Bernays founded the National Association of Manufacturers, which set out to show that it was industry not government that was responsible for national recovery and the health of the nation. Bernays was also the central adviser to the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York, and it was he who insisted that the central theme be the link between American business and democracy.
Following WWII, Bernays sought to use his techniques of mass manipulation to play on the fears of the American public, and use those emotions to help win the Cold War. Instead of advocating to allay the fears of the public, Bernays suggested that these fears be stoked and managed in order to use them as a weapon against communism. This all came to a head during the early 1950s, following the rise to power of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala. During this time the United Fruit Company exerted massive control over the government and politics of many Central American nations. In 1953 Arbenz sought to nationalize United Fruit land holdings in order to distribute it to the poor. Arbenz was a democratically elected democratic socialist with no ties to Moscow, however Bernays working for United Fruit re-branded him as a dangerous communist sympathizer.
Arbenz was vilified by Bernay’s efforts to incite the American public’s emotions, by claiming that Guatemala was becoming a Soviet staging ground from which to attack America. Bernays created a fake independent new agency, called the Middle American Information Bureau, which flooded the American media with anti-Arbenz propaganda. Bernays also flew journalists to Guatemala and had them interview handpicked ‘locals’ about the communist scourge in Guatemala. During the time these American journalists were in the country, there was a massive anti-American demonstration, which many at United Fruit were convinced that Bernays had also organized. President Eisenhower eventually authorized a secret CIA operation to train a rebel army and stage a coup, overthrowing Arbenz and instituting a puppet government.
J.D. Luedi is a listener from Canada and contributing writer for Stimulatedboredom.com.