How Powerful Is Advertising?

BREAKING UP AMERICA: Advertisers and the New Media World
by Joseph Turow.
University of Chicago Press, 
242 pages 

IN 1957 a former Collier's magazine writer named Vance Packard published an investigative report about the American advertising industry's efforts to maneuver consumers into buying goods they neither needed nor wanted. These machinations did not rely on slick imagery, exaggerated claims, or outright deception -- tools whose use had subjected marketers and their minions on Madison Avenue to ridicule or censure since the days of P. T. Barnum. Packard's charge was more specific and startling. Advertisers, he claimed, were using hidden symbols to goad the unconscious mind and the body under its control into the act of acquisition.

"Large-scale efforts," he wrote, are

being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes.... The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.

These "hidden persuaders," as Packard called them in the title of his book, took several forms. Some advertising agencies were hiring trained "motivational researchers" to probe deep in the psychological recesses of the mind, and then constructing ad campaigns that exploited the ore found in those canyons of consumerism. Thus did General Foods decide in the 1950s that its photographs of multi-hued, architectural Jell-O desserts were generating inferiority complexes among women, and switch back to depictions of simple, single-layered gelatins. Other marketers were bypassing Jungian archetypes and beaming direct commands into the subconscious mind. Packard reported on an experiment that had allegedly taken place in a New Jersey movie theater in which the order to buy food, flashed at a speed faster than the eye could perceive, had provoked a "clear and otherwise unaccountable boost" in concession-stand sales.

Packard's major source was Ernest Dichter, the director of an organization called the Institute for Motivational Research. A less-well-known but equally important source was a New York marketing consultant named James Vicary, who had claimed credit for that New Jersey movie-theater experiment.

Packard hoped that his exposure of such techniques -- which he believed were "antihumanistic" and represented "regress rather than progress for man in his long struggle to become a rational and self-guiding being" -- would contribute to burgeoning "public scrutiny and concern." He got his wish. The Hidden Persuaders spent six weeks as the No. 1 best-selling nonfiction book in the United States. Its title entered the vernacular. (Thirty-two years after its publication Ernest Dichter gleefully reported that he'd been retained by a company in his native Austria to do consumer studies in the newly opened Eastern bloc. "I'm going to the Soviet Union to look for hidden persuaders!" he told me, laughing.) Its concerns meshed perfectly with its era, a time when fear of subversion was a constant motif in American life, evident in everything from Joseph McCarthy's Senate hearings on Communist infiltration of the State Department to Don Siegel's movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

There was just one problem with The Hidden Persuaders: it was wrong. Oh, marketers were conducting studies, and even changing advertising campaigns on the basis of their findings. But there was -- and still is -- little proof that these efforts to engineer action through manipulation of the unconscious led to any behavioral changes favorable to specific marketers. As for James Vicary's experiment in subliminal advertising -- it was a hoax: Vicary later admitted that he hadn't done what he'd claimed. Several subsequent studies of the effectiveness of embedded messages have shown it to be virtually impossible to use them to produce specific, predictable responses. Still, faith in the power of the media to induce millions of people to act contrary to their better judgment or conscious desires remains profound. More than three quarters of the U.S. population currently believes that marketers use subliminal messages to sell products or services, according to the Journal of Advertising Research; consumers themselves spend some $50 million annually on subliminal self-help products, such as audiotapes that are supposed to teach one a foreign language in one's sleep.

Today, though, with the Cold War and communism for the most part behind us, our anxieties are evolving. We no longer fear a single enemy bent on our psycho-political subjugation. Approaching the millennium, we are struggling, nationally and internationally, with liberation movements, interest groups, and advocates of countless alternative belief systems -- anti-porn feminists and pro-lifers, ufologists and Afrocentrists, anti-Zionist Hasidim and pro-euthanasians. As some of our fractious hordes grow violent (bombing abortion clinics and federal courthouses, dumping a dead animal on Vogue editor Anna Wintour's plate), we dread nothing more than, as the title of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s recent best seller put it, "the disuniting of America." It stands to reason that someone would find the cause of our current ills residing within the realm of image-making and advertising.

Joseph Turow has discovered a "revolutionary shift" in the strategies and tactics of marketing-communications companies, which, he says, "has been driven by, and has been driving, a profound sense of division in American society." Like Packard, whose social concerns, language, and insistence he mimics, Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication of the University of Pennsylvania, believes that advertisers, working in concert with conglomerating media companies, are forcing "a breakdown in social cohesion" in the United States, whose end will be nothing less than the death of the American idea. Inciting "anger and alienation," he writes in Breaking Up America: Advertisers and the New Media World, "advertisers . . . will act to ensure that in the new media world the 'Us' will lose out to the 'Me.'"

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