Packard, Vance Oakley

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Packard, Vance Oakley

(b. 22 May 1914 in Granville Summit, Pennsylvania; d. 12 December 1996 on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts), writer, journalist, and social critic who introduced the phrase “hidden persuaders” with his book on motivational research methods used in advertising.

Packard was one of three children of Philip Joseph Packard, a farmer, and Mabel Case, a former schoolteacher. Methodist and Republican, his parents were frugal, hardworking, and abstemious. Nevertheless, their dairy farm failed. When Packard was ten, his father took a job as a farm superintendent in the Agriculture School at Pennsylvania State College (Penn State). Packard’s inclination for writing surfaced in high school, where he edited his class year- book. He graduated in 1932. As an English major at Penn State, he wrote for both the literary magazine and the college newspaper and coedited the Summer Collegian. He contributed to the cost of his education by working parttime in both the college library and student union.

While in college, Packard was influenced by Willard Waller, a sociology professor whose progressive background included muckraking journalism. Waller encouraged his students to look for the reality beneath the surface. That training was to serve Packard well in the research and writing of his most important works.

Graduating from Penn State with a B.A. degree in 1936, Packard began work as a cub reporter for $15 a week at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania. Soon thereafter, he secured a scholarship at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, from which he earned his M.A. degree in 1937. Packard’s first writing job after Columbia was in Boston at the Daily Record, which hired him to write features about personalities. Packard now felt secure enough to propose marriage to Mamie Virginia Mathews, whom he had met when they were both undergraduates. Married on 25 November 1938, the couple had three children.

In 1938 the Associated Press (AP) feature service in New York City hired Packard to edit and write a weekly review, The World This Week. He remained at the AP until 1942, when he went to work for the Crowell-Collier Publishing Company as editor of the “interesting people” section of American Magazine. Within two years he became a staff writer, a post he held until the magazine went out of business in July 1956. The company then moved him over to Collier’s, but that magazine also ceased publication in December of the same year.

In 1941 Packard returned to Columbia’s School of Journalism, where he taught as a part-time lecturer on reporting and photo editing until 1944. In 1945 he joined the faculty at New York University, where he lectured on magazine writing until 1957. He also began work on How to Pick a Mate (1946), which he coauthored with C. R. Adams, the director of the marriage counseling service at Penn State. His second book, Animal I.Q. (1950), dealt with experiments in animal psychology and countered ideas about animal intelligence and reasoning popular with pet owners and animal lovers. Voluminous and eclectic, his magazine articles treated topics as varied as education, science, national problems, travel, entertainment, food, and dieting. He also explored parent-child relations and family problems.

In the early 1950s, Packard began to collect material for the book that was to cast a spotlight on him. He was studying motivational research (MR), especially the work of Ernest Dichter, a psychoanalytic consultant to business and industry. He used more than fifteen hundred sources, read more than three million words, and produced The Hidden Persuaders (1957), a book about the way advertisers used MR to influence consumer purchase decisions subconsciously.

At a time when conspiracy theories abounded in America, Packard’s book, which suggested that advertising methods could easily work their way on an unsuspecting public, hit a responsive chord. It became a best-seller and was the leading book on the nonfiction list for several weeks. Reviews helped popularize the book. A. C. Spectorsky, writing in the New York Times, called the book “frightening, entertaining and thought-stimulating.” C. J. Rolo, the reviewer for the Atlantic Monthly, found in it “a wealth of documentation which is often appalling.” And Charles Winick, in the Christian Science Monitor, found the book to be “of value in opening to fuller public view an important area in American life which deserves closer scrutiny than it has been getting.”

The response to The Hidden Persuaders was not uniformly positive. Those aligned with the advertising industry and business took exception to Packard’s conclusions and attacked the work on the basis that it lacked scholarly thoroughness. Leo Bogart wrote in Management Review that the book’s lack of scholarly apparatus such as references might make it more interesting and readable, but “without such references, how can the reader judge how much of the findings should be taken literally and how much should be discounted as unsubstantiated or just plain wrong?”

Packard followed his phenomenal success with studies of other troublesome aspects of American life. The Status Seeders (1959) looked at the way the country was betraying its democratic foundations by dividing itself between haves and have-nots according to material possessions and rank. The Waste Makers (1960) explored “planned obsolescence,” the means by which manufacturers created products whose usefulness or desirability faded quickly, allowing them to sell new and improved versions. In The Pyramid Climbers (1962), he put his skills to work analyzing the psychology of the American corporate structure and found there another negative influence on society. The Naked Society (1964) turned to a broader concern, exposing the threat to freedom inherent in modern information-gathering and surveillance techniques as well as in behavior modification methods. Shifting relations between the sexes were viewed in The Sexual Wilderness (1968). In A Nation of Strangers (1972), Packard linked the American freedom of mobility to a growing rootlessness in the nation. His final book, Our Endangered Children (1983), viewed the changes in the modern world, especially those leading to the disintegration of the family, as detrimental to childrearing.

Reaction to Packard’s work passed through several stages. He was criticized by some contemporaries for having a Puritanical philosophy that condemned consumption and waste and advocated a simple life, while at the same time enjoying the fruits of an upper-class life in his comfortable New Canaan, Connecticut, home. In the 1990s his views went through a reevaluation, summarized by his biographer Daniel Horowitz, who notes that for the millions of Americans who “came to understand the imbalance between public and private needs,” Packard’s writings “promoted an animus against experts, attacked unquestioned growth, and emphasized the social and psychological costs of status and class” and “stressed the quest for meaningful work and for a more democratic workplace, addressed the perils of conformity in corporations and suburbs, questioned discrimination based on ethnicity, advocated consumer rights, and expressed concern for ecological balance and natural resources.”

A Democrat and member of the Congregational Church, Packard served for a time on the New Canaan planning commission. He was also a member of the Society of Magazine Writers. He had blue eyes and brown hair, some of which he lost in later life. He stood five feet, nine inches tall and weighed about 180 pounds. In addition to his New Canaan home, he owned property on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha’s Vineyard, where he loved sailing his small boat and where he died of a heart attack. He was cremated and the ashes were buried on Chappaquiddick Island.

Packard’s papers, at the library at Pennsylvania State College, are mostly research notes, clippings, and various drafts of his major books The definitive biography of Packard is Daniel Horowitz, Vance Packard and American Social Criticism (1994). An obituary is in the Neu/4or\ Times (13 Dec. 1996).

Richard L. Tino