The idea that there are subtle forces within the advertising industry that try to manipulate consumers’ subconscious desires in order to sell products emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century. After World War II, debates about legitimate levels of consumer persuasion in advertising returned with a vengeance. In these years, Western societies’ material wealth and choice of products increased dramatically, which led to ever more advertising being targeted at consumers, especially through the new medium of television. As the Cold War intensified, anxieties spread that governments could use some of the motivational and subliminal persuasion techniques developed by advertisers for political purposes.
These wide-ranging issues were coherently discussed and brought to a wider, non-academic audience by the journalist Vance Packard in his 1957 best-seller The Hidden Persuaders. Packard laid bare how the motivational researcher Ernest Dichter applied psychoanalytic techniques in a way that helped marketers understand and influence consumers’ decision-making in the supermarket or automobile showroom. Packard also discussed the subliminal advertising techniques newly developed by the market researcher James Vicary, who in 1957 had designed an experiment in which split-second advertising messages for cola and popcorn were inserted into a movie. The short messages used in Vicary’s movie experiment were as invisible to the conscious mind as the psychoanalytic techniques that Dichter developed for his clients, such as the use of subtle sexual imagery to make household products more attractive. Packard argued that motivational research, subliminal advertising, and the method of product placement defied the ideal of open and honest advertising and instead led to forms of “hidden” persuasion that undermined the rational autonomy of consumers and citizens, thus endangering the very basis of liberal democracy.
Similar arguments, though based on a more philosophical analysis of the normative nature of capitalism’s political economy, were developed at the same time by the Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Galbraith’s well-known 1958 book on The Affluent Society pointed out that advertising was not merely a means of selling products but, by its very ability to form people’s anxieties and desires, a form of social power. In the eyes of Galbraith, traditional economic thought had ignored this fact and had therefore failed to acknowledge that market capitalism was anything but a set of institutions governed by rational decision makers.
Packard’s much-discussed ideas reemerged in the 1970s when a new generation of critical journalists and social scientists launched attacks on the hidden persuaders in multinational corporations and governments. Most prominently, Wilson Bryan Key’s 1973 book Subliminal Seduction and Stuart Ewen’s 1976 publication Captains of Consciousness revived the idea that advertisers willingly applied manipulative and subliminal advertising techniques or images of sexually attractive, youthful, and everhappy people in order to increase the sale of products. In the 1990s social psychologists approached the issue of consumer persuasion, and of subliminal advertising in particular, with far greater skepticism. While it needs to be acknowledged that advertisers do indeed attempt to influence consumer behavior through all possible means, psychologists have until today found no conclusive evidence that subliminal advertising messages do actually have measurable and reproducible effects on consumers. As a result of this, the discussion of advertising’s contested role in capitalist societies has slowly moved away from allegations of hidden psychological seduction or subliminal messages. Rather than looking for evidence of subliminal manipulation of consumers, authors have begun to criticize the often blatant conquest of public spaces and people’s private lives by megabrands and the corporate interests behind them. This, in turn, has led to more debates about such things as advertising directed at children, and advertising’s relation to potential health risks (associated with products such as cigarettes, alcohol, and fast food). Juliet Schor, for example, has shown how advertising for well-known car, fashion, food, and cosmetic brands determines what many consumers feel they ought to possess and parade in front of neighbors and peer-group members. This type of lifestyle advertising puts pressure on people to spend more time at work— instead of within families or communities—in order to be able to buy more luxury products.
SEE ALSO Conspicuous Consumption; Subliminal Suggestion
Ewen, Stuart. 1976. Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Galbraith, John Kenneth. 1958. The Affluent Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Key, Wilson Bryan. 1973. Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media’s Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Klein, Naomi. 2000. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Toronto: Knopf Canada.
Packard, Vance. 1957. The Hidden Persuaders. New York: D. McKay.
Pratkanis, Anthony R., and Elliot Aronson. 1992. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. New York: W. H. Freeman.
Schor, Juliet B. 2004. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. New York: Scribner.