The myth of sexy prunes; Vance Packard and the evils of Freudian-based advertising
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 January 2008)

In the mid-1950s, Vance Packard had no idea that the book he was writing would make him a hero -- and a rich hero at that. His two earlier books, How to Pick a Mate and Animal IQ, had attracted neither sales nor praise. He thought that, with luck, maybe 12,000 readers would buy his new one.

But The Hidden Persuaders astonished everyone by selling more than a million copies and roosting for a year on the New York Times best-seller list. Packard, a middle-aged magazine writer who had recently lost two jobs in a row because the magazines employing him died, awoke to find himself a seer. He was the Naomi Klein of his era.

The Hidden Persuaders, published recently in a 50th-anniversary edition by Ig Publishing, is an anxious account of the way advertising was using psychology to exploit the emotional needs of consumers. Packard considered this practice highly dangerous: "Many of us are being manipulated, far more than we realize."

The mood of the times helped sell Packard's book. Television, still a new medium, made the public freshly conscious of advertising and its annoying commercials. Psychology was gaining credibility as a way to explain otherwise mysterious habits and tastes. And McCarthyism, which reached its peak a few years before, encouraged an interest in suspicious-sounding conspiracies.

The most menacing character in Packard's story is Dr. Ernest Dichter (1907-1991), who, in Packard's account, practised the blackest of black arts, psychoanalysis. Dichter claimed that he could reveal the unconscious sources of decisions to buy or not to buy. He presented himself as the father of motivational research, a wise old Freudian -- and to prove it, he had a Viennese accent, actually acquired in his birthplace, Vienna.

Naturally, he found sex at the root of most sales problems. Research discovered that married men would enter a car dealership that advertised convertibles but end up buying a sedan. For Dichter the reason was obvious: The sedan represented a wife, the convertible a mistress. Men might not be daring enough to choose the mistress symbol but could be persuaded to buy a compromise. Thus was born (Dichter claimed) the hardtop, a car with a rigid roof but no centre door post, so that the uninterrupted glass along the sides made it resemble a convertible.

When prune sales were slumping, the California Prune Advisory Board called in Dichter. As always, he provided a symbolic analysis. Dichter informed them that prunes were associated with stingy, joyless puritans. They were also widely considered a laxative -- once a great virtue, from the standpoint of the Prune Advisory Board, but less valuable after competitors flooded the market.

Dichter advised the prune people to create happy, colourful advertising celebrating the prune as a dynamic wonder fruit. And, according to Packard, prune sales recovered.

The Hidden Persuaders was full of similar examples. Packard was the kind of magazine writer who couldn't tell an anecdote without elevating it into a trend. He wrote a readable book, but the wave he was describing never quite materialized. People like Dichter had a good run (he came to Canada to help Maclean Hunter renovate Chatelaine) but eventually the advertising people decided the shrinks were just dressing up common sense in professional jargon. We now assume advertisers will try to manipulate us, but hardly anyone claims (as Dichter and others did) that what they do is grounded in science.

In a sense, Packard (as many readers recognized) was as much deceived by the motivational research people as any husband suckered into buying a hardtop. Apparently a credulous fellow, Packard seems to have believed a great many inflated claims of success he heard from the Freudians.

Unfortunately, Ig Publishing has burdened his memory with a new introduction by Mark Crispin Miller, a media studies professor at New York University and the author of books such as Boxed In: The Culture of TV.

Crispin makes it clear that, while recognizing the historic value of The Hidden Persuaders ("for all its faults"), he doesn't like Packard's style, his naivete or his lack of footnotes. Moreover, he regrets that Packard had no political theory to give wider meaning to his work.

Ig Publishing brags that The Hidden Persuaders was the first book to expose the secret world of motivational research, but Miller has decided that motivational research "is, per se, beside the point." What, then, is the point? Miller states it in his opening sentence: "The history of America since the Civil War is, in large part, a history of conquest by commercial advertising."

Putting it mildly, that's empty rhetoric, both unprovable and wildly overstated. It's just as true or untrue if you substitute for "commercial advertising" almost anything that comes to mind. Technology, for instance. Or capitalism. Or greed. How about self-righteousness? Education? Immigration? Centralized power? Corporate concentration? Mass media?

Miller comes across, on this occasion at least, as a careless writer carelessly edited. He hasn't heard about the problem of repetition. Having used the phrase "in large part" in his first sentence, he writes "in large part" again 10 lines later. On the next page, he writes, "Although it had no obvious political effects," at line 10. Then he writes, "Although it had no obvious political effect," on line 27. His thinking is no more impressive. (Should you wish to have undergraduate access to professors of this quality, New York University will charge, counting tuition plus room and board and books, $51,202 for an eight-month academic year.)

As for Packard, The Hidden Persuaders gave him a career as a public scold. His next two books also became best sellers: The Status Seekers (1959), his argument that America was dividing along class lines, and The Waste Makers (1960), about planned obsolescence, the corporate habit of producing products that would soon be out of date and need replacing. (And that was before the age of computers.)

Until 1989, he continued to write books. One of them deplored the fact that business people had to be conformists to succeed, another decried the attack on privacy, a third studied the negative effects of the sexual revolution. There was one that condemned the extravagance of the wealthy. Every two or three years he announced a new cause for national anxiety. But slowly he grew less effective. He lost his sense of indignation, and readers lost interest in his causes.

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