When Marketing Met Psychology (pt.1)

Adam Curtis’ documentary, “Century of the Self,” traces the transformation of advertising from facts to feels

Once upon a time, advertisements focused primarily on the cost, utility, and durability of a product (and perhaps the occasional, clumsy appeal to vanity). It was a different era: Even in the wealthiest nations, most people had small homes, large gardens, and made most of their own meals and clothes.
Most advertisers only expected to sell the people what they needed.

Old Pencil Ad

Old School Bicycle Ad

During the USA’s economic boom following World War I, however, marketing began to change. Rather than catering to simply customer’s needs, advertisers turned to the new field of psychology to identify the consumer’s deeper desires: status, belonging, power, sex appeal, self-expression, and happiness.

Today, we take for granted that every commercial punctuating our favorite sitcom has been designed with our subconscious desires in mind. But how did that happen? Adam Curtis’ 2003 documentary, Century of the Self, takes a look at the evolution of advertising in the age of psychology.

If you work in advertising—or if you suspect advertising works on you—it’s worth watching the four-hour documentary free online.

No time? We’ve provided a brief overview of each one-hour episode follows the videos…

Part One: The Happiness Machine

You are almost certainly familiar with famed Viennese psychologist Sigmund Freud, But, it was his nephew in the USA, Edward L. Bernays, who probably shaped your psyche more.

Bernays was a WWI propagandist who decided to try his hand at peacetime marketing. He ended up teaching US corporations how they could make people want things that they didn’t need by linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.

“Men are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions.”

Edward L. Bernays
Propaganda, 1928

Women, either.

In 1929, the American Tobacco Corporation hired Bernays to convince women to smoke cigarettes. “We’re losing half of our market because men have invoked a taboo on women smoking in public.”

Bernays said that he could help, and asked psychoanalyst A. A. Brill what cigarettes “meant” to men and women. Brill said that they simply symbolized the penis. Women, he told Bernays, would smoke, if he could link cigarettes to challenging male power. They would have their own penises.

To that end, Bernays paid several debutants to pull out their cigarettes at an Easter parade. Then, he alerted the media that “suffragettes” would be holding a protest using “torches of freedom.” The cigarettes lit up, the cameras flashed, and the ruse has worked ever since. It was a watershed moment in advertising.

Old Cigarette Ad

What does nicotine addiction have to do with feminism? Nothing… and everything.

The Great Depression and World War II undercut Bernays’ business, but as soon as the bombs stopped falling, US businesses began booming. They had one overriding concern: Were they going to start overproducing goods? You could never have to many tanks or uniforms, but would recently ramped-up assembly lines glut the market with cars and clothing?

Bernays proposed a solution: Corporations, in order to grow, needed to change the way that consumers felt about products.


“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture.”

Paul Mazur,
Lehman Brothers


Part 2: The Engineering of Consent

Despite Sigmund Freud’s death in 1939—sometimes a cigar is just a carcinogen—World War II gave his theories new life. The once-controversial idea that human rationality is a fragile veneer, which just barely contains the seething barbarism and savage sexuality of our subconscious, suddenly made absolute sense.

In 1946, the US government passed the National Mental Health Act. With the help of Sigmund’s daughter, child psychologist Anna Freud, government-trained therapists fanned out across the USA bearing her message: If people conform to society, they will better be able to repress their dangerous emotions, and thus avoid another world war.

esso tiger ad

Just in case the “Tiger in Your Tank” tagline was too subtle, Dichter asked artists to highlight its link to male sexuality.

Marketing and manufacturing firms were also taking psychology very seriously, and several Viennese refugees were setting up shop in the USA. One of Freud’s protégés, Ernest Dichter, founded The Institute for Motivational Research in New York. He wanted to learn “why people behave as they do, buy as they do, and respond to advertising as they do.”

Dichter coined the term “focus group” and invented what he called the “strategy of desire.” He believed that advertising could guide the consumer’s unconscious need for self-gratification to purchase specific products. His research methods produced everything from Barbie dolls to Esso’s iconic ads.

When Betty Crocker, for example, came to Dichter complaining that women were refusing to buy their convenient cake mix, the analyst convened focus groups that asked housewives to do free-word association. He concluded that they felt guilty about cutting corners when cooking for their families. So, he suggested that Betty Crocker have housewives add an egg, as “a symbol of their own eggs.” Cake mixes became a hit.

“Is it wrong to give people what they want by taking away their defenses?”

Despite this acceptance and success in both the public and private sphere, there was dissent growing on the fringes of Freudian analysis. Trained psychoanalyst and influential Marxist Herbert Marcuse, in his 1964 book “The One-Dimensional Man,” argued that it wasn’t individuals who were sick and maladjusted. It was society.

“Our freedom today is to simply to walk about in our cages and choose the wallpaper,” complained Marcuse.

The consumerism, advertising, planned obsolescence, and especially the suicidal preparations for WWIII, were what was driving people insane, not some inner animal urge that needed to be repressed. People needed free themselves, and be themselves.
This idea would turn advertising on its head.

Part 2 >>

2016-10-21T11:03:10-05:00 By |Categories: Marketing, Psychology, Reviews|Tags: , , |