Over the past few weeks, we have watched a 4 part documentary called the Century of Self in my digital media class. The documentary shows how psychoanalysis developed as the same time as consumerism in America took root. Through all of the series, one see how Freud’s ideas were used and appropriated to aid capitalism. Media was the tool used to captivate the masses. Here is a little taste of it.
Freud believed that human beings had hidden irrational desires. As one follows the film we see how Freud’s family members took his ideas and applied them in new ways. One such person is Edward Bernays. He believed that people were generally unintelligent and could be easily manipulated. Today he can be considered on of the inventors of Public Relations. This is because he worked with big companies, the CIO and politicians to help them advertise in a way that manipulated human beings’s desires and ignored the need. After all consumerism would bring about a happy and docile populations which would create a stable democracy according to Bernays. Through the film, one can see how this inspired people like Joseph Goebbles and made the New Deal.
After WWII, 49% of the veterans returned to the USA with mental problems. During this time psychiatry centers were set up specifically to help these people cope and act normal in society. At the same time Freud’s niece Anna Freud became well known as one of the top psychoanalysis figures in the USA. One of her ideas was that one’s ego should be strengthened so that he/she can conform to society. This too influenced consumerism as advertisers created model consumers that citizens could look up to. They created a social standard in which it was encouraged for all to conform in order to be happy and to strengthen inner identity. Self confidence soon became a commercial product. As the American public bought into this, companies like the United Fruit Companies got away with exploiting developing nations like Guatemala. This was because people were told what to believe and they believed it. As Marylin Munroe killed herself after despite getting psychoanalytical help, people soon began to question the rigid social control Anna Freud’s theories.
In the 60s and 70s human emotion was let loose and broke through all social boundaries. People were told to be free and release and secret urges they previously had. That way, society would be established naturally and this would result in a better world. Instead, individuality was born. People became less concerned about others and lived to satisfy their desires. As a result, mass media was used to promote individuality. They told people that they could be anything that they wanted to be, and that everybody could be different in their own unique way. Capitalism told people to express themselves. Politicians soon caught on and before we knew it, Reagan was saying, “Let the people rule..” In other words, toss out social welfare, and focus on you.
Soon the British were doing similar things. They too encouraged business to take over the role of fulfilling people’s desires. This later affected politics too. One can say that politicians there win elections when they are successful in making people think that they are getting what is best for their personal welfare.
So the questions is, how have we gone from this type of advertising…..
We have now moved to soft sell advertising because people have become distrusting of their government. Everyone knows not to believe everything that is presented to us at face value. As a result, advertisers try to get our attention in ways we least expect. They try to manipulate our emotions by producing things that make us laugh our hearts out, or cry with sadness. After that they tell us the point of the commercial.
Human beings respond to images, and today our attention span is much shorter that it used to be. As a result advertisers have increasingly merged art with commercialism to grab our attention. Hence, everyday we are flooded with artistic imagery as we check our email, drive to work, watch TV, go to the mall and the like. A real work of art stirs up emotion and makes relate to something even if its for a minute. When art is mixed with advertising one is made relates to an idea, even if it is an irrational idea, like, “You need Insurance now.” The emotion stirred by the commercial makes you want to get the product.
Her are some of my favorite commercials, they appeal to me because they are funny: