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Beyond 'Eggheads': Vance Packard Pulls Back the Curtain on Advertising, 1958

Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - 01:10 PM

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Licensed for use only on NEH-funded Annotations blog. Vance Packard Testifying Before Congress, July 26, 1966 (© Bettmann/CORBIS/Corbis Images)

At this Books and Authors Luncheon, Vance Packard tries to dispel the idea that his book, The Hidden Persuaders (1957), is merely about the quirks and absurdities of advertising's use of "motivational research." 

In fact, what he had in mind when he wrote the book was "a protest against the over-commercialization of American life." Packard feels we are in danger of losing many of our basic rights, citing three areas of specific concern. The first is "the growing boldness in invading the privacy of our minds." This concerns subliminal messages, flashes of popcorn, say, or Coca-Cola, in a movie theater, too rapid to be consciously perceived but resulting in increased concession-stand sales. Second is "the deliberate encouragement of irrational behavior." The shopping list, he claims, is a thing of the past; 70 percent of the items purchased at a supermarket are now bought on impulse. "Psychological obsolescence" now gets people to replace perfectly good appliances, cars, and even houses, because they are no longer in style. Finally, he laments a change in the American character itself. We are the most materialistic nation on earth, he says. Whereas the youth in other countries are "aglow with idealism," young Americans have succumbed to "the pressure to consume."

The great question, he concludes, that we must ask ourselves, going forward, is, "How can we work out a spiritually tolerable relationship between our dynamic economy and our free people?"  

A popularizer before the word itself was popularized, Packard (born in 1914) spent the early part of his career working for newspapers and magazines. In 1952 he began writing books, combining his reportorial skills with a deep-seated conviction that the course of American society had gone awry after the war. The Hidden Persuaders tapped into a sense of paranoia and loss of control felt by the consuming public. Reviewing its initial reception, The New York Times, in his obituary, recalled:

Writing in the New York Times Book Review, A.C. Spectorsky called the book ''frightening, entertaining, and thought-stimulating.'' The work remained on The New York Times best-seller list for a year. ''Hidden Persuaders'' became all the rage; many readers claimed they were being subjected to subliminal advertising every time they noticed a glitch in their television reception.

The advertising industry was incensed, denying the sinister motives imputed to it. Even today, Advertising Age's 100 People of the Century grudgingly lists Packard, noting:

The public bought the book and its premise. Packard explained that ad agencies used psychiatry, motivational research, and related social sciences to create subliminal selling patterns. Ironically, his work contained enough distortions to diminish its value where it might have counted most -- among ad makers.

Packard went on to write several more best-sellers all stemming from the same premise, that conformity was on the rise and materialism was doing away with the American virtues of independence and simplicity. These included The Status-Seekers (1959), about social stratification and social-climbing; The Waste Makers (1960), about manufacturing's need to convince people to buy things they don't need; and The Naked Society (1964), about the loss of individual privacy. Although none of these books contained much original research or thinking, they did bring together scientific information and personal testimony, aiming at a "middlebrow audience" whose concerns mirrored Packard's own. His findings have been variously characterized as scary, comic, only of interest to "eggheads," as well as the possible basis for a musical. As the website of his alma mater, Penn State, summarized:

Readers and critics quickly associated the…books as playing an important role in the awakening of consumer awareness among Americans. He was once described in Publishers Weekly as “our most popular popularizer of sociology.”

Indeed, it was after hearing a lecture by Packard that a young Betty Friedan determined to write a similar type of book about her own concerns, which later became The Feminine Mystique

Packard's clarion call to action, or at least to increased awareness, sounds somewhat muted today. As Mark Greif, in an essay marking The Hidden Persuaders' 50th anniversary, notes:

What’s surprising is the degree to which we’ve all become sophisticates, engaging in our own Packard-like critiques of consumer culture without changing our habits. We know we buy irrationally; we just don’t care. We imagine that the “manipulators” at J. Walter Thompson or BBDO play only on the fears and hopes of desperate consumers who aren’t as “conscious” as we are (in which case it’s hard not to admire the ingenuity of the advertisers), while we ourselves are smart enough to decide when to give in. On the last page of The Hidden Persuaders, Packard had to acknowledge the paradox: “When irrational acts are committed knowingly they become a sort of delicious luxury.” We seem to enjoy both knowing that ads are hustling us and choosing to be hustled.

Packard continued to produce books that showed his uncanny ability to anticipate the concerns of the reading public. His last book, published in 1989, was The Ultra-Rich: How Much Is Too Much?

Packard died in 1996. He was 82.

 

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

Note: Some poor audio quality due to condition of transcription disc.

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