The Engineering of Consent
Although we describe Freud as having popularised the unconscious, he did little in the way of self-promotion, other than setting up some poorly attended evening meetings in Vienna and publishing some rather difficult papers.
His ideas did, however, gain huge popularity. Freud hated America, calling it a ‘gigantic mistake’, but America loved Freud. He was invited to receive an honorary degree from Clark University in Massachusetts; and in 1911 the Psychoanalytic Society of New York was founded. It became fashionable for writers, artists, and producers to undergo analysis themselves, and soon people were reading about the unconscious in novels, watching movies influenced by Freudian ideas, and gradually integrating the concepts into everyday life.
How could an academic with such difficult and controversial ideas win over a country in such a major way? Part of the answer is to be found in the extraordinary story of Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew. Born in Austria, he moved to New York and developed a career as a press agent for visiting show business celebrities. He joined the propaganda arm of the US war effort in the First World War. It turns out that Bernays played a pivotal role (with Freud’s daughter, Anna) in introducing Freudian ideas to US politicians, policy makers, leaders of industry and marketers. 7, 8
In return for a gift of cigars, Freud had sent his nephew one of his books. The result was that Bernays used Freud’s insights to turn ‘propaganda’ (discredited after the war as dishonest and exploitative) into the new profession of ‘public relations’. A key feature of this new activity was that public relations was largely invisible to those being influenced by it, and aimed to control public opinion by manipulating unconscious desires.
American politicians and planners were aware of Freud’s ideas about the power of the primeval unconscious urges, and believed that these had manifested in the brutality of Nazi Germany. They were concerned that the melting pot of the USA could contain similar dangers and felt that they could try to control this hidden enemy by diverting these urges into the acquisition of consumer goods. They believed this was the best way of maintaining democracy - and it had the happy by-product of driving the expanding economy. Bernays worked closely with politicians and corporations to develop what he called "the engineering of consent" - controlling the minds of the public without their awareness.
He suggested that "those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons ... who pull the wires which control the public mind." 9
Ironically, Freud’s work was aimed at bringing hidden motives to consciousness to help people lead happier lives - while Bernays used the same set of theories to mask the motives of his clients and keep the public unconscious of the forces that were being used to mould their minds and desires.
Bernays was instrumental in developing the notion of the consumer as somebody who bought a product not because they needed it, but because they would feel better if they had it. He realised that anyone who wanted to influence the public had to appeal to people’s irrational and selfish needs, and he systematically linked mass-produced goods to unconscious desires. He helped develop ‘self-expression’ from a psychoanalytic method of healing to a cultural method of living.
Bernays - or the Father of Spin, as he is now known 10 - used Freudian insights to plan groundbreaking marketing campaigns and publicity stunts. He was largely responsible for making it socially acceptable for women to smoke (to his later regret). He was widely recognised as a talented and influential PR man, working for Procter & Gamble, General Motors, General Electric, and for Eisenhower, Thomas Edison and Eleanor Roosevelt.
But things began to change. Psychoanalysis was falling out of favour and, by the 1960s, several new psychologies had been developed. These either rebelled against Freud, or emphasised the Humanistic approach to personal development. The new thinking said that the inner self did not need to be repressed and controlled - rather, it should be encouraged to express itself.
This was the rise of the ‘me’ generation. Where would this leave the newly emerged PR and marketing? Rather than proving a threat, these ideas were seized upon as opportunities to sell to the public ways of expressing their newfound individuality. It was now less about appealing to the hidden desires and more about using products as symbols of the self.
While many other factors were also important in
developing today’s consumer society, Bernays - harnessing
ideas about the unconscious - was part of a
process that has led to brands being integrated into
our self-concept. Today, we accept that people
define themselves by what they buy and use, and
their relationships with brands are the subject of
much of our research.