How Culture Got Hijacked to Sell You a Bunch of Stuff You Don’t Need
Breakfast was invented to sell bacon.
The catchphrase used–and regurgitated by all the confused consumers–was the necessity of getting a “full and hearty breakfast” each morning.
This happened in the 1920s.
Later breakfast was reinvented to sell cereal.
The catchphrase used to do it this time was that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”.
Both of these slogans STILL live on today–and lots of people are still regurgitating them, with zealous conviction.
Pasteurized milk was thought to be extremely healthy, and good for maintaining a healthy bone structure.
Now we know that most people should not drink milk regularly, because they are lactose sensitive and struggle with digesting the milk properly.
Bread was considered an essential part of each meal for the purpose of getting some “much-needed fiber”.
Now we know that most bread–while tasting good– is just empty calories. Plus the gluten it contains is unhealthy.
Do you know what these things I just told you about are exemplary of?
–No, it’s not the food industry I’m talking about.
It’s the history of CONSUMERISM that I am talking about.
These acts–and many more, as you will find out in this article series–were committed by different culprits. But their motive was the same: Profit.
And thus we enter into the history of consumerism; how society and culture has been manipulated to increase consumption of goods.
At periods this has been accomplished through organized effort of government and big business working together. But mostly, it has happened incrementally, by scattered efforts–through PR and advertising.
Probably the most shining example of consumerism is none other than. . .
. . . Christmas.
Christmas celebration, as we know of it today, was made popular by the Victorians during 1840-1900 to increase public spending (Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol contributed greatly towards this effort).
How many people know these things?
Not too many, I bet you.
Most people just kind of. . . live.
They live in ignorance of how and why the conditions they live IN first came to be.
Anyone who’s not completely stupid knows that PR and advertising impact not only on their own life, but also society as a whole.
In 1998, the average consumer saw 3,000 marketing messages per day. In 2007 this number was estimated to be 5,000. Will this number rise further?
Does this affect you?
It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between what IS advertising, PR, and sales messages and what is NOT. Even to someone with a keen eye.
If you’ve watched TV in the U.S you may have heard some variation of the following phrases: “We’ll return after these messages…” or “…and now back to our programming”.
Do you know why they say that?
Because they’re forced to.
The FCC (which regulates communication channels like TV and radio) created a law requiring it, so that people–children in particular–wouldn’t confuse advertising for programs and. . .
I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s start from the beginning. . .
WW1, Improved Technology, Mass Production and Henry Ford
Consumerism “started” with Henry Ford and James Couzens when they decided to set the pace of industry by instituting the 40-hour work week.
(5 days a week 8 hours per day)
In popular culture, the 40-hour work week has become a much-touted symbolic act of human progression, selflessness, fairer work conditions, and democracy.
Though its original motives were likely more practical than noble:
Business is the exchange of goods. Goods are bought only as they meet needs. Needs are filled only as they are felt. They make themselves felt largely in leisure hours. The man who worked 15 and 16 hours a day desired only a corner to lie in and a hunk of food. He had no time to cultivate new needs. No industry could ever be built up by filling his needs, because he had none but the most primitive. Think how restricted business is in those lands where both men and women still work all day long! They have no time to let the needs of their lives be felt. They have no leisure to buy. They do not expand.
The idea was to create a win-win-win situation where workers would:
a) Have more recreational time which would
b) Make them want to buy more things, which would
c) Motivate them to work harder and be more productive. . .
. . . so that they could buy even MORE stuff!
A positive feedback loop for the economy, if you will.
This HAD to be done; not the implementation of the 40-hour work week per se, but finding some way of incentivizing the American people to spend more money and. . . INCREASE CONSUMPTION.
Because the U.S economy depended on it.
You see, in the years before and during WW1 (ca 1900-1914), business and manufacturing in the U.S had improved, DRAMATICALLY.
Technology had evolved, electric wire had been installed in cities and inventions like the assembly line had made mass production of goods like cars and candy (chocolate, mostly) possible .
Increasingly large and efficient factories and production facilities were built. Many sprung up during WW1, when the nation directed most of its work capacity on production of war materiel.
After the war was over industry was left with all these HUGE factories, and many had to be re-equipped for production of non-war goods.
This was extremely expensive.
Ford astonished the world in 1914 by offering a $5 per day wage ($120 today), which was more than DOUBLE the rate of the average industry wage!
The U.S was in deep (financial) trouble for two reasons:
2) Large corporations were left with their expensive factories capable of OUTPRODUCING (supplying) the national demand for many products.
To deal with this the U.S economy needed to boost its national consumption, or face terrible consequences.
[Translation: People had to stop being so damn frugal–the nation called for confused consumers to buy more stuff and keep the economy going!]
The solution to this nation-wide economic problem would come from. . .
Madison Avenue (and the 100 Year Growth Spurt of Marketing, Advertising, And PR)
In 1900 and before that, the marketing industry was small and insignificant compared to what it is today; and the advertising and PR industries were non-existent.
No one talked about Madison Avenue before 1920. Today everyone associates its name with the U.S advertising industry.
Advertising in various (haphazard) forms has been traced back as far in history as 3000 BC, but it did not exist in any coherent form until after it was instituted as an academic discipline in 1900 at Northwestern University.
The PR industry first came into popular use after 1900. The first known instance of the term “public relations” was found in the 1887 Yearbook of Railway Literature. The two most influential and innovative PR pioneers were Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays (whom I will tell you more about in a minute).
Ivy Lee handled the PR matters for many businessmen and industrialists, notably the Rockefeller family. Lee advised Rockefeller Senior to start handing out money to strangers in public to become better liked. He also recommended they create the Rockefeller Foundation.
The advertising industry took off during the 1930s because. . .
. . .in an effort to encourage innovation and increase consumption, President Roosevelt and his lieutenants of The New Deal decided that advertising was to be classified and accounted for as an R&D expense.
This meant that advertising became a tax-deductible activity, which incentivized big business to spend lavish sums of money on advertising.
And so, Madison Avenue was built.
It is true that Roosevelt, considered a socialist by many, was “at war” with many of the big corporations and industrialists, however, at the same time he acknowledged their necessity to the U.S economy.
If I were starting life over again, I am inclined to think that I would go into the advertising business in preference to almost any other. The general raising of standards of modern civilization among all groups of people during the past half-century would have been impossible without that spreading of the knowledge of higher standards by means of advertising.
–Franklin D. Roosevelt
Let’s take a look at what made it possible for the “spreading of the knowledge of higher standards”, shall we?
Edward Bernays, The Birth of PR, and Creating Consumer Demand out of Thin Air
Edward Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and he was the first person to combine:
- Freud’s psychological theories about the subconscious;
- Theories about group psychology about how people act in crowds and,
- Tactics for propaganda and advertising.
This synthesis became known as public relations (PR).
Edward Bernays was quick to realize the dilemma of OVERproduction:
A single factory, potentially capable of supplying a whole continent with its particular product, cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda, with the vast public in order to assure itself the continuous demand which alone will make its costly plant profitable. This entails a vastly more complex system of distribution than formerly. To make customers is the new problem.
–Edward Bernays, Propaganda
Bernays was a member of the Committee of Public Information of the U.S. during WW1. He was a key figure in spreading the propaganda that the United States’ war efforts were driven by the honorable motive of “bringing democracy to all of Europe”.
After the war was over, Bernays, who was now well-versed in the use of propaganda, wondered if its power could be used for other–more productive–ways than war.
He thought it could.
So he started up a “public relations agency” (the world’s first) with his wife.
The word “propaganda” has had negative connotations for a long time, and it did back in those days too.
Therefore Bernays decided to call what he was doing “public relations”, and not propaganda.
What was so special about Edward Bernays?
Bernays was the mastermind who came up with the clever idea that “a full and hearty breakfast” would sell bacon–and it did.
Because it created the NEED for bacon out of thin air.
Bernays was also the mastermind behind popularizing toothpaste, putting fluoride in drinking water, spreading the use of hairnets among industrial workers, introducing Russian ballet and silk in America, making it socially accepted for American women to smoke in public, and more astounding feats. . .
Bernays was like a ONE MAN ARMY!
Though Bernays was not directly involved in WW2, many of his methods and techniques were. Joseph Goebbels read his books, studied his campaigns, and drew on inspiration from his ideas when crafting the German propaganda.
Bernays has had a HUGE impact on the PR industry and on consumer society.
For example how “news” are manufactured in modern society.
Most people–confused consumers–mistake cleverly crafted advertising, propaganda, and PR material by big corporations or hidden interests for. . .
Genuine news and accurate information on which to make their decisions.
It is the epitome of success in the world of PR, marketing, and advertising to create language, a trend, or even better, to create CULTURE–in the form of tradition (Christmas, breakfast, Black Friday).
And Bernays did this better than anyone else–in history.
Once an idea–however unintelligent–has taken root in the minds of the masses (and it becomes propagated by habit or culture) it will take a VERY long time to get rid of.
(This is why obsolete ideas like “right-brain vs left brain”, “Cartesian duality” (mind and body), “fasting is dangerous“, live on DESPITE having been disproven YEARS ago. The learning curve of popular culture is very slow. The surest path to ignorance is to be immersed in popular culture.)
Bernays distinguished between two types of salesmanship:
1) Old salesmanship: What most people believe advertising is: “buy this product because it will make you better at [insert thing you care about].”
2) New salesmanship: Create habits, traditions and culture.
“Old salesmanship” is a no-brainer, just spam advertising.
But how does one make use of “new salesmanship”?
With great difficulty (which is why Bernays was so well-paid).
Excerpt from that image:
“…women’s bad smoking habits have furnished the anti-women-smoking campaigners with their best ammunition. Therefore, in her lectures, Miss Linden smartly stresses all the things not to do with a cigaret. Men’s pet peeves against women smokers are 1) messy ways of opening packages; 2) affected mannerisms; 3) puffing like a steam engine; 4) lipstick smears…”
A good example of “new salesmanship” is. . .
How Bernays Made Pianos Popular (and created culture)
Bernays was once hired by a piano company to sell pianos.
What should he do to boost sales?
Old salesmanship would dictate that he create advertising to tell people about the superior quality of the piano. Perhaps how it incorporated a new material that made its music sound better.
New salesmanship would dictate that he CREATE the demand for a piano.
Bernays went with #2.
The modern propagandist [using new salesmanship] therefore sets to work to create circumstances which will modify that custom.
As he puts it in his book Propaganda, the first thing he did was to “develop public acceptance of the idea of a music room in the home“.
Here’s the gist of how Bernays did it:
- He organized an exhibition of music rooms decorated by well-known decorators, who used expensive tapestry to make it look elegant.
- These decorators were influential and looked up to within their own niche, thereby attracting attention from their sympathizers.
- He dramatized the exhibition by creating a flashy ceremony.
- He invited important people–“influencers”–to the ceremony, such as a famous violinist, a popular artist and a society leader. This created awareness of the exhibition for their respective sympathizers.
- He made sure the exhibition got publicity in relevant newspapers BEFORE it happened as well as AFTER it had gone down. Since the public is interested in celebrity names this was no challenge.
- He persuaded influential architects to build music rooms. Beginner architects, who looked up to the influential architects, imitated them by also building music rooms in hopes of achieving success.
- And then the company that hired him profited by selling the mandatory pianos to go along with the “piano room”.
This example is characteristic of how Bernays worked. He specialized in influencing the public by creating a “critical mass” through the combination of relevant interests groups.
Bernays’s genius lay in his ability to persuade or convince each of these groups to support his work.
Steps #1-5 put the idea of a music room into the mind of the public and created the opportunity for a trend to be created.
Steps #6-7 gave the trend a chance to become established and kept alive through a sustained feedback loop.
Bernays had at that point CREATED the NEED for pianos by establishing the idea of a music room.
Pretty clever, right?
The music room will be accepted because it has been made the [popular] thing. And the man or woman who has a music room, or has arranged a corner of the parlor as a musical corner, will naturally think of buying a piano. It will come to him as his own idea.
This Makes You Wonder. . .
How many other “popular ideas” like this exist in modern consumer society.
What if some of the most fundamental ideas, habits, and cultural traditions that you base your life on were created to sell you something, without you being aware of it?
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