A hundred years ago, the idea of a ‘consumer’ did not exist. Individuals were described by both the powers that be, and themselves as workers, producers, owners, renters…and most importantly as citizens.
During the first half of the 20th century, modifiers became subordinate to that of ‘consumer’. This change was brought about in part to turbulence of history, social upheavals, paradigmatic shifts etc. Yet all these factors were merely tools and opportunities for one man; Edward Bernays – the man who single-handedly engineered this new order – and who everyone seems to have forgotten.
One of the leading influences in the first half of the 20th century, was Sigmund Freud, who as part of his creation of psycho-analysis posited the existence of innate urges and forces within the human psyche. Freud believed these impulses, although part of the unconscious mind, influenced our behaviour and operated independently of reason. Following the outbreak of WWI, Freud became increasingly pessimistic concerning human nature, viewing the horrors of the war as evidence that these forces had been unshackled.
During this time, Freud’s American nephew, Edward Bernays was working in New York as a press agent. When America joined the Allied war effort in 1917, Bernays was hired by the newly created Committee on Public Information, to promote America’s war aims and efforts in the press.
Bernays was highly skilled at promoting Woodrow Wilson’s ideals of democracy and self-determination, so much so that Bernays accompanied the President to the Paris Peace Accords in 1919. Bernay’s efforts helped create the image of Wilson as a liberator, with European crowds feting the President. “Make the world safe for democracy”, that was the slogan according to Bernays, who began to wonder whether similar methods at mass suggestion could be applied during peacetime.
Due to the negative connotation surrounding ‘propaganda’, Bernays simply created the Council on Public Relations – and the PR industry was born. Bernays set up the first public relations office in New York, and began to read his uncle’s works. He became convinced of the validity of Freud’s thinking, and was the main driving force behind the widespread publication and mainstream acceptance of Freud’s works in America.
Bernays realized that one needed to play to people’s unconscious forces, and that traditional marketing methods were insufficient.
One of Bernays’ first clients was George Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Corporation. Hill wanted Bernays to find a way to get women to smoke, since social taboos existed at the time discouraging women from doing so.
Bernays consulted A.A. Brill, a psychoanalyst who determined that cigarettes were linked to male dominance, and represented a symbolic penis. If Bernays could associate cigarettes with challenging male power, he could get women to smoke (for then they would have their own penises).
Bernays convinced a group of rich debutantes to all light up in public during the New York Thanksgiving Parade. Bernays had also tipped off the press, by claiming that a bunch of radical suffragettes were going to smoke in public. This caused a sensation and the press was on hand to capture the scene and trumpet it around the country.
Bernays coined the term ‘torches of freedom’ to describe the cigarettes, linking them with the sufferance movement’s aim of equality. This in turn linked smoking with female strength and independence, and tobacco sales to women exploded during the 1920s.
Bernays realized that the way to sell products was not to appeal to reason (as many advertisements only emphasized a products utility, durability and cost), rather one ought to sell them at an irrational, emotional and personal level.
With the emergence of mass production in America, US corporations began to fear the issue of overproduction. Corporations realized that they needed Americans to shift from a needs based, practical view of products to an emotional, desire based conceptualization:
“We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture, people must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old has been entirely consumed…we must shape a new mentality in America, Man’s desires must overshadow his needs” – Paul Mazer (Lehman Brothers) 1930.
Prior to such thinking there was no ‘American consumer’. During the 1920s, American banks helped fund chains of department stores across the country, as outlets for these new mass-produced goods.
Bernays created many of the now common place advertising tools, such as organized fashion shows in department stores.
Bernays worked together with William Randolph Hearst, owner of Cosmopolitan and many other magazines/newspapers, to cross-promote various products of Bernays’ other clients.
Bernays also developed the idea of celebrity endorsements, linking products to beauty, wealth and glamour of the stars such as Clara Bow. He also paid celebrities to wear and use the products of his customers, and invented the process of product placement in films. (source)
The American citizen’s first importance to his country was now no longer that of citizen, but that of consumer.
Fast forward and see a compilation of propagated AmeriKan Consumers on Black Friday 2014: