Sigmund Freud believed that individuals were not driven by rational thought but by primitive unconscious desires and feelings. Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays believed that this meant that it was too dangerous to let the masses ever have control over their own lives. Consumerism was a way of giving people the illusion of control while allowing a responsible elite to managing society.
Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was one of the main architects of the modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous PR stunts, to eroticizing the motorcar. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn’t need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.
Bernay’s most notorious coup was breaking the taboo on women smoking by persuading them that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom. But Bernays was convinced that this was more than just a way of selling consumer goods. It was a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be made happy and thus docile.
It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate today’s world. Continue reading