On first 2 episodes of the BBC documentary called "The Century of The Self"
Consumerism was created by Edward Bernays who, encouraged by Freud’s ideas, perceived the public as manipulatable and stupid. His successful track-record in manipulating the public earned him a reputation and he quickly found himself advising not just businesses but politicians too.
America’s original idea of consumption was straightforward: people were encouraged to buy what they need with advertisement heavily focusing on durability and necessity.
A number of studies emphasise that such is the only healthy approach to shopping: succumbing to consumerism actually makes people less happy1. Something to keep in mind during this festive season.
Bernays was the first to realise that the industry should focus on creating desire. He iconised a number of products to demonstrate this idea. For example, via a clever use of news-reporting he made smoking into a symbol of emancipation for women, thus allowing the cigarette industry to tap into the taboo market: smoking women had been perceived negatively. He also invented product placement and many other ideas of modern advertising.
Fearfully, Bernays also cooperated with businesses, who had aligned interests with CIA at the time, to overthrow a foreign government by applying Red-scare:
Bernays’s most extreme political propaganda activities were said to be conducted on behalf of the multinational corporation United Fruit Company and the U.S. government to facilitate the successful overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Bernays’s propaganda, branding Arbenz as communist, was published in major U.S. media
The USA government has fully embraced the idea of the irrationality of the public and exploited it many times after the episode as a method of persuasion. The WMD-charade in Iraq was an example where such manipulation massively backfired and such well-tested approach reduced future credibility considerably: the Internet played a part in exposing some of the fearmongering.
I attribute some of the religiousness of the USA to this phenomena. Businesses and the American government somewhat threatened by communism emphasised the importance of religion to American identity in order to foster antagonism towards communism. For your information, “Under god” was added to the pledge of allegiance in 1954, at the height of Cold War.
The effect is compounded: our leaders aren’t perfectly rational agents thinking of intricate ways to manipulate the public. Much of their decision making is part of the problem, however their rhetoric doesn’t reflect their views accurately as they are selected partly by their ability to make evocative speeches. Debating societies all around the country hone rhetorical style of debate (as opposed to logical/dialectical) of future candidates as a by-product of our electorate system.
Bernays’s path of manipulation was too pessimistic and short-sighted: it doesn’t take into account diminishing credibility. Instead of manipulating the public he could’ve found out why the public is manipulatable and try to fix it. I don’t endorse “people are stupid” statements as studies highlight that rationality is orthogonal to intelligence and that it can be taught. And if you haven’t made the above connection yet attributed world’s problems to lack of people’s intelligence, then guess what: you are part of the problem. You aren’t stuck in traffic, you are traffic!
Frey & Stutzer (2002); Kasser et al. (2004); Solberg et al. (2002); Kasser (2002); Van Boven (2005); Nickerson et al. (2003); Kahneman et al. (2006). ↩