The Hidden Persuaders (1957) by Vance Packard is a fascinating book for a number of reasons. It can be handily read using a voice like an old documentary as a way to get in the mood for Mad Men. Packard is also interesting to read because he is a Malcolm Gladwell of his time; a journalist who wrote up advertising and psychology in a compelling way. The book is also interesting to read because it shows how in some ways things have changed enormously, for instance in the brands of cars people buy, while in other ways things have hardly changed such as by the way of looking at how people present themselves in the things they buy and how that can be manipulated.
The book looks at the ‘science’ of motivational research (MR) that was becoming fashionable in the 1950s. Advertising firms were consulting psychologists about how they could manipulate people into buying various brands. Market Research in general is certainly a field of study today, but how much people can be manipulated is still in question. The science that underlies the field seems to have shifted substantially. No longer, as stated in The Hidden Persuaders, is homosexuality thought to be a mental illness. Freud is regarded as dubious scientist at best today.
The question with much of the book, and much of psychology, is how much can be generalised from particular situations. Certainly we are all manipulated to a degree but some long running campaigns, such as getting men to buy a more similar amount of clothing as women, seem to be a perpetual campaign.
The book also questions as to how much we should allow ourselves, or encourage, our own manipulation and possible Orwellian futures are pondered including direct manipulation of people’s brains electrically which Packard puts forward as being quite possibly a reality in the year 2000.
The section on political advertising, with the emphasis on creating an attitude toward a candidate rather than carefully pondering their policies is as relevant today as it was in 1957. The discussion of advertising to children is also remarkably up to date.
From the perspective of 50 years later the book is very much worth reading but the efforts of advertising over the past half-century show that you can shift people’s attitudes but that they also reflect the times and that despite all that advertising people still exhibit a remarkable degree of independent thought that resists advertising.