Media Circus: The Hidden Persuader

Vance Packard never got much respect during his lifetime. But his best-selling critiques of consumer capitalism and the machinations of advertising may be more relevant than ever.

Published December 17, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Vance Packard, best-selling sociologist and critic of America's consumer culture, never got much respect during his lifetime. Oh, sure, his critics might concede, people read his books, lots of people, and several of his book titles ("The Hidden Persuaders," "The Status Seekers") found their way into everyday speech. But so what? A lot of people read the National Enquirer.

Advertising executives denounced him as a "morality huckster" and conspiracy theorist. Conventional academics looked down on him as a pop sociologist. And more radical critics of the consumer culture chastised him as a mere bourgeois apologist, fixated on corporate "abuses" and unwilling to see that corporate society "depends on abuse" -- as Stewart Ewen put it in his luridly titled anti-advertising screed "Captains of Consciousness."

After Packard's death last week, at age 82, even the obituaries seemed a little grudging. "Mr. Packard was a highly successful popularizer of serious ideas raised by America's postwar prosperity and the explosion of consumerism," The New York Times sniffed. "He was skilled as well in coining titles for his books that endured in the national vocabulary."

Even worse, the obits tended to misrepresent his work: both the Times and the Associated Press described "The Hidden Persuaders" as an analysis of "subliminal" advertising -- a sort of precursor to the notoriously silly Subliminal Seduction books that ferreted out paeans to sex in airbrushed ice cubes and full-scale orgies in plates of clams. In fact, Packard devoted minimal attention to the subject -- the word "subliminal" doesn't even appear in the book -- and treated reports of "subthreshold effects" with some skepticism.

Still, Packard had gotten some more respectful treatment in the last years of his life. He was the subject of a serious 1994 biography by Daniel Horowitz. And in his New Republic review of Horowitz's book, historian Jackson Lears argued that Packard "deserves a place alongside more formidably intellectual figures in any history of twentieth-century social thought." Though he "lacked the scholarly range of Edmund Wilson and the literary grace of Lionel Trilling," and though his books were "stylelessly earnest and frequently superficial," he managed to "articulate widespread popular anxieties amid the alleged complacency of the 1950s." And, what's more, did so in a way that enabled him to reach the middlebrow audience other intellectuals disdained.

As much as I hate to admit it, Lears is probably right. When I first read -- or, rather, skimmed -- Packard's "Hidden Persuaders" some years back, I looked upon it as little more than sensationalized pop pap, a collection of horror stories and conspiracy theories reflecting all the ridiculous assumptions of its sociology-obsessed age. (It was published in 1957.) But, looking at it today, I have to concede there's a lot more there there.

I'm still put off by Packard's forays into the sensational -- his warnings about "the disturbing Orwellian configurations of the world toward which the persuaders seem to be nudging us," his outraged attack on advertisers using "depth probing on little girls to discover their vulnerability to advertising messages." (The "depth probing" he's talking about is a kind of interviewing technique, not some depraved alien-abduction nightmare out of the X-files.)

And I'm still amused by his occasional descents into Puritanism: In his chapter on the "psycho-seduction of children," he denounced the subtle anti-parent subversiveness of the Howdy Doody show, in which adults (from Chief Thunderthud to Mr. Bluster) rarely came off well. "All this sly sniping at parent symbols," Packard warned, "takes place while Mother, unaware of the evident symbology, chats on the telephone content in the knowledge that her children are being pleasantly amused by the childish antics being shown electronically on the family's wonderful pacifier." (One wonders what Packard made of Beavis and Butt-Head.)

Despite these weaknesses, however, "The Hidden Persuaders" offers a telling and still relevant portrait of our consumer age, delving into the details of the persuasive arts, showing with a wealth of examples how ad campaigns are tailored to exploit our every vulnerability. Yes, his examples are out of date, and, yes, Packard's portrayal of easily-hypnotized women shoppers is more than a little sexist. But it's still one of the best books around for demystifying the deliberately mysterious arts of advertising; I think even the kids at Suck could learn a thing or two from it.

Even in this Age of Spin, it's hard not to be taken aback by Packard's presentation of the outrageous claims made by ad executives convinced they have the power to cloud men's (and women's) minds. "You have to have a carton that attracts and hypnotizes [the] woman [shopper], like waving a flashlight in front of her eyes," declared the executive vice president of the Package Designers Council. "Eager minds can be molded to want your products!" shouted the promotional ads for something bearing the ominous name "Project Education." Ad executives may still believe such things today; they're just a bit more circumspect about saying so in public.

In some ways, though, what is most refreshing about the book is its sense of perspective. Unlike many contemporary critics of consumer culture, from the somber folks at the Center for the Study of Commercialism to the boys at The Baffler, Packard was willing to give the persuaders their due, describing advertising as not only a crucial element of our economy but also as a "colorful, diverting aspect of American life" -- which it still is. And Packard even (at times) has a sense of humor about it all: In the midst of denouncing the "psycho-seduction of children," he noted that while writing that chapter he'd overheard his "own eight-year-old daughter happily singing the cigarette jingle: 'Don't miss the fun of smoking!'"

Still, Packard shared the same failing of virtually all critics of commercialism -- the assumption that the persuaders (whether hidden or not) are supremely effective at what they do. In 1957, when Packard was writing, advertisers were only beginning to incorporate the insights of psychology into their work. Four decades later, they still haven't gotten it right.

Don't believe me? Then take a visit to the web page of the California-based consulting firm SRI Research to take their special on-line Values and Lifestyles Survey (or VALS).

The VALS program, first started in the late 1970s, is "one of the original consumer segmentation systems based on psychographics," which is a fancy way of saying that the VALS folks stick some questions about "values" and "lifestyles" alongside traditional market-research questions about income and age. The survey sorts Americans into eight loosely defined categories, ranging from Actualizers at the top of the heap to Strugglers at the bottom.

When I took the on-line survey, filled with vague questions even the VALS people acknowledge in their literature might seem "overly simplistic," I learned I was an "Achiever," a proud member of a group of "work-oriented people who like to, and generally do, feel in control of their lives." I am, the VALS computer speculated, most likely a political conservative who's fond of "authority and the status quo" and leading a "conventional" life "structured around family, career and church." I most likely live on a diet of rice cakes, frozen yogurt, low-fat cheese and liquid nutritional supplements; I probably own a snowblower, have a self-cleaning oven, and belong to the PTA. Wrong on all counts, but I suppose every system has its bugs.

Still, SRI International manages to take in some $300 million from corporate clients a year. So even if they don't know too much about consumer psychology -- at least mine -- they obviously know something about the art of persuasion.

EXTRA! Future Businessmen

Some of New York's most vicious gangstas aren't kids from the ghetto, but prep-school youngsters with a bad case of melanin-envy, New York magazine reports. A piece by Nancy Jo Sales in the magazine's December 16 issue profiles kids from "butter condos" who've turned to a life of baggy clothes, drug-selling, random violence and shoplifting. But they don't plan to stay gangstas forever -- after all, there are more lucrative careers open to them. "What we're doing's actually very good business experience," one young gangsta told Sales.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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