Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957.

20. Care and Feeding of Positive Thinkers

"Winning the public's collective mind over to confidence is a monumental task, yet industry leaders seem to be succeeding."
-- Tide.

Back in the twenties Americans across the land were chanting, ten times a day, "Every day in every way I am getting better and better." They were applying to their problems the formula for "Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion" devised by the French druggist-psychologist Emile Coue.

Gradually this formula became pretty well discredited as a way of coping with our basic problems. By 1956 Coueism seemed to be enjoying a hearty revival, particularly in the highest circles of business and government. In almost every day's newspaper some tycoon was announcing vast expansion plans or unlimited faith in the future. Economists in the employment of industry were making reassuring pronouncements that our economy was rock-solid despite the mountainous growth of unpaid consumer debts. Business Week in March, 1956, was exulting over the fact that "confidence is high. . . . A new wave of confidence is sweeping the business community." A week later another journal widely read by businessmen was exclaiming happily over the fact that all the important indices were going up, up, up. Its subheads were "Enter Optimism" and "Exit Fear."

While such happy exclamations were filling the air in late 1955 and early 1956, Tide explained to any merchandisers who might still be in the dark what was behind it all. Much of this exuberant chest beating, it said, was "carefully calculated psychology" devised by professional persuaders. The journal even coined the phrase "psychological marketing" to describe "this new marketing technique," which it said was geared to meet the special needs of the "psychoanalytical age in which we live."

You see examples of it every day [it continued]. Just recently there were the announcements of huge jet plane orders, indicating confidence in the travel market in the next decade. There are other ones . . . like Harlow Curtice's Billion Dollar Bet.... Other leaders in business, industry, and finance speak out, week after week, expressing iheir faith in the economy. Auto men talk of the 10,000,000-car year just around the corner. Steel makers talk expansion and more expansion .... There are other less dramatic examples . . . the releases on expansion plans, the speeches to local groups, even the talk across luncheon tables . . . ."

Then it explained what all the talking was about, in these blunt words:

"These men aren't talking just to hear their voices, nor do they enjoy venturing out on an economic limb." Their main aim is to beef up the confidence level of the nation by counteracting "pessimism" that sometimes gets voiced, so that dealers will keep on ordering goods and consumers will keep on buying goods, at a higher and higher rate, and if necessary go into debt to do it. "To maintain a pace of increasing consumption," it asserted, "a high level of credit buying must be maintained as well. There must be a continued willingness to expand. . . ." Such a willingness to expand, industrial thinkers had concluded, rested on confidence. "Confidence and spending are handmaidens of an expanding economy," Tide stated.

From a persuasion standpoint this matter of confidence transcended everything else. The minute a glow of confidence left the landscape all sorts of disagreeable things might happen. One thing that would surely happen would be that people might start watching their dollars and become more cerebral in their buying. That would make things difficult all over for depth merchandisers trying to tempt people into impulsive buying, status-symbol buying, leisure buying, and many other kinds of self-indulgent buying. Dr. Dichter was most emphatic on the hazard involved if confidence was not kept at a high level. "Our prosperity is based on psychological foundations," he warned and added that economists and business leaders who predict any dip in business are "playing with fire and doing a disservice to the country."

What was the evidence that confidence was crucial? Merchandisers were strongly influenced by the findings of the Survey Research Center psychologists at the University of Michigan, who kept a running chart on the buying mood of the United States public for the Federal Reserve Board. These probers found there is such a thing as a national buying mood and were reported as being convinced that a generally cheerful atmosphere, more than any rational calculation, seems to make people feel like spending their money.

Not only consumers but smaller businessmen were believed to feel the contagion of confidence or lack of it of big business and to peg their action to the way the big businessmen seemed to be feeling. The small businessman or the retailer, perhaps hesitating whether to plunge his bank roll (or a large part of it) on a large and perhaps chancy order, is presumed to be reassured by faith-in-the-future talk by the leaders and disconcerted by any talk of "soft spots" in the economy.

Still another character in the picture who apparently needs regular doses of reassurance is the small investor. The president of the New York Stock Exchange journeyed to West Virginia in 1956 to ask ad men of the American Association of Advertising Agencies for help in persuading more people to invest in United States firms. "Additional millions of people have to be carefully introduced to the investment process and encouraged to 'risk' some of their money in business. . . . Putting this story across calls for considerable skill, imagination, and ingenuity," such as the creative ad men have, he said.

Still, there were some old-fashioned people left in America in 1956-57 who persisted in publicly expressing uneasiness over what they felt were soft spots in the econorr , such as the mounting indebtedness of installment buyers. As Dr. Dichter lamented, there were some people who were forever "worrying the consumer with doubts and black predictions," or are, as Tide admitted, "incapable of any degree of optimism." (One such comment that got into print was an observation made in early 1957 by the chairman of the Department of Commerce's National Distribution Council. He commented to a financial writer: "In traveling around the country, I've come across a surprising number of corporations which already are privately lowering their forecasts of sales and profits in 1957.")

It was to counteract the pessimists that "psychological marketing" was discovered and perfected as a marketing technique.

Although the leaders of industry were voicing most of the optimism being heard it was the behind-the-scenes public-relations experts, Tide pointed out, who were carrying the main burden of strategy. "More than likely, a good deal of the credit should go to the high-level public-relations men involved; they are, after all, psychologists first and publicists second," it said. "They are the people who disseminate this confidence to the public, they frequently are the people who give the proper interpretation to industry announcements, and they very often are the people who write the speeches." Tide surveyed the nation's top persuader-publicists and found them fully in agreement that psychological marketing had become "another tool in the public-relations man's kit." As Tide said, "It is the P.R. men, guiding top management in the proper manner, timing, and approach in expansion announcements and expressions of confidence, who are winning the public's collective mind over to confidence." It explained that the crucial part of the psychology was not in the announcement of an expansion but the reason for it: "To fill the needs of a nation whose future is bright, and as an expression of absolute faith in economic growth."

The result of this new type of psychological marketing, it added, would be more sales, greater demand, higher gross national product. Tide conceded that some marketers were not sure of the soundness of "psychological marketing." It quoted the marketing director of the A.O. Smith Corporation as raising the thought that such an approach to marketing somehow smacked of deviousness. He felt that business was beginning to do a good job of humanizing itself, and he hesitated to thwart this by considering such efforts as a part of some psychological strategy.

However, he was evidently a part of a small if not lonely minority. Tide was so pleased with the movement to systematic optimism-generation that it became close to lyrical. "When they write the textbook of the economic history for the twentieth century," it said, "one chapter should deal with psychological marketing. The marketing leaders of today are laying down the basic lessons for the marketers of tomorrow to follow."

When in 1956 a top executive of one of the nation's top ad agencies passed the hat among his underlings for contributions to the Republican campaign, he put it squarely on the basis of preserving optimism. In his letter he said contributions to re-elect President Eisenhower would serve "to preserve this climate of business confidence."

Whether by instinct or by intent, President Eisenhower was their kind of man to have in Washington, optimistic to the core. As Dorothy Thompson, the columnist, put it: "He is optimistic, come hell or high water." The New York Times political analyst, James Reston, devoted more than a thousand words to detailing the resolute optimism of the Eisenhower Administration. At a time when the Middle East was sizzling, the Russians were off on a new tack, there were brush fires from Turkey to Indo-China and fairly substantial headaches at home, the Administration, he said, was looking upon the world "with determined optimism." He said, "Secretary of State Dulles . . . took correspondents on a tour of the world yesterday and found an optimistic side to every question. President Eisenhower, who is a living symbol of confidence, carried on the cheery offensive in his news conference today." Reston mentioned that the President talked a lot about the "morale" of Western peoples and concluded that the Administration was striving to keep up "morale" by persistently looking on the bright side of things. He added: "Some observers here believe this determination to look on the bright side of things ... is precisely why the President is so effective and popular a leader. Others think it is a Pollyanna attitude, a form of wishful thinking that wins votes but encourages popular illusions about the true state of world affairs."

When five hundred Republican leaders gathered at the Eisenhower farm in 1956 to launch the active campaigning, Chairman Hall cried, "Is everybody happy?" (They all chorused that they were.) The essence of Mr. Eisenhower's counsel was this thought for the campaign: "Don't underestimate the value of a grin."

Later a New York Times reporter following the grinning Mr. Eisenhower in his campaign travels commented: "The symbol of this campaign has been the smile on the face of the crowd in the President's wake. It is a peaceful, dreamy, faraway smile of pure contentment. . . ." This was written just a few days before the election, and just a few days before war broke out in the Middle East. The faraway smiles were replaced by looks of startled consternation.