Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957.
23. The Question of Morality
"The very presumptuousness of molding or affecting the human mind through the techniques we use has created a deep sense of uneasiness in our minds."
-- W. Howard Chase, president, Public Relations Society of America, 1956.
What are the implications of all this persuasion in terms of our existing morality? What does it mean for the national morality to have so many powerfully influential people taking a manipulative attitude toward our society? Some of these persuaders, in their energetic endeavors to sway our actions, seem to fall unwittingly into the attitude that man exists to be manipulated.
While some of the persuaders brood occasionally about the implications of their endeavors, others feel that what is progress for them is progress for the nation. Some of the depth marketers, for example, seem to assume that anything that results in raising the gross national product is automatically good for America. An ad executive from Milwaukee related in Printer's Ink that America was growing great by the systematic creation of dissatisfaction. He talked specifically of the triumph of the cosmetics industry in reaching the billion-dollar class by the sale of hope and by making women more anxious and critical about their appearance. Triumphantly he concluded: "And everybody is happy."
Others contend that the public has become so skeptical of advertising appeals that its psyche is not being damaged by all the assaults on it from the various media. (On the other hand, it can be pointed out that this growing skepticism was a major reason ad men turned to subconscious appeals. They wanted to bypass our conscious guard.)
Business Week, in dismissing the charge that the science of behavior was spawning some monster of human engineering who was "manipulating a population of puppets from behind the scenes," contended: "It is hard to find anything very sinister about a science whose principal conclusion is that you get along with people by giving them what they want."
But is "everybody happy"? And should we all be "given" whatever our ids "want"?
Certainly a good deal can be said on the positive side for the socially constructive results that have come from the explorations into human behavior arising from the persuaders' endeavors. The merchandisers in their sales appeals to us have gotten away from some of their crude excesses of old and are more considerate of our wants and needs, even if those needs are often subconscious. Edward Weiss, the ad executive, made this point when he said that social knowledge was helping ad men to "forget about the gimmicks and to concentrate on the real reasons why people buy goods." We've seen how the merchandisers of beer and other predominantly middle-class products have become more realistic in their messages.
Likewise a food packer became more sensible in his selling as a result of a depth study. He had been offering a free trip to Hollywood as a prize to persons who sent in the best fifty-word statement "Why I like. . . ." This brought in lots of statements but very little stimulation of sales. A depth study of housewives showed why. Married women with two children and a husband working weren't interested in going to Hollywood, free or otherwise. Who'd take care of the children and cook for the husband? An analysis of people sending in the statements showed they were mostly teen-agers who had never done any food shopping in their life!
The use of the insights of the social sciences in dealing with company personnel has likewise -- where not accompanied by "social engineering" -- brought some enlightened policies and constructive changes. Advanced Management reported that one large company now carefully interviews researchers and other responsible newcomers to find the conditions under which they feel they work best. Do they like to work alone, or with a group? Do they like their desk in a comer or in the middle of their cubicle? Do they like to work on one project at a time or have several going simultaneously? This management, in short, tries to manipulate the environment to suit the individual, not vice versa.
On the other hand, a good many of the people-manipulating activities of persuaders raise profoundly disturbing questions about the kind of society they are seeking to build for us. Their ability to contact millions of us simultaneously through newspapers, TV, etc., gives them the power, as one persuader put it, to do good or evil "on a scale never before possible in a very short time." Are they warranted in justifying manipulation on the ground that anything that increases the gross national product is "good" for America; or on the ground that the old doctrine "Let the Buyer Beware" absolves them of responsibility for results that may seem to some antisocial?
Perhaps the supporters of optimism-generation in both business and government can make an impressive case for the need to preserve public confidence if we are to have peace and prosperity. But where is it leading us? What happens, actually, to public confidence when the public becomes aware (as it gradually must) that the leaders of industry and government are resolutely committed to a confidence-inspiring viewpoint, come hell or high water?
How can you know what to believe?
It is my feeling that a number of the practices and techniques I've cited here very definitely raise questions of a moral nature that should be faced by the persuaders and the public. For example:
- What is the morality of the practice of encouraging housewives to be nonrational and impulsive in buying the family food?
- What is the morality of playing upon hidden weaknesses and frailties -- such as our anxieties, aggressive feelings, dread of nonconformity, and infantile hang-overs -- to sell products? Specifically, what are the ethics of businesses that shape campaigns designed to thrive on these weaknesses they have diagnosed?
- What is the morality of manipulating small children even before they reach the age where they are legally responsible for their actions?
- What is the morality of treating voters like customers, and child customers seeking father images at that?
- What is the morality of exploiting our deepest sexual sensitivities and yearnings for commercial purposes?
- What is the morality of appealing for our charity by playing upon our secret desires for self-enhancement?
- What is the morality of developing in the public an attitude of wastefulness toward national resources by encouraging the "psychological obsolescence" of products already in use?
- What is the morality of subordinating truth to cheerfulness in keeping the citizen posted on the state of his nation?
The persuaders themselves, in their soul-searching, are at times exceptionally articulate in expressing their apprehensions and in admitting some of their practices are a "little coldblooded." One of them, Nicholas Samstag, confessed in The Engineering of Consent: "It may be said that to take advantage of a man's credulity, to exploit his misapprehensions, to capitalize on his ignorance is morally reprehensible -- and this may well be the case. . . . I do not quite know."
The June, 1954, issue of The Public Relations Journal contained a remarkable venture into soul-searching by a Hawaiian public-relations man, Kleber R. Miller. He said, "What I wish to pose here is . . . whether the public-relations practitioner realizes the depths of the moral considerations involved," in some of his activities. He said the principal assumption is that the public-relations practitioner will be able to create on any desired scale "a climate of opinion and emotion that is most favorable to the cause of the client he represents. . . . The public-relations man is continually faced with the question whether the end justifies the means." Mr. Miller went on, "What degree of intensity is proper in seeking to arouse desire, hatred, envy, cupidity, hope, or any of the great gamut of human emotions on which he must play." He made this penetrating point:
"One of the fundamental considerations involved here is the right to manipulate human personality."
Such a manipulation, he went on to say, inherently involves a disrespect for the individual personality.
It seems to me that both the Advertising Research Foundation and the Public Relations Society of America might well concern themselves with drawing up realistic up-to-date codes defining the behavior of ethically responsible persuaders. Such codes might set up ground rules that would safeguard the public against being manipulated in ways that might be irresponsible and socially dangerous.
The social scientists and psychiatrists co-operating with the persuaders in their manipulative endeavors face some uncomfortable moral questions, too. Their questions perhaps are more perplexing. They have a workable rationale for explaining their co-operation with, say, the merchandisers. After all, they are, in their depth probing, broadening the world's available knowledge concerning human behavior, and they can explain that knowledge which is not put to use is lost. In this they could quote Alfred North Whitehead, who pointed out that knowledge doesn't keep any better than fish.
Still, there was the disturbing fact that some of them were being used by the manipulators. Printer's Ink devoted a special feature to the way social scientists "can be used" in merchandising problems. One point it made: "Use mostly those social scientists who demonstrate a knowledge and appreciation of business problems. Beware of those who don't. Many can be exceedingly naive and unscientific in their approach to advertising."
Perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of the situation for the scientists was stated by an ad executive writing under a pseudonym for The Nation. He said: "Social scientists in the past have paid attention to the irrational patterns of human behavior because they wish to locate their social origins and thus be able to suggest changes that would result in more rational conduct. They now study irrationality -- and other aspects of human behavior -- to gather data that may be used by salesmen to manipulate consumers."
In their efforts to be co-operative with the persuaders the scientists also showed some tendency to accept assumptions that definitely were dubious. In 1953 a leading advertising researcher concluded that Americans would have to learn to live a third better if they were to keep pace with growing production and permit the United States economy to hit a "$400,000,000,000 gross national product in 1958." (Actually it shot past the $400,000,000,000 mark in 1956.) To find how Americans could be persuaded to live a third better Tide put the question to "quite a few of the leading U.S. sociologists." The response of Professor Philip J. Allen, of the University of Virginia, was particularly interesting. He mapped out a "systematic program" by which it could be achieved, and stressed that his scheme would require:Sufficient financial backing for regular utilization of mass media, constantly to communicate the desired objectives to the 'common man." New values can be deliberately created, disseminated, and adopted as personal and collective goals highly desirable of achievement. But the concerted effort of the major social institutions -- particularly the educational, recreational, and religious -- must be enlisted with the ready cooperation of those in control of the mass media on the one hand and the large creators of goods and services who buy up time and space for advertising their "wares" on the other. . . . By utilizing the various tested devices, our modern genius in advertising may alight upon simple phrases well organized in sequence and timing, and co-ordinated with other efforts geared to realize the "grand design." But there are required a host of laborers with plenty of financial backing.
In mapping out his "grand design" for making us all more dutiful .consumers he accepted, without any question that I could note, the basic assumption that achieving the one-third-better goal was worth any manipulating that might be necessary to achieve it.
One of the experts consulted, Bernice Allen, of Ohio University, did question the assumption. She said: "We have no proof that more material goods such as more cars or more gadgets has made anyone happier -- in fact the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction."
It strikes me that it would be appropriate for the Social Science Research Council and such affiliates as the American Psychological Association to develop codes of ethics that would cover the kind of co-operation that can be condoned and not condoned in working with the people-manipulators. The American Psychological Association has a guidebook running 171 pages (Ethical Standards of Psychologists) that covers more than a hundred problems and cites hundreds of examples of dubious behavior, but there is barely a mention in the entire manual of the kind of co-operation with depth manipulators I have detailed. The A.P.A. does state: "The most widely shared pattern of values among psychologists appears to be a respect for evidence combined with a respect for the dignity and integrity of the human individual." That is an admirable statement and might well be spelled out in terms of permissible and nonpermissible behavior in the field of commerce.
Beyond the question of specific practices of the persuaders and their associated scientists is the larger question of where our economy is taking us under the pressures of consumerism. That, too, is a moral question. In fact I suspect it is destined to become one of the great moral issues of our times.
Industrialists such as General David Sarnoff contend that trying to hold back, or argue about, the direction our automated factories are taking us is like trying to hold back the tides and seasons. He feels it is pointless even to talk about the desirability of the trend. Some demur. The advertising director of a major soup company commented: "If we create a society just to satisfy automation's production, we will destroy the finest value in our society." There were also signs that some segments of the public itself might be less than grateful for the outpouring of goods our economy was bestowing upon us. In the mid-fifties Harper's published two articles taking a dim view of our worldly riches. One by economist Robert Lekachman, entitled "If We're So Rich, What's Eating Us?" recounted the outpouring of goods and said: "All these good things, worthy of universal exultation, have caused instead a chronic case of economic hypochondria." And Russell Lynes, in his bitter-funny article "Take Back Your Sable!" put in a good word for depressions, not the evils they produce but the climate: "A climate in many respects more productive than prosperity -- more interesting, more lively, more thoughtful, and even, in a wry sort of way, more fun."
Dr. Dichter has been quick to realize the essentially moral question posed by the across-the-board drive to persuade us to step up our consumption. His publication Motivations stated in April, 1956:We now are confronted with the problem of permitting the average American to feel moral even when he is flirting, even when he is spending, even when he is not saving, even when he is taking two vacations a year and buying a second or third car. One of the basic problems of this prosperity, then, is to give people the sanction and justification to enjoy it and to demonstrate the hedonistic approach to his life is a moral, not an immoral, one. This permission given to the consumer to enjoy his life freely, the demonstration that he is right in surrounding himself with products that enrich his life and give him pleasure must be one of the central themes of every advertising display and sales promotion plan.
On another occasion Dr. Dichter pointed out that the public's shift away from its "puritan complex" was enhancing the power of three major sales appeals: desire for comfort, for luxury, and for prestige.
The moral nature of the issue posed by the pressures on us to consume is pointed up by the fact religious spokesmen have been among the first to speak out in criticism of the trend. The minister of my own church, Loring Chase (Congregational in New Canaan, Conn.), devoted his Lenten sermon in 1956 to the problem of prosperity. The self-denial pattern of Lent, he said, "stands in vivid contrast to the prevailing pattern of our society, which keeps itself going economically by saying to us, 'You really owe it to yourself to buy this or that.'" He described the national picture provided by our economy of abundance and stated: "Over against this . . . one feels a certain embarrassment over Jesus' reminder that 'a man's life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions. . . .'" He concluded that "the issue is not one of few or many possessions. The issue is whether we recognize that possessions were meant to serve life, and that life comes first." The Protestant publication Christianity and Crisis contended that the next great moral dilemma confronting America would be the threat to the "quality of life" created by abundance of worldly goods. It conceded that if we are to have an expanding economy based on mass production we cannot deny the necessity of mass consumption of new goods, and "for this advertising is obviously essential. Yet there is a dilemma," it explained. "We are being carried along by a process that is becoming an end in itself and which threatens to overwhelm us. ... There is a loss of a sense of proportion in living when we become so quickly dissatisfied with last year's models."
The profound nature of the dilemma was clearly drawn, however, when it added: "This is not to criticize those who make the products in question or those who promote and sell them. They and all of us who consume them are caught up in the same whirl. This whirl is so much the substance of our life that it is difficult to get outside it long enough to look at it and ask where it all leads us."
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr likewise took note of the dilemma by pointing out that the problem of achieving "a measure of grace" in an economy of abundance was very perplexing. And he added that "we are in danger . . . of developing a culture that is enslaved to its productive process, thus reversing the normal relation of production and consumption."
This larger moral problem of working out a spiritually tolerable relationship between a free people and an economy capable of greater and greater productivity may take decades to resolve. Meanwhile, we can address ourselves to the more specific problem of dealing with those more devious and aggressive manipulators who would play upon our irrationalities and weaknesses in order to channel our behavior. I concede that some pushing and hauling of the citizenry is probably necessary to make our $400,000,000,000-a-year economy work, with lures such as premiums and thirty-six-months-to-pay. But certainly our expanding economy can manage to thrive without the necessity of psycho-testing children or mind-molding men or playing upon the anxieties we strive to keep to ourselves. America is too great a nation -- and Americans too fine a people -- to have to tolerate such corrosive practices.
We still have a strong defense available against such persuaders: we can choose not to be persuaded. In virtually all situations we still have the choice, and we cannot be too seriously manipulated if we know what is going on. It is my hope that this book may contribute to the general awareness. As Clyde Miller pointed out in The Process of Persuasion, when we learn to recognize the devices of the persuaders, we build up a "recognition reflex." Such a recognition reflex, he said, "can protect us against the petty trickery of small-time persuaders operating in the commonplace affairs of everyday life, but also against the mistaken or false persuasion of powerful leaders. . . ."
Some persons we've encountered who are thoroughly acquainted with the operations of the merchandising manipulators, I should add, still persist in acts that may be highly tinged with illogicality. They admit to buying long, colorful cars they really don't need and sailboats that they concede probably appeal to them because of childhood memories (if the Dichter thesis applies). Furthermore, they confess they continue brushing their teeth once a day at the most illogical time conceivable from a dental-health standpoint -- just before breakfast. But they do all these things with full knowledge that they are being self-indulgent or irrational. When irrational acts are committed knowingly they become a sort of delicious luxury.
It is no solution to suggest we should all defend ourselves against the depth manipulators by becoming carefully rational in all our acts. Such a course not only is visionary but unattractive. It would be a dreary world if we all had to be rational, right-thinking, nonneurotic people all the time, even though we may hope we are making general gains in that direction.
At times it is pleasanter or easier to be nonlogical. But I prefer being nonlogieal by my own free will and impulse rather than to find myself manipulated into such acts.
The most serious offense many of the depth manipulators commit, it seems to me, is that they try to invade the privacy of our minds. It is this right to privacy in our minds -- privacy to be either rational or irrational -- that I believe we must strive to protect.