Author: Vance Packard
Year of Publication: 1957
Page Count: 223
In our “connected” world, we are being bombarded with more advertising than ever before. A multi-billion dollar industry uses increasingly sophisticated techniques to convince us that we desperately need any of a vast array of products or services. And those techniques work. But how do they work? Answering that question is an important part of “propaganda-proofing” ourselves and our children. Vance Packard’s 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders (223 pages) is a classic investigation of the psychological techniques that the marketing industry had only recently begun to employ to impact consumer decisions.
Packard explores subjects like motivational analysis and subliminal techniques that are used to sell products from soap (“The cosmetic manufacturers are not selling lanolin, they are selling hope”) to political figures and their platforms. While this book is 65 years old and its examples are dated (Packard’s references to cigarette advertising may confound younger readers who have never seen such a thing!), the techniques he describes and the ways in which they were used form the foundation of an industry whose influence and reach has only grown astronomically over the intervening years. Packard argues that we are being manipulated (often without our knowledge) to become cogs in the consumerist machine, and that codes of conduct should be implemented to govern the use of “depth manipulation” techniques. It is difficult to imagine how such a code of conduct could ever be developed, let alone enforced, so the onus is on us, the objects of the advertisers’ work, as Packard admits.
His conclusion is an apt one, and explains why I’m reviewing and recommending this old book: “We still have a strong defence 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 was Packard’s hope that this book would contribute to the general awareness; it does, and we would do well to learn its lessons and put them into practice.