January 2009


Vance Packard (no relation to Packard Motor Co.) wrote a book called Hidden Persuaders in 1957. It was deeply critical of market research and advertising and marketing, and topped the NY Times Best Sellers list. Reading his book (and the sequels The Status Seekers and  The Waste Makers)  is heartbreaking, because what it shows is that we’ve come so far, and yet we haven’t learned a thing. Women in 1956 bought 80% of consumer goods for the household, but marketers still aim ads towards men. A bigger car makes people feel safer, and people are ashamed to drive a car beyond three years old. Marketing put Eisenhower in power as the big daddy of the US, and fought the brand war between Republicans and Democrats with Nixon and Agnew. And advertisers aim their marketing to children on a reprehensible scale.

Packard identifies the usage of psychology in advertising, and catalogues the ways in which advertising markets things people do not need by manipulating desire. There are three things of particular note.

1.People don’t say they want what they really want. You can’t trust people to say ‘I want a smaller, more fuel-efficient car’ and then actually buy the damn thing.

2. Americans are peculiar because they automatically assume that bigger = better. They are also unable to stop working, and even during leisure time they must feel as if they are doing something. Hobbies and tours are big business. (This is particularly true, looking at the rise of virtual business in There, Second Life, WoW etc. The biggest dream of many people in virtual worlds is making a living from playing a game.)

3. People are irrational. Ridiculously, stupidly, easily manipulated irrational. But irrationality, Packard concludes, is luxury, and it makes people feel better that they can afford to  make irrational choices. He’s just suspicious of the amount of manipulation that goes on to influence people to make these choices.

Critiques of Packard basically state that it’s not that easy to manipulate people, and sometimes advertising doesn’t work, and our understanding of psychological buying is not perfect.

Sometimes advertising doesn’t work for particular products. But the world we live in is mad for buying and planned obsolescence, its economy is dependent on buying more and more, and that’s the world advertising and marketing helped make. Some dude got trampled to death at a Walmart during the Christmas rush by a mob that just wanted to buy a $388 flatscreen TV. This is a metaphor for all of us: we’re the security temp and the mob and the store and the Black Friday sale.

Why Not Start the Weekend on Wednesday?

We are twice as productive as our parents. We don’t have to be twice as rich, twice as consumptive, and twice as dangerous. Why not work half as much and stay the same?

Economists worry that slowing consumption harms the economy. It doesn’t have to.

If this were a gradual process, mass unemployment would not result. People would simply earn less, spend less, wear a few more secondhand clothes, and spend more time reading or going for walks.

And the alternative is trapping ourselves in a mad struggle to run a hedonic treadmill, buying more and more because we always want more than we can sate ourselves with, always comparing ourselves to our neighbors and always coming up short.

According to economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst, leisure time for women has increased by at least four hours a week since 1965. Men have done even better. That may well understate the leisure gains. A hundred years ago, many people would start working at the age of 10 or 12 and work until they died. Now it is common to spend fewer than half our years working; the rest of the time we spend studying, traveling, and in retirement.

The “work less, spend less” movement is winning. It’s a shame it hasn’t noticed.