Motivational research and the death drive

by Rob Horning

16 February 2007


I picked up a copy of Vance Packard’s classic ad-scare polemic, The Hidden Persuaders, in a thrift store recently—a Pocket Book edition that originally cost 35 cents. It’s not even a pocket-size paperback, and the dried, no-longer-adhesive glue cracks every time I open it. I love the cover, which has no illustration, just alarmist announcements of all of marketing’s mind-control-like secrets—whose salaciousness is barely concealed, if at all: “WHY men think of a mistress when they see a convertible in a show window. WHY women in supermarkets are attracted to items wrapped in red. WHY automobiles get longer and longer.” What makes Packard’s book such an effective piece of propaganda about psychologically oriented marketing is that it always suggests that the stupid shopping decisions we make aren’t our doing really but the result of evil advertisers’ manipulation. This twist lets readers pretend they can have the pleasures of shopping without the responsibilities; it puts their consumerism in the passive voice. Reading Packard’s sensationalized accounts of Pierre Martineau (whose Motivation in Advertising is a kind of companion volume to Packard’s book, well-worth reading, if only for its genial cynicism) and Ernest Dichter (a perfectly villainous sounding name for the founder of Motivational Research), we can become incensed at all the ways we have been tricked or gloat to ourselves over all the times we resisted and outsmarted Dichter’s overlords, the devious ad men (always men in this 1950s text). Packard’s outrage that science would ever be employed to exploit people—that scientists might love money more than an abstract notion of humankind and posterity—has a refreshing naiveté to it, and I’m pre-sold on the argument that consumer society needs to invent a new kind of consumer who wants to buy, buy, buy constantly, as if against his own will. In Packard’s account, depth psychology is deployed to “invade the privacy of our minds” and sell personality to people who hadn’t even realized they needed more of one. And consumers must be made to feel constantly discontented and led to think it common sense that buying something more could fix that feeling. (This is sometimes celebrated as a ambitious faith in innovation, a force that keeps the economy growing.) At times he hints at the considerably more interesting thesis that depth psychology may actually invent the notion of personality, the desires that adhere to a lifestyle concocted on some paste-up board on Madison Avenue—that motivational research posits and inculcates the motivation that it originally sought to merely describe. Packard works to make the line between description and inculcation hard to draw, so that once a shared human preference is noted by psychology researchers, it is immediately instrumentalized into something to manipulate people to behave in ways counter to their best interests. Common advertising tropes—the promise of transformation, say—yield irresistible symbols (never mind how these change over time—long cars become big trucks, I guess) that can operate on us against our will; suddenly we become helpless at the subliminal sight of ice cream, we are duped into becoming brand loyalists by the clever way our subconscious desires are toyed with. One chapter describes women being literally hypnotized by products in the supermarket.

It’s easy to mock the alarmist histrionics and complain about the paternalism this analysis seems to invite—the restriction of ads to protect people from things they only seem to want.  (The libertarian would be prompted to argue, If individuals can’t be trusted to know what they’d prefer, why should we then trust a government agency to decide it? From this perspective any desire we might feel is valid by definition, and it’s absurd to argue that we are duped into wanting cosmetics or big, dumb cars or cigarettes or whatever.) Ads become like drugs—people seem to derive pleasure from them, but it is a pleasure that works on a reward system that is out of the individual’s rational control and is therefore dangerous. This interpretation intrigues me because it is sometimes overlooked that ads are not merely reeducation campaigns but do provide pleasure—we enjoy resisting them, enjoy submitting to them, enjoy the way they stock our imagination with fantasies and give us a shape for our aspirations. But they also make us angry at all the other forms of experience they crowd out or cannibalize. Our ambivalence ultimately provides enough of a wedge for ads to slip through and colonize everything; they become an ambient presence, inevitable, about as worthwhile to complain about as smog or litter. The power to do anything about ads is obviously beyond any individual’s control, so we make our own private deals with them, getting what we can.

Packard went on to write about planned obsolescence in The Waste Makers, which pushed the notion that society is trained to celebrate wastefulness, usually in the form of fashion, which champions change for its own sake, or for the sake of establishing hierarchy. Written in the margin of that book I had written a note about comparing planned obsolescence to Veblen and Bataille’s “The Notion of Expenditure,” which ridicules the common sense notion of utility. Seeing all utility as confining and disciplinary in its rationality (usefulness implies production, which implies work), Bataille argues for a kind of anti-utility in destructive play, “expenditure,” a pointless waste that society nonetheless relies upon: “luxury, mourning, war, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, art, perverse sexual activity.” Veblen rationalized waste as “conspicuous consumption”—showy displays that attempt to establish one’s wealth incontrovertibly. No one feels richer than the guy lighting $100 bills on fire. Waste, for Veblen, is not waste but a status purchase. But Bataille follows anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who in Essai sur le don links wasteful displays to potlatch rituals, competitive gift exchange which often verges into sacrificial waste. The greatest glory (which Bataille defines as the most absurd and rapacious waste) comes with losing the most; it’s a short leap from there to the masochistic impulse of surrendering all of your will in a perfect potlatch gesture that can’t be topped. This ties back to the manipulative ads that can dictate our will; these ads fulfill this fantasy of surrendering our will but within a safe context, where the repercussions are small and contained—the ads are socially tolerated safe zone for this kind of submissiveness. Ads can make us feel rich in will, so rich that we can give it up rather than exercise it.

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