Sunday, July 5, 2009

Freud, Consumerism, and a Collapsing Economy

I heard a TV analyst remark that the economy is not recovering as quickly as anticipated. DUH!
It's like saying that the 900 pound woman who lost 150 pounds is still struggling with her weight. Or that the 30 year old man raised in the deep jungle from birth by wild gorillas is finding it difficult to adjust to life in suburban Philadelphia. I mean what do you expect. After almost ninety years of overspending and rewarding creative ways of marketing meaningless products we can't really believe that things are going to return to the way they were.

We take it for granted that our economy will grow and that our material world will continue to progress. We can't imagine going a few years without a new car, an updated cell phone, a more advanced computer, a more hip wardrobe, or a more exotic vacation. We get bored easily and need constant stimulation to maintain our interest in life. Many of our identities are based upon not only what we have but on our ability to keep getting more and more. How did this happen?

On one hand you could trace our financial problems to the time when we left our caves and began creating ,what we now call, civilization or to the moment when money was invented. You might even blame the "industrial revolution" or the invention of the automobile or the rise of the financial superstars (Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Kennedy). However, the degree to which our financial system got out of control cannot be the result of a specific event or a few individuals. In my opinion it is a result of a mind altering process whose origins can be traced to the 1920's.

What happened in the 20's was not a fundamental change in our nature. What happened was the creation of a new industry, public relations. It seems that a nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays, decided to apply the ideas of his uncle to business and especially to marketing.
Bernays believed, like Freud, that we were controlled not by our conscious thoughts but by deep-seated drives within our subconscious. If these deep desires could be tapped people could be motivated to act in ways that would benefit business owners. Check out the BBC video, "A Century of Self" for a detailed and brilliant account of how we have been controlled by the manipulation of our

One of Bernays' earliest assignments was to convince or manipulate women to smoke. Prior to Bernays entering the picture the cigarette market was almost entirely men. Bernays appealed to women's blossoming desire for equality and independence and doubled the cigarette market. He also created the modern clothing industry. Prior to his PR campaign most people had two or three outfits. Women had one for work and one for going out. Bernays designed a campaign that presented clothing as a way to express our individuality and changing moods. What had been an industry of necessity was changed into one where the average person could now express his sense of self.

These ideas of appealing to the subconscious and impacting the behavior of the masses evolved into our present advertising industry. The offshoots, including market research, consumer behaviorism, and modern day political science have also been shaped by the psychological theories of Freud and his earliest counterparts. For the past ninety years we have been bombarded by messages, both subliminal and direct, telling us what to think and how to behave if we want to be happy.

This has created our existing consumer mentality. The problem is it got out of hand. Even more than the development of life ending weaponry and the abuse of our environment we have gone over the line in our dependence on material things as the source of happiness. Plus, as we progressed, the degree of excesses especially in the banking, insurance, and, brokerage businesses have created an economic mess for which there is no easy solution.

This is not going to be a simple matter to correct. It is especially difficult because so many of our businesses and jobs are dependent on people continuing to buy things they don't really need. On one hand we can't continue to support behavior based on brainwashing. On the other hand for many of us our livelihood is dependent on continued and increasing consumer spending. I don't have the solution. I just believe we need to at least see the problem clearly.

1 comment:

  1. I think the problem is more that some in positions of greater power have abused the system. They have taken risks that should not have been taken and such as bankers, pension fund managers and brokerage houses investing the funds that are needed day to day or funds not intended for risk high risk investments.

    I also blame government for not letting these business people personally lose assets and for not letting the bad business models fail. J