Moved by an unseen hand


WASHINGTON -- Forty years ago Vance Packard, who died last week at 82, touched a national nerve with a book that was, in a sense, self-refuting. He sounded a theme that, elaborated, became part of postwar liberalism and one reason for that doctrine's decline.

"The Hidden Persuaders," one of the best sellers of 1957, warned Americans about what Mr. Packard considered their deepening submission to a subtle tyranny of selling. It was the first of a fusillade of Packard books -- next came "The Status Seekers" (1959), then "The Waste Makers" (1960) -- about the enervation of society by a culture of "consumerism." Americans, he said, were becoming passive clay shaped by the hands of cunning advertisers.

In 1945, after 15 years of Depression and war, Americans' pent-up demands for almost everything exploded, powering the most prodigious economic expansion in world history.

This in turn produced a cottage industry of social criticism catering to the anxiety that Americans were becoming a bovine herd characterized by "conformity" and "materialism," mindlessly consuming to slake manufactured appetites, including the thirst for "status" conferred by conspicuous consumption of material possessions. Mind you, the authors of the books, and their readers, exempted themselves from their indictment of everyone else on charges of docility, gullibility and almost imbecility.

A 1957 novel, "On the Road," was partly a protest against the supposed death of individualism, spontaneity and authenticity. Other book titles were telling: "The Organization Man," "The Lonely Crowd," "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit." Oh, for the days when blandness -- a surfeit of grey flannel -- was considered an American social problem.

As society has become more hierarchical, complex and opaque, and social processes have come to seem more impersonal and autonomous, more and more people have become susceptible to doubts about individual autonomy. "Do we move ourselves, or are we moved by an unseen hand?" wrote Tennyson.

Mr. Packard, playing Cassandra at America's postwar banquet, said we are moved by Madison Avenue, which he depicted as an Orwellian force armed with the sinister science of market research, manipulating mass behavior by implanting cravings.

Two theories of shopping

It has been said (by Daniel Boorstin) that whereas Europeans shop to get what they want, Americans shop to discover what they want. Mr. Packard's thesis was that advertising constantly prepares Americans for shopping, turning wants into synthetic needs.

In 1957 the Edsel appeared, backed by Ford's full merchandising might. The ensuing proof that the public is not plastic to the touch of "persuaders" did nothing to dampen the warm reception the intelligentsia gave, in 1958, to John Kenneth Galbraith's "The Affluent Society."

Never one to allow mere facts to inconvenience the flow of theories, Mr. Galbraith simply asserted that capitalism had become dangerously dominant by emancipating itself from subordination to supply and demand. It had done this by acquiring mastery over demands, which could be tailored by advertising to conform to the capacities and conveniences of producers of goods and services.

Actually, most advertising aims less to increase aggregate demand for a category of goods or services than to increase a brand's market share. Pepsi's primary advertising goal is not to make people thirsty, or to get them to buy Pepsis rather than Pontiacs, but rather to get them to buy Pepsis instead of Cokes.

Furthermore, the average American reportedly can recall only about two of the approximately 600 television commercials he sees each week. Even before Americans became armed with remote-control wands with mute buttons, they became sophisticated at detecting and dissecting (with the help of books like Vance Packard's) or, more often, ignoring the "persuaders," which are about as "hidden" as the riot of neon in Times Square.

Today's social environment constantly plucks at one's sleeve, even grabs one's lapels. In a normal week the average American probably is exposed to more messages, printed or spoken, from nonacquaintances than a 14th-century peasant was exposed to in a lifetime. In response to this blitzkrieg of stimuli, people develop, perhaps in their neurological wiring, filters and blocking mechanisms. Otherwise they would be driven mad by the din.

But one faction clings to the notion of Americans as incompetents, needing the regulatory regime of a nanny state to save them from victimization. Forty years after Mr. Packard found a mass market for his thesis that the masses are unconscious victims of guileful advertisers, what sits atop liberalism's agenda? Amending the First Amendment, if necessary, in order to enable the government to protect the vulnerable public from what liberals consider excessive amounts of political advertising.

That is, campaign-finance reform. The pedigree of an idea can indeed be embarrassing.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 12/19/96

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