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The Hidden Persuaders: The best book I (n)ever read

July 8, 2013 1 Comment

hidden-persuadersIn 2007 there were a number of reviews and appreciations of The Hidden Persuaders written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its publication. I just finished reading a very interesting account by Michelle Nelson, called “The Hidden Persuaders, Then and Now,” published in the Journal of Advertising, Spring 2008. Diligent googling might find you a copy out there on the interwebs somewhere.

Nelson offers not only a useful update of how Packard’s ruminations hold up 50 years later (quick answer: not badly), but also some surprises about how the book is used polemically today versus what it actually said.

Here was the big surprise for me … (drum roll please) … The Hidden Persuaders never mentioned subliminal advertising!  According to Nelson (who, unlike me and, apparently, a lot of other people, actually read the book):

Packard never mentioned the word subliminal, however, and devoted very little space to discussions of “subthreshold” effects. Instead, his views largely aligned with the notion that individuals do not always have access to their conscious thoughts and can be persuaded by supraliminal messages without their knowledge.

Packard also never discussed the infamous James Vicary “experiment” in which popcorn and Coke sales were supposedly boosted by placing subliminal messages in movie theater trailers.  (Vicary later admitted he made the whole thing up, another part of the story that often gets lost in the mythology.)

For Packard, the “hidden persuaders” were not the purveyers of subliminal messages, but the practitioners of psychoanalytical techniques such as depth interviews which were believed at the time to reveal unconscious motivators that could be tapped in advertising messaging:

Rather than focusing on techniques for the creation of embedded messages in advertisements, the book mostly concentrated on research, especially the work of motivational researchers such as Ernest Dichter …and Louis Cheskin …. These men brought psychoanalytical techniques to the study of underlying consumer motives. … Through conversations with these men and other advertising professionals and exemplar case studies, Packard exposed the use of depth interview techniques. The goal was to get consumers “musing absentmindedly about all the ‘pleasures, joys, enthusiasms, agonies, nightmares, deceptions, apprehensions the product recalls to them’” (Smith quote, in Packard 1957, p. 31). With such insight, the creatives could produce more effective advertising.

Why was this seen as such a threat?  To answer that we have to look at the cultural milieu of the time and the contemporary state of knowledge regarding the brain and the mind.  Before the birth of cognitive psychology in the 1960s, the prevailing paradigm in psychology was behaviorism, based on the belief that the mind was a black box that, given the right input, could be caused to produce the right output.  In other words, mind control was seen as a practical and attainable objective.  Nelson again:

Indeed, from a philosophic viewpoint, what psychoanalytical (motivational) research and behaviorism shared was the suggestion of coercion. “Both of these forms assert that man is determined to act the way he does without resort to conscious control. They assert that advertising bypasses the conscious mind and causes consumers to change their tastes” (Kirkpatrick 1986, p. 45). Such fears were described vividly in discussions of  The Hidden Persuaders. Theodore Levitt asked: “What are the effects of manipulation—whether it be blatant persuasion or subtle motivation like the hidden persuaders? Will we become a nation of robots with mechanical appetites?” (1960, p. 443).

Recall that this is the same era that brought us Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a cinematic portrayal of the same primal fear that our fragile minds can easily be taken over by forces beyond our control.

So today we have two ironic legacies.  One is the legacy of fear – that our minds can be hijacked by “hidden persuaders” wielding subliminal messages we cannot resist.  And the irony is that Vance Packard was never the prophet of this fear, in fact he had a completely different set of “hidden persuaders” in mind.

The second legacy is that the true inheritors of Packard’s hidden persuaders are not the “neuromarketers” with their “mind control” technologies, but the guerilla marketers, buzz marketers, and stealth marketers who advocate and utilize deceptive techniques to fool consumers into believing that their persuasive messages are not in fact persuasive messages.  And here the irony is that these techniques seem to be far less interesting to the journalistic and consumer-alert watchdogs, who continue to muse about mind control as the real threat, with Vance Packard as their standard bearer.

None of this is to deny that implicit and preconscious processes do in fact occur – as I have described in an earlier post, they are fundamental to how our brains work, not just with regard to advertising, but with regard to everything we experience in the world around us.  As for what this implies for how we respond to real advertising – that is, persuasive messaging that labels itself as such – that topic is covered in another post.
Nelson, M. (2008). The Hidden Persuaders: Then and Now Journal of Advertising, 37 (1), 113-126 DOI: 10.2753/JOA0091-3367370109

Originally posted in my defunct blog, August 15, 2009.

About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

Comments (1)

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  1. ivv says:

    I was just asking myself how come Packard never mentioned Vicary’s experiment in Hidden Persuaders, and ended up doing some digging (which is how I ended up on this page). The explanation is simple – Hidden Persuaders first came out in April 1957, and Vicary announced the results of his “experiment” in September 1957.

    (I realize I’m writing this 3 years after the original post, but maybe it will be useful to someone else with the same question.)

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