Fighting for the self: the advertising industry against the educational system

My colleagues did a good job at critically reviewing David Orr talk; I will therefore try not to repeat what they already said by following a thread that Prof. Orr mentioned without developing it further. Near the end of his presentation, he mentioned Edward Bernays’ influence on the American society (and by now, on the world) as a piece of the puzzle explaining the ‘failures’ of the educational system and the ongoing ecological crisis he depicted through his talk.
Edward Bernays, for those who might not know, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He introduced his thought in the U.S., not to treat patients psychoanalytically, but to control and influence the masses by calling upon their powerful unconscious drives. He called this molding of opinion “engineering of consent.” He is the father of what we now call ‘public relation’, which was a new name for ‘domestic propaganda’ after the First World War, and one of the pioneers of a new kind of advertisement, which aimed at associating an image to a product. From then on, the advertising industry was all about changing the consumer of useful goods into a consumer of symbolic status, into a citizen whose identity was dependent upon (and formed by) what and how much he consumed. Contrary to the consumption of useful and lasting products, the consumption of symbols (also known as ‘positional goods’) can be endless. Promoting products as symbols of identities and ‘life styles’ (another concept of Bernays) became the motor of the American industry and it insured that the demand would always be there for what the industry could offer. Slowly, being a good American citizen became being a good consumer, since consuming an endless number of rapidly changing symbolic goods insured the vitality of the American industry.(1)
With this background in mind, let’s return to what David Orr said about Bernays. He basically said two things: 1) the advertising industry in the U.S. is half a trillion dollar industry; 2) to mold the citizen into a good consumer, it is in the interest of the advertising industry to try to prevent the full development of the self of its consumers.
1) The never ending consumption of symbolic goods, which are already waste the next day, is an extremely environmentally unfriendly behavior. With such a financial power promoting this behavior through advertising, one can wonder what we could do about it (and what would be the cost of doing something, since this behavior is an important economic driver). To say but one thing, the Americans could ask their representatives to stop financing, with their own taxes, the advertising industry which makes them feel unsatisfied with what they already have, since companies in the U.S. can count the cost of their advertisements as an expense to reduce their taxable profits. In other words, this means that public funds pay a part of their advertisements – an example of what has been called a ‘perverse subsidy’.
2) The second point ties in with the question of education. If the powerful advertising industries strive to prevent the development of the self, to maintain it to the level of infantile self-gratification through immediate material consumption, to a level easily influenced through the basic wants and fears of the ‘id’ (to use Freud’s jargon), then the educational system is directly opposed in its aim (when it aims at forming whole persons) to the aim of the advertising industry. There is probably no way of knowing what chances the educational system have of resisting or fighting the opposite tendency, but what we do know, however, is that we must be vigilant to fight and resist the ‘subtle corruption’ of the universities (as Prof. Orr called it) by corporate funding in order to preserve this island of personal development, cultural resistance and critical thinking.

(1) On this, see the very good BBC documentary: The Century of the Self.

3 Responses to “Fighting for the self: the advertising industry against the educational system”

  1. Jones says:

    I think Merle has hit upon an imporant point here. I am becoming convinced that we are not cynical enough when we consider the role that corporations play in moulding our lives. A great book is ‘Information War’ by Nancy Snow, which touches briefly on the ideas Merle raises in this post. The thrust of her book is that the exact same techniques used in marketing to promote products and make us believe we need them are being used in many other spheres such as war propaganda (selling America as a desirable product to those who are being bombed). I think the degree to which we have been shaped and are currently being shaped by other interests has not been appreciated, and may largely be unknown. Much of the mind-control is subtle and inconspicuous.
    Should we borrow a page from marketing techniques and promote our ideas through subtle, and not so subtle, forms of propaganda?

  2. crocus says:

    I may have touched on this in another post awhile ago, but I think that in some ways the recent move towards environmental consciousness is due to advertising. It is hip and trendy to be green…. unfortunately the other side of the coin is that business is still pushing a product. So while buying organic clothing and energy saving devices are better than the alternatives, it is still a promotion of consumption when really the goal should be to reduce (non-consumption).

    Perhaps instead of advertising telling us that “identity [is] dependent upon (and formed by) what and how much [we] consume”, the new fad can be that we are a collection of what and how much we do not consume. However, that would presuppose that the merits of the person (integrity, generosity, meaningful work, etc), could be valued over that new, way-cool, super popular, (fill in the blank).