Main ISR Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialist Review, Winter 1959


Paul Abbott

Sure, They’re Honest


From International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.1, Winter 1959, pp.30-31.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Big Name
by William M. Freeman
Printer’s Ink Books, New York. 1957. 230 pp. $3.75.

The Hidden Persuaders
by Vance Packard
Pocket Books, Inc.. New York. 1957. 242 pp. 35c.

Although there are “marginal operators interested only in the quick buck,” today’s advertisers as a rule are honest. They have learned “that an honest advertisement pays richer dividends in continuing public patronage than any other type of copy.” The Big Name purports to be a study of how the most effective type of advertisement, the testimonial, came to be honest. The book also contains valuable information on how to wangle or buy signatures to testimonials (which are most often prepared by advertising agencies), how to avoid having testimonials create a sour response among consumers or result in damaging law suits.

Part of the secret is to undertake “a careful investigation” of the big-name signers of testimonials “in regard to morals, political beliefs, possibility of controversial aspects and any other implications that might not serve the best interests of the client. For example, it would not help very much to have John Smith, well-known poet, endorse the Thom McAn Jaguar Model shoe as the best for strolling in a sylvan dell and composing immortal lines for the Pulitzer prize, only to have it disclosed that he walked in the woods to leave messages for a spy ring in a pumpkin.”

In The Hidden Persuaders, a serious study, Vance Packard does not pay much attention to the “honesty” of the advertising racket. He notes that $9,000,000,000 was spent in advertising in the United States in 1955, roughly $53 for each man, woman, and child. Why does Big Business feel such compelling need to persuade people to buy the commodities they make?

The basic answer is that industry is producing “perhaps as much as 40%” more than the market can absorb. Under threat of extinction each company must increase its share of the market and all of them face the threat of “a great depression.”

Packard surveys what the pitchmen are doing to induce greater buying, particularly how they are using depth psychology to get the public to buy despite its own best interests and rational inclinations. Packard’s findings are startling, often amusing, and sometimes shocking.

The use of depth psychology by the hucksters is a perversion of science, in Packard’s opinion. Grave enough in the commodity market, its extension into other fields involves the fate of America’s democratic institutions. Both the Democratic and Republican machines, Packard notes, have turned increasingly to the hucksters to sell their candidates, “drawing upon the insights of Pavlov and his conditioned reflexes, Freud and his father images, Riesman and his concept of modern American voters as spectator-consumers of politics, and Batten, Barten, Durstine and Osborn and their mass merchandising lore.”

In what sinister ways the big corporations use the new psychological findings, beside stepping up the sales of cheese or prunes, is indicated by such instructive examples of their handling of employees as the following:

“Several companies were reported employing a psychiatrist on a full-time basis. And increasingly employees began being psycho-tested in various ways while on the job. At a Boston department store girl clerks had to wait on customers with the knowledge that a psychologist was somewhere in the background watching them and recording their every action on an instrument called an ‘interaction chronograph,’ which recorded data on a tape recorder. The notations made of each girl’s talk, smile, nods, gestures while coping with a customer provided a picture of her sociability and resourcefulness.”

Psycho-testing in the selection of personnel for management goes so far as to include the wives of applicants. Fortune magazine is quoted:

“Management knows exactly what kind of wife it wants. With a remarkable uniformity of phrasing, corporation officials all over the country sketch the ideal. In her simplest terms she is a wife who is (1) highly adaptable, (2) highly gregarious, (3) realizes her husband belongs to the corporation.”

A study of 8,300 executives, reported in the Harvard Business Review, put it even more bluntly when it stated that the mid-century American wife of an executive “must not demand too much of her husband’s time or interest. Because of his single-minded concentration on his job, even his sexual activity is relegated to a secondary place.”

The liveliness of this expose of Big Business huckstering and where it is taking us is illustrated by the following item which explains why the laughter at some of the jokes on TV comedy programs appears to have come from a brain-washed audience:

“It has been discovered, or purportedly discovered, that people are more apt to laugh and enjoy themselves if they hear other people laughing.” But live audiences are not tractable; often they don’t laugh when the advertiser wants them to. “As a result of this need for canned laughter companies have sprung up selling laughs by the platter, with such labels as ‘applause’; ‘applause with whistles’; ‘applause – large spirited audience’; and ‘large audience in continuous hilarity.’ TV comedy writer Goodman Ace explains how this works ... ‘The producer orders a gross of assorted yaks and boffs, and sprinkles the whole sound track with a lacing of simpering snorts.’ On another occasion he said that the canned laugh is ‘woven in wherever the director imagines the joke or situation warrants a laugh. It comes in all sizes and the director has to be a pretty big man who can resist splicing in a roar of glee when only a chuckle would suffice.’

“With the growing need for synthetic hilarity in precise dosages more refined techniques for producing it were developed. One network engineer invented an organlike machine with six keys that can turn on and off six sizes of laughter from small chuckles to rolling-in-the-aisle guffaws. By using chords the operator can improvise dozens of variations on the six basic quantitative laughs. Also according to Newsweek the producer of the I Love Lucy show developed a machine that can produce one hundred kinds of laughs.”

Top of page

Main ISR Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on: 2 May 2009