‘A Book in Five Minutes’ no.18
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‘The Hidden Persuaders’
Vance Packard (1957)

From branding to political propaganda, Vance Packard’s book prefigured the use of psychological research and market segregation to more precisely sway public opinion for economic and political ends.

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Cover of the first UK edition of ‘The Hidden Persuaders’
‘The Hidden Persuaders’:

First hardback edition, David McKay Company, 1957.

First paperback edition, Pocket Books, 1958.

First UK edition, Longmans, Green, & co. 1957.

Latest paperback edition, Ig Publishing 2007. ISBN 9780-9788-4310-6.

Free on-line copy (via internet Archive), David McKay Company, 1957.

Vance Packard’s, ‘The Hidden Persuaders’, was first published in 1957. It reviews how advertising and public relations first mastered the use of psychological techniques in order to create not only economic power, but also social pressure through the development of what later became, ‘brand identification’.

In the last of three related reviews we come to a book published sixty-five years ago: Sahlins’, ‘Stone Age Economics’, contrasted the structure of the consumer society today with reference to what came before; Linder’s, ‘The Harried Leisure Class’, considered how economic rationalisations were being forced into people’s everyday lives by a lack of spare time; This book shows us how the modern economy learned how to manipulate perceptions in order to normalise this lifestyle.

As Packard says at the beginning:

“This book... It is about the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness; so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, ‘hidden’. The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realise, in the patterns of our everyday lives.”

Picture of Vance Packard
Vance Oakley Packard
22nd May 1914 – 12th Dec. 1996, American journalist & social critic.

Many attribute the popularisation of ‘subliminal advertising’ to Packard. That’s not correct – and would not take place until well over a decade later in Wilson Brian Key’s, ‘Subliminal Seduction’.

What distinguishes Packard’s work is that he was a journalist, not an academic or an insider. While his books are not deeply technical, they are far more accessible for the average person. And with decades of hindsight, many acknowledge the prescience of his observations on the economic pressures pervading modern society.

Clearly, after sixty-five years, the details the book explores are archaic in terms of recent practise. However, if you want to understand how companies and lobby groups wield influence today, this book is an excellent guide to how ‘opinion manipulation’ emerged from the 1940s to the 1970s – paving the way for political communications today.

As Packard describes:

Cover of Vance Packard’s, ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ (Ig Books 2007)
Ig Books 2007 mass paperback edition.

“What the probers are looking for are the whys of our behaviour, so that they can more effectively manipulate our habits and choices in their favour... Certain of the probers, for example, are systematically feeling out our hidden weaknesses and frailties in the hope that they can more efficiently influence our behavior... in an attempt to find how to identify, and beam messages to, people of high anxiety, body consciousness, hostility, passiveness, and so on.”

What Packard describes is the growing use of psychology, and in particular corporate-funded psychological research with specific end-goals, as a tool in public influence. He explores the use of psychological feedback from market research to influence public opinion; trying many different ways of hitting people’s psychological weak spots until one is found which has the greatest effect on the largest audience. This is the beginnings of what today, enabled by the Internet, is called, ‘micro-targeting’.

Where Packard excels, though, admittedly without realising it, was the way in which he prefigured the use of these techniques in political opinion forming. In the 1950s that didn’t happen because the political class couldn’t understand the application of these techniques. Packard was one of the first to highlight the growing role of public opinion research, and its first incarnation in the process we would now call ‘strategic communications’.

Cover of Vance Packard’s, ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ (Pelican Books edition, 1970)
Pelican Books UK paperback (1970)

As Packard explains:

“Persuaders who earn their livelihood as public-relations experts sometimes feel a little under-appreciated when they see the massive persuasion efforts undertaken by their colleagues, the ad men. As Edward Bernays [commented]: ‘Many more millions are spent in engineering consent for products than in creating favourable attitudes toward the companies which make them...’ He went on to urge his co-workers to borrow from the advanced persuasion techniques being practised in the marketing field, ‘because organized research is much more highly developed here’.”

Just a few years after the book’s publication, the 1964 US presidential election would see Lyndon Johnson face off Barry Goldwater with the first psychologically-refined ‘attack ads’ on TV. Packard could see this was where the industry was heading through the use of advertising in the elections of the 1950s:

“Effective political manipulation and mass persuasion in this kind of situation had to wait upon the appearance of the symbol manipulators. They did not turn their attention to politics in a serious way until the 1950s. Then in a few short years, climaxing in the Presidential campaign of 1956, they made spectacular strides in changing the traditional characteristics of American political life.”

What would transform political opinion forming was the combination of these new psychological techniques with the television production technologies emerging in the late 1960s.

A key figure here is Roger Ailes. He started as a successful television producer, who then went to work for the Richard Nixon campaign in 1967 where he integrated television production with opinion forming research – elevating these techniques to a level Packard could only theorise about.

Cover of Vance Packard’s, ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ (revised 2007 edition)
Most recent Ig Books paperback (revised 2007 edition)

Ailes’ most significant step, though, was when he was hired by Rupert Murdoch to run Fox News in 1996. He not only made the news channel profitable – dragging the rest of the emerging rolling news world with him in the way he defined the format – but he also created the right-wing political influence vehicle that would ultimately birth Donald Trump.

‘The Hidden Persuaders’ is a book that should be read to understand how opinion forming operates today. Economists might have created this system, but it was the media – harrying our alert and subconscious minds – which normalised that world view. The text may be dated, but it gives a valuable window onto how these techniques have become routine to bend public opinion today.