The Century of the Selfrecommended viewing

The man who sold the world
★★★★
☆
Released: 
2003
Director: 
Adam Curtis
The Setup: 
A history of how Freud's theories were used in the fields of advertising and politics.
Discussion: 

This is a BBC documentary from 2003 that was shown at a theater here in New York City in two sets with two parts each. Since it was created by the BBC in Britain, I suspect at some point it'll be shown on the BBC America channel, and hopefully available on DVD. Anyway, it's a fairly interesting topic, tracing the development of American society, the field of advertising, and politics, and exploring fascinating connections between all three.

It begins with Freud's nephew Edward Bernays [above], credited with creating the field and the term 'public relations.' Bernays took Freud's understanding that human beings are essentially irrational beings that act mainly out of self-interest, and applied it to advertising. Until then, advertising was primarily based on facts; this pillowcase will last longer, or that gasoline gets better mileage. What Bernays did is move advertising away from facts and on to the irrational feeling that a product will give you; i.e. this pillowcase will show what a conscientious homemaker you are. He was the first to shift consumption to desires as opposed to needs.

His first triumph was during the late 20s, convincing women to smoke. He surveyed psychoanalysists to determine why women wouldn't smoke. The reason, they said, was that women see cigarettes as phallic symbols that represent men's power, and feel it would be improper for a woman to smoke. Bernays hired a bunch of women to pose as suffragettes in a parade, and had them pull out cigarettes in front of a group of reporters, calling them "torches of freedom." He succeeded in making women's smoking an issue of women's rights, and women never went back.

Another coup came with the advent of instant cake mix in the 40s. Women weren't buying it. Psychoanalysists were interviewed, and they concluded that women felt that they weren't DOING enough when they made an instant cake, and they were ashamed to give it to their husband. The answer? Require the inclusion of an egg in the mix. That way, the baker feels like he or she is contributing in some way, and symbolically, women are presenting an egg to their husband. Sales took off.

The majority of the second hour is devoted to how these insights were applied to politics, detailing the two views of human nature; that people are irrational, and have to be kept comfortable and controlled by a ruling elite, or that they can be trusted to make rational decisions if given the correct information. One example given of Bernays' work in the 50s came when a ruler came to power in Guatemala and promised to get rid of all the US companies in the country, which controlled their large banana business. What Bernays simply did is convince the American public, through various implications, but entirely without basis in fact, that Guatemala was a communist front. From there it wasn't difficult to gather support for a political overthrow. The anti-U.S. leader was thrown out, and Americans could feel good that they had helped defeat communism, though in reality the change was entirely about American business. It is hard not to think about the Bush administration's constant linking of Iraq with "terrorists" [the "communists" of the new millennium] when one watching this section.

Part three gets particularly interesting, as this is when things really begin going downhill, and is so close that the effects can still be seen in our culture. By the 60s, people were beginning to become angry at being considered just consumers, and began to rebel against what they considered consumerist brainwashing. In the 70s, parties such as the Esalen institute and EST groups were helping people to break down their social conditioning-which advertising was considered a part of-and find their true selves. Advertisers did extensive focus groups [Bernays, by the way, also invented the focus group] and discovered that a great many of the people who became involved in the counterculture of the 60s weren't so much looking for political change so much as excited by the idea of personal expression. So what's the answer? Convince people that the products they buy express who they really are inside.

Previously, industry was set up to only be economical to produce millions of the exact same item. But new manufacturing processes made it possible to produce different versions of the same thing, and this combined with the message that your products were a great way to express who you are to change the way advertising is delivered to this day. People were convinced that not only is it NOT selfish to think of yourself, it is, in fact, your highest calling. And as these new groups were studied, the idea of breaking people down into purchasing personas and demographics was born, which was described with new term: "Lifestyle."

With these new insights, marketers could predict which products certain people would buy-even people rebelling against capitalism in order to express who they "are." Part four of the series delves once more into politics, arguing that as people's ultimate goal became social expression, society as we used to know it broke down, as there were only individuals now, no society. And these individuals were interested primarily in themselves. Politically, they wanted to pay taxes only for things that would benefit THEM. Reagan is presented as taking advantage of this by planting the image of the welfare recipient driving around in the Cadillac, doing nothing but receiving all the reward, and using it to cut social programs. This social idea was also the basis of Reagan's basic message of "getting the government off of people's backs" and letting the public make their own decisions. At this time, the documentary says, the field of public relations when from being perceived as seedy and manipulative, to become glamorous and exciting. And 'conservative' came to mean thinking primarily about oneself and requiring self-reliance, 'liberal' to mean having fellow-feeling and contributing to others. This perspective adds new insight to the unfortunate, but seemingly true, perception that the altruistic children of the 60s turned into the selfish narcissistic yuppies of the 80s through today.

Clinton is presented as the first president who held near-constant focus groups and polls with swing voters, and to shape his policies around them. This is when the V-chip for TV sets and other government initiatives that were centered around the small issues that matter to voters came into vogue. Clinton's idea was to use anything to get elected, and make larger changes once in power, as opposed to doing what one believes in from the start, but possibly not getting elected [this conundrum was dramatized in the movie Primary Colors]. Tony Blair in Britain also used this approach, but its limitations of following the minds of the swing voters were soon seen; in one British example, the swing voters didn't mention the railroads at all, but when they broke down, the public was outraged that the government hadn't seen fit to fix them when they must have known they were going bad.

It seems that these politics are still in place, and this film lays out the limitations of their usefulness; if you're only talking to the swing voters and setting policy around them in order to be more assured of winning, you are paying the most attention to the smallest amount of people, and even then, the ones who just can't make up their minds. Furthermore, as in the railroad example, voters don't know how to run the country. They want the government to worry about that, and will blame the government for not taking care of issues in a timely manner, which isn't happening, because the government is too busy chasing votes.

The documentary ends before the Iraq war and the last two elections in America, though I would have loved to see them processed through this perspective. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating documentary that draws connections between a lot of seemingly separate fields, and makes convincing arguments for their interrelation. It is also remarkable how dense this documentary is with ideas, as opposed to anything we have on the History or Discovery channels, in which you get one idea every five minutes, accompanied by a lot of "atmospheric" photography. The Century of the Self leaves the viewer with a great deal to think about, and gives one an interesting perspective from which to process the advertising and political messages we are bombarded with today.

Should you watch it: 

Definitely.