I’ve Got a Hold on You

Just how subtly we’re influenced by unconscious emotions is readily apparent in the effects of commercial advertising. Their images are plainly designed to evoke pleasurable feelings and associate them with material things — like Pavlov’s dog. In fact, the modern cult of media deception sprang from the studies of Ivan Pavlov.

They fit so neatly into the Communist objectives of the twentieth century, they were supported by the Soviet government for the opportunities they offered for the manipulation of its citizens.

Commercial manipulation since has been more arduously developed — indeed, today it’s a science — carefully contrived to lure us into a fantasy world. Though the most obvious examples are plainly seen through, even laughed at in their transparency, their influence runs deep and attracts consumers to things like the famine-stricken to the baker’s door.

There’s a reality behind it, but the facade is, like everything else, an image. Few admit to being fooled, even as we’re aware of it. Everyone knows it, and yet it works beyond all reason:  a lesson in how unconscious images influence thought.

Vance Packard’s book, The Hidden Persuadersdocumented the exciting new advantages psychology promised for the dawning world of commercial media in 1960. The appeal to industry was prompted by a letter from Sigmund Freud’s grandson to an advertising firm in New York. In it, he wrote of the possibilities psychology offered to exploit the emotions of consumers and sell them the most banal products.

Packard’s book recounted study after study on the unconscious suggestibility of consumers and how they could be influenced to buy products regardless of need or quality. One such venture gave three “different” laundry detergents to test groups to sample and compare how they worked. The first sample was in a blue box, the second was in a yellow one, and the third was in a gaily-colored blue box with yellow splashes. They didn’t know all the detergent was the same.

When the results were in, the majority felt the detergent in the blue box was too harsh; some complained it ruined their garments. The detergent in the yellow box, the majority pronounced too weak and didn’t remove stains adequately. The preponderance of approval rested with the gaily-colored blue box with yellow splashes. Not only images, but suggestion, too, outweighed conscious perception.

Over fifty years have passed since Packard wrote his book. Advertising appeal through the psychology of mass media has been stitched into the fabric of our culture. It’s a world of images designed to conceal and disguise. Whether the product is a politician, a pediatrician, a prescription, or a pen — to write with or keep your toddlers in — no form of deception is beyond this de-humanizing market mentality. It’s so subtle, complex and all-consuming, even those who profit from it are themselves victims.

What began as a clumsy new field of exploitation in the fifties is so ingrained in culture today that the cycle of promise and empty disappointment is accepted and even expected. Today’s individual is increasingly disoriented and dependent on external influences. The new generation is so conditioned, so unconscious of inner reality, it not only accepts it but eagerly pursues it as the only offering for a dissociated sense of self.

Commercial deception is so much a part of modern reality, so taken for granted, that all are unconsciously conditioned by the inadequacies and inferiorities it cultivates. It’s effects go far beyond selfish, egotistical, and contradictory.

Its intent is not to advance awareness but to impede it. It’s not only turned back the spiritual development of millennia, it’s made the very idea obsolete. Its paradoxical purpose fills the empty void created by it.

The business end of science and technology is intended to create associations to hidden ideologies; but, that’s just the surface — the problem goes deeper. The exploitation of the human spirit once exercised by the church has shifted to a secular political and financial few no less intent on power and profit than those of the Middle Ages.

The history of Christianity is a testament to the difficult inner work of separating ego from soul. But, the mask has changed. It now exposes the cultivation of inner values as too strenuous to accomplish; the conflict so unfathomable, it’s discarded altogether by a science-driven culture as not worth the effort. But, what lies beneath the changing mask?

Erich Neumann, in The Origins And History Of Consciousness, discussed the psychology of the collapse of an old value-system such as this shift represents today:

“Typical and symptomatic of this transitional phenomenon is the state of affairs in America, though the same holds good for practically the whole Western hemisphere… The grotesque fact that murderers, brigands, thieves, forgers, tyrants, and swindlers, in a guise that deceives nobody, have seized control of collective life is characteristic of our time. Their unscrupulousness and double-dealing are recognized — and admired… The dynamism of a possessed personality is accordingly very great, because in its one-track primitivity, it suffers none of the differentiations which make men human.”

Neumann published his book in 1954, even before Packard’s, in the wake of WWII, when humanity was deeply concerned about its future: “Worship of the “beast” is not confined to Germany; it prevails wherever one-sidedness, push, and moral blindness are applauded, i.e., wherever the aggravating complexities of civilized behavior are swept away by bestial rapacity. One has only to look at the educative ideals current in the West.

“The possessed character of our financial and industrial magnates, for instance, is psychologically evident from the very fact that they are at the mercy of a suprapersonal factor — “work,” “power,” “money,” or whatever they like to call it — which, in the telling phrase, “consumes” them and leaves little or no room as private persons. Coupled with a nihilistic attitude towards civilization and humanity there goes a puffing up of the ego-sphere which expresses itself with brutish egotism in a total disregard for the common good…

“Not only power, money, and lust, but religion, art, and politics as exclusive determinants in the form of parties, sects, movements, and “isms” of every description take possession of the masses and destroy the individual.”

Since Neumann’s time, one might add media and technology to the list of “exclusive determinants,” as well as the Eastern hemisphere, which is now as actively engaged in commercialism as the West.

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