“Trotter and LeBon concluded that the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thought it has impulses, habits and emotions. In making up its mind, its first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader. This is one of the most firmly established principles of mass psychology.” (Edward Bernays, Propaganda* (1928)
Wilfred Trotter (1872-1939) was a British surgeon who dabbled in social psychology and studied the herd instinct of crowds. Gustave LeBon (1841-1931) was a French psychologist who did the same. Trotter fed on LeBon, and Bernays fed on both. Together, they pioneered the field of modern advertising and propaganda.
Advertising is merely getting people to change their behavior. But honesty does not work in advertising. People do not change their minds based on reason – in fact, are more often reinforced in their beliefs when confronted with evidence they are wrong.
Realizing this, Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, spent his career looking for ways to manipulate and undermine public opinion. He was an extremely clever and dishonest man.
Bernays realized that people are one thing on the surface, and something quite different underneath. Advertising, and all effective mass persuasion, deals with the our subconscious being.
So ads approach us with surface phenomena, usually sex and humor. But the real ad message is first developed by behavioral psychologists. Every ad campaign has artists and copywriters doing overlays on the central theme.
Take Apple: The theme: Apple is a cool product to own. Apple users are more sophisticated than PC people. In what was one of the most effective ad campaigns of all time, Apple computer owners became annoying preachers for the company’s product. PC’s and Macs are virtually identical, differing only in muscle memory for keystrokes. Advertising works.**
Or Obama: The “Hope and Change” campaign won the coveted prize for best marketing campaign in 2008. It was a subtle undermining of the will, allowing viewers to participate by filling in their own aspirations and ideals. I fell for it, reading into Obama what I wanted from politics. He delivered the Neocon Republican agenda, yet still has strong support from Democrats.
Which is Bernays’ most important finding. People don’t think. They follow trusted leaders. They cannot be persuaded on reason. Advertisers and politicians merely supply leaders, undermine our identities, supply their desires for our own.
It does not always work, of course. But it works often enough.
*Bernays book, Propaganda, is short and accessible, easily read and understood.
** Please note placement of Cool Guy’s thumbs.