The early twentieth century witnessed the birth of two revolutionary schools of human psychology, psychoanalysis and behaviorism, and both of these helped give birth to the advertising industry.

TracySiermachesky/Shutterstock
Source: TracySiermachesky/Shutterstock

The two approaches were radically different in most ways, but shared the exciting insight that much of human activity is motivated by forces outside our consciousness. Thoughts and behaviors that previously seemed random and defied understanding could now be predicted and even changed.

The potential for therapeutic benefit was obvious and led to an explosion of mental health practitioners. Less obvious, and more insidious, was the commercialization of psychology to promote our throwaway consumer culture.

Edward Bernays is known as the father of public relations, a term he invented because it sounded so much more genteel than what previously it had been called and really was propaganda.

Bernays was born in Vienna, migrated with his family to New York City at a very young age, and died in1995 at 104, after an extraordinarily influential career peddling products.

He happened to be Sigmund Freud's nephew and made his fortune combining and applying the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious, Pavlov's behaviorism, and group psychology to improve corporate balance sheets.

His basic insight: “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?"

This led to his special expertise: the influencing of consumer behavior by what he called the "engineering of consent." Bernays pioneered the mass marketing of fashion, food, soap, cigarettes, books, and a multitude of other consumer products.

Under his clever stage-managing, the sight of a woman smoking in public lost it’s whiff of immorality and instead became fashionable, politically correct, and appropriately sexy. All it took was suggesting that cigarette packages be color-coordinated with each year’s fashion colors and arranging the 1929 NYC Easter parade as a showcase for beautiful models holding Lucky Strikes (labeled as little "Torches of Freedom"). 
      
Bernays also invented the concepts of celebrity and thought-leader endorsement: "If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway."

Bernays’ marketing brilliance is still felt in our everyday breakfast behavior. Working for the pork industry, he surveyed 5,000 physicians and publicized widely the result that a heavy bacon-and-egg breakfast is far healthier than the then customary light breakfast of tea and toast. Of course this was complete nonsense, but the message stuck.

Bernays and P.T. Barnum were kindred spirits, both believing there is an easily snookered sucker born every minute. Both got rich banking on it. And so have the multinational corporations.

At about the same time, John Watson also became rich translating psychological theories into advertising gold. His was a rags-to-riches story possible only in America. Poor but ambitious boy gets good education, works his way quickly up the academic ladder to become Chair of the Department of Psychology at Johns Hopkins University, is appointed editor of Psychological Review, is elected president of the American Psychological Association, then suddenly throws it all away to start a new career making a fortune as a top executive in the newly burgeoning advertising industry.

During his short but brilliant academic career, Watson laid out a new scientific approach to psychology that relied on experiment rather than subjective intuition. Extending Pavlov's conditioning of dogs to humans, he realized that human behavior could also be greatly influenced by subliminal methods that bypass conscious awareness. He called the approach "behaviorism" because it had no interest in (or appreciation for) the complexity of consciousness and the human mind, humans and dogs were equally manipulable.

Behavioral control could be used for therapeutic purposes, but also commercially to persuade people to buy products. Watson’s brilliance as an advertising innovator fully rivaled his academic success and was based on the same principles. He invented the coffee break to push Maxwell House coffee, persuaded women that smoking was sexy so long as they used Pebeco toothpaste, and also convinced them of the need for a cabinet full of beauty products. It’s a frightening juxtaposition, Watson as father of behavioral psychology and also as father of modern advertising. He brought science to consumerism. 

Bernays and Watson left a destructive legacy. Creating insatiable consumer demand has become necessary to drive an economic system that relies on constant growth, a shark that has to keep on swimming. We are seduced into buying lots of wasteful junk that doesn’t bring happiness and does create loads of waste and debt.

Despite Bo Derek’s claim (“Whoever said money can't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping"), consumerism fails as a source of happiness even on its own lowbrow terms. The dream of abundance almost always disappoints, consummatory pleasure rarely lives up to anticipatory expectation, the thing you desperately wanted never seems all that great once you have it.

The revolving door in my grand children's house magically converts today's highly desired purchase into tomorrow's neglected garage junk. The simple truth is that things just don't make you happy for very long, despite the glitter that advertising geniuses shine in your eyes. The fun should come from watching the Super Bowl, not from coveting the stuff in the commercials.

We quickly adjust to the things we get and take them for granted. When I was a kid, we were the first in our apartment building to own a TV set—12 inches, black and white, with four channels and frequent bursts of noisy static. It made us ecstatically happy.

My grandchildren feel little pleasure having access in every room to a behemoth, high definition, color set with hundreds of channels. To say nothing of their hoards of electronic gizmos each containing the power of 1950s computer that would have filled an entire room.

What was once an exciting novelty quickly becomes a boring necessity. And the goalposts ever move further away. There would always be someone with a better house or car, a more prestigious job, a bigger bank account, or a prettier spouse, or smarter kids.

Consumerism not only corrodes our values; it also devours scarce resources, destroys our environment, and is bad for the long-term health of the economy. And the noxious effects are getting magnified as the developing world copies and catches up to our wasteful consumer habits.

In equity terms, it's terrific that the disparity in having stuff is narrowing as the burgeoning middle classes in China, India, and elsewhere acquire the means and the taste for expensive consumer products.

In terms of husbanding the scarce remaining resources of our shrinking planet and protecting its fragile environment and endangered species, spreading the wealth and waste of consumerism is nothing less than absolute disaster.

The smart and fair play would be for us to set a model for the rest of the world by radically reducing our consumption and switching from a growth oriented to a stable economy. It is a delusion to think that our world can continue to thrive on unbridled consumerism or that we need it to be happy.