|The Century of the Self|
In politics and business the triumph of the self is often seen as the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Adam Curtis' Century of the Self tells the story of mass-consumer society in Britain and the US to question whether we really are in charge.
29th April 09 - Adam Curtis
Part 1: Happiness Machines
The story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his American nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn't need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires - the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate today's world.
Part 2: the Engineering of Consent
This episode explores how those in power in the post-war US used Freud's ideas about the unconscious mind to control the masses. Politicians and planners came to believe Freud's underlying premise that deep within all human beings were dangerous and irrational desires and fears, which needed to be repressed to make democracy work and create a stable society.
Part 3: There is a Policeman inside All Our Heads: He Must be Destroyed
Freudian thought in the US gave way the to ideas of Wilhelm Reich, who believed that the inner self should not be repressed and controlled but encouraged to express itself. The result: the rise of the Me Generation, the corporations' greatest opportunity yet.
Part 4: Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering
The fourth part explains how politicians on the left, in both Britain and America, turned to psychoanalytic techniques to mould their policies to people's inner feelings and desires, just as businesses had learnt to do with products. Out of this grew a new culture of public relations and marketing in politics, business and journalism - intended to create a better democracy but based on corporate control.
The Century of the Self argues that Sigmund Freud's seminal theory of the subconscious has been successfully deployed over the past century as an instrument of consumer manipulation and social control. The primary engineer of this transformation was Edward Bernays, Freud's American nephew, who was responsible for coining the term "public relations" in the 1920's. Bernays managed to pull off a number of impressive marketing coups in his long career, including the popularization of smoking among women, by tapping into the tenets of psychoanalysis to predict and shape consumer behavior.
The series' first episode, titled "Happiness Machines," takes its name from a line in a speech President Herbert Hoover made to a group of advertising executives shortly after taking office. "You have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines," he said, ones "that have become the key to economic progress." Hoover's formulation was to prove chillingly prescient as the century progressed and Bernays's ideas about the malleability of consumer desire were adapted by political propagandists, including Hitler's minister of culture, Joseph Goebbels.
Episode two, "The Engineering of Consent," follows the development of Bernays's tactics in the postwar period, when a burst of industrial production and consumption created new outlets for previously unheard-of goods, including convenience foods. A segment on the early marketing of Betty Crocker cake mix is particularly illustrative: when housewives failed to respond to the concept of cake from a box, marketing researchers were puzzled. Finally it became clear that the women felt guilty about baking a cake to which they had contributed so little, so the recipe was changed to require the addition of an egg.
The marketers' quaintly Freudian logic - that women would be comforted by the subconscious notion that they were offering up their own eggs to their husbands - may seem funny in retrospect, but the trick worked, and Betty Crocker became a household name.
The third episode, "There Is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed," explores the ego-psychology movements of the 1960's and 70's, showing how practices like Wilhelm Reich's orgone therapy and Werner Erhard's EST movement turned the very notion of self-actualization into a kind of consumer good. As the counterculture movement made nonconformity into a new societal value, marketers raced to keep up with the whims of a culture driven by ever more diffuse and inchoate yearnings.
The final episode, "Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering," traces how marketing tools like focus groups and consumer surveys affected political campaigns in the late 20th century. Looking at the public-relations machines behind the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the film reaches the inarguable (and depressing) conclusion that in the post-Me Generation age, the road to election is to identify swing voters, poll them about the issues and pander like mad.
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