Packard's 'Hidden Persuaders' reminds consumers why they buy

August 19, 2008

University Park, Pa. — If social critic Vance Packard were around today, you might find him with his feet propped up watching "Mad Men," AMC's drama about Madison Avenue's advertising men. The TV show set in the 1960s revolves around competitive ad men when the industry was just beginning to appreciate the art of the sell. He’d be right at home with the theme.

Packard, a journalist turned pop sociologist and Penn State alumnus, wrote "The Hidden Persuaders," a book that explored that dark side of advertising's motivational research, which relies on subliminal suggestion to manipulate and influence consumers’ buying habits. The book, first published in 1957, spent a year on The New York Times best-seller list. It has recently been reissued.

Packard received a bachelor's degree in English from Penn State and had a brief career working at Centre County's newspaper, The Centre Daily Times, before he earned a master's degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and joined the Boston Daily Record as a staff reporter. Packard later turned to magazine work with stints at American Magazine and Collier's. "The Hidden Persuaders" brought Packard national fame and launched his career as a social critic, lecturer and author. He wrote 12 books in all, most of them best sellers. In 1961 he was named a distinguished Penn State alumnus. Packard died in 1996 at his summer home on Martha’s Vineyard.

In "The Hidden Persuaders," Packard emphasized the dangers of consumer analysis, which relies on psychological research to play on people's hidden fears and anxieties to drive their buying impulses. In one example from Packard's book, he noted an advertising study that concluded housewives liked baking cakes, a creative activity that had symbolism in gift-giving and birth rituals. Merchandisers flooded the shelves with cake mixes so simple that only water was required. They found that housewives rejected them on the grounds that a good cake couldn’t possibly be that simple. "The makers found themselves trying to cope with negative and guilt feelings on the part of women who felt that use of ready mixes was a sign of poor housekeeping and threatened to deprive them of a traditional source of praise," Packard wrote.

The marketers' solution? Leave the housewives something to do. Cake mix companies instructed buyers to add eggs and milk. Sales increased.

Not all of the consumer analysis was so benign. It was the beginning of an age when advertisers were targeting children, grooming them to become loyal brand followers. Packard cited studies of tots who were able to belt out beer and smokes jingles from TV and merchandisers who hired college students to pass out free packs of cigarettes on campus.

Packard's book was a milestone in its day, the first one to treat modern advertising seriously according to Matt  McAllister, associate professor of communications at Penn State. "It was a very early example of examination of media as an institution and an examination of consumer culture in advertising," he said. "This book is similar to the history of Standard Oil, 'The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, on the meat-packing industry, or Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' or Ralph Nader's 'Unsafe at any Speed.' Each of them is dealing with a moment when corporate abuse was going on. With the advertising industry, you had a surge of post-World War II influence, television was coming on, market research was greatly enhanced, so I think he was reacting to this historical moment."

Sandra Stelts, curator of rare books and manuscripts at the University Libraries, read Packard's book in college. "I still think of it every time I go to the supermarket. Packard was very shrewd about seeing just where marketers were going with package design."

It is fitting then that she is curator of Penn State's Vance Packard Papers collection, which includes information related to nine of his books -- Packard's note cards, advertisements used for research, notebooks, chapter drafts, publicity, copies of reviews and letters from readers. The collection encompasses about 60 boxes of material.

"Besides representing the record of a distinguished Penn State alumnus, the Vance Packard Papers are an important source for scholars to draw upon for the history of American consumerism," said Stelts. "For example, a recent BBC documentary on our consumer society ("The Century of Self" by Adam Curtis) was concerned with why the West has become so obsessed with spending and what the consequences are. The program examined whether consuming has made us happier or not. As part of this, the producers started with Packard, one of the earliest post-war prophets, who expressed moral concerns about building a society which derives happiness from consumer goods. In particular, the documentary looked at the story of 'The Hidden Persuaders' and the impact that it had."

Daniel Horowitz, author of “Vance Packard and American Social Criticism” (University of North Carolina Press, 1994), also drew effectively from the Packard Papers. He noted that Packard not only taught the generation of Americans that came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s about the dangers posed by advertising, he also was one of the first social critics to foster and to benefit from the newly energized social and political consciousness of that period.

The examples from Packard's book may sound dated 50 years later but his message still has relevance, McAllister said. "It's not like this book is just about the 1950s, it's just about the modern advertising industry.

"Some of the names have changed, but collecting information about consumer behavior is still very relevant to our lives as consumers. Advertising in consumer culture is more powerful than ever, it's not going away," McAllister said.

Today, Packard would have been fascinated by how the Internet can be used to sell and to collect information, McAllister said. "It's a logical extension of what he wrote about. The emphasis on niche marketing, he would have foreshadowed some of that. He would be looking at a lot of new technology, TiVo or where cable television is going and the impact of that. He would look at the role of computers in consumer marketing and research. It's all very sophisticated."

In an episode of "Mad Men," the executives link cigarette smoking to Freudian psychologies about risk taking. Packard had that all covered in his book. He was way ahead of the fictional ad guys.

  • On April 19, 1958, Vance Packard, seated, signed copies of

    IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010