Friday, July 29, 2011

The History of Advertising

I was going to start this post with a joke about scientists discovering cave-painting billboards advertising the biggest, heaviest, clubbiest club guaranteed to kill a wooly mammoth in seven bludgeons flat.

Then I looked it up, and scientists have actually found cave-painting advertisements dating back to 4000 BC. Advertising what, I don’t know—but I’m sure I can’t be too far off the mark.

Essentially, since people have existed, and things have existed, and people have needed things, people who have those things have developed ways to let people know that there is a place to find those things they need.

You still with me?

Purportedly, the initial function of advertising was merely to proclaim to others that you could provide a necessary good or service. In the Middle Ages, the vast majority of people were illiterate, so shops had pictures over their doors to display their respective offerings. In the first half of the 19th century, advertisements in newspapers came on the scene in France. As more businesses took this route, the more people were needed to manage it. By 1900, advertising was considered a legitimate profession.

Then came World War I and a man named Edward Bernays.

You’ve heard of World War I, but chances are, you haven’t heard of Edward Bernays.

Have you heard of Sigmund Freud?

Edward Louis Bernays (1891 - 1995)
Of course you have. Meet Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, the revolutionary psychoanalyst. 
During World War I, Bernays was employed by the US Government on the Committee of Public Information. He was so good at his job that President Wilson invited him along to the Paris Peace Conference. Bernays was amazing at the way the European populace embraced Wilson as a hero—the American rhetoric of “making the world safe for democracy” had worked. Bernays was struck—if propaganda could be this effective in war time, then surely it could be just as effective during peace.

Upon returning to America, Bernays began thinking about how governments and businesses could manipulate the masses, and he opened up his own firm to help them do just this. Since propaganda had taken on a negative connotation, he crafted his own term: public relations.

Uncle Freud had long been saying that people were driven by subconscious desires, and Bernays realized that companies could play to these desires with enormous benefit. The Century of the Self, a BBC documentary about Bernays, puts his realization this way: “You can get people to act irrationally by linking products to their desires and feelings.” That is, you don’t say, “Buy this car because it gets the best gas mileage and will get you to and from work efficiently.” Instead, you create an ad that hints, “If you buy this car, you will feel free and independent and as though you are in charge of your own life.”

Bernays’s PR firm was extraordinarily successful, and I was shocked to discover how many run-of-the-mill advertising strategies came from him. He fundamentally changed what people viewed the primary motivator of consumerism to be.

You know what they say—harness people’s irrational, subconscious desires, and you harness their wallets.

Special thanks to Ally Tschannen for suggesting I watch The Century of the Self. The whole thing is free on YouTube—I recommend watching at least the first twenty minutes. It’s fascinating.
I also referenced Wikipedia. Judge away.

As always, I’d love to write what you’d love to read. Keep it coming.

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