Review of _Century of the Self_ (BBC documentary)

Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays (1891-1995)

It may have been a patient (I can’t recall) who suggested I search online for the 2002 BBC documentary by Adam Curtis called Century of the Self.  It turns out the video is freely available at several sites; the full four-hour documentary can be viewed or downloaded here, or each of the hour-long installments here.  In briefest outline, Century of the Self advances the thesis that Freud’s views of the unconscious set the stage for corporations, and later politicians, to market to our unconscious fears and desires.  It’s gripping, it explains a lot, and it reminds me of The Matrix in the way it portrays an ugly dystopian truth hidden behind bland normality.  Except Century of the Self is real, not science fiction.

One reviewer offers: “There are very few movies I wish I could force my friends to watch, that I feel encapsulate a feeling that I’ve had but have been unable to articulate.”  Indeed, Century of the Self ties together several observations I myself have made over the years about corporate marketing — and then it goes much further, placing those observations in a broad context.  For example, in my youth I found it odd that any products at all could be marketed to hippies, those bastions of non-materialism.  Yet by the early 1970s the signature unkempt long hair became a “style” featured in fashion magazines and offered in hair salons, and blowdryers were widely sold to cater to this new look.  Less than a decade later, punk rockers pierced their clothes with rows of safety pins, and it wasn’t long before Macy’s sold brand new clothes with safety pins already inserted.  Goth, grunge, hip-hop, or hipster, it doesn’t matter.  Products will be sold.  As the Borg say: “You will be assimilated.  Resistance is futile.”

I noticed something similar at the other end of the materialism continuum as well.  By the 1980s, expensive, formerly niche products were being avidly marketed to ordinary consumers.  Regular cooks bought restaurant-grade pots and pans, average shutterbugs purchased advanced cameras, families who never left the suburbs drove SUVs that could go off-road and up mountainsides.  What motivated people to spend their hard-earned money on features they’d never use and quality they’d never fully appreciate?  Again, it was hard to escape the conclusion that corporations sold self-image and emotional aspirations, not rational goods and services.

I’m old enough to remember when “lifestyle” was first popularized as a sales term, and when pitches aimed at self-image were still a little ham-handed and obvious (e.g., “What sort of man reads Playboy?”).  Now we fail to notice that it is literally impossible to sell a new car, or prescription medications to the public, with an appeal to rationality. No one even tries.  Back in the mid-1970s it was novel and slightly jarring when gasoline companies ran ads not (directly) to sell gas, but to improve their corporate image.  We’ve come to accept that as routine nearly 40 years later.

It hasn’t always been so.  Century of the Self shows how advertising once aimed to influence rational choice.  This gave way in the early 20th century to advertising aimed to connect feelings with a product.  Amazingly enough, at the root of this change was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays.  Bernays, an American propagandist in WWI, applied his wartime experience and his uncle’s theories of the unconscious to peacetime commerce.  He invented the field of public relations, popularized press releases and product tie-ins, and changed public opinion about matters ranging from women smoking to the use of paper cups — all to increase sales.  Viewing politics as just another product to sell, Bernays also helped Calvin Coolidge stage one of the first overt media acts for a president, and helped engineer the 1954 coup in Guatemala on behalf of his client the United Fruit Company, by painting their democratically elected leader as communist.

This and more happens in just the first hour of the documentary, titled “Happiness Machines.”  The second hour, the weakest in my view, is called “The Engineering of Consent” and focuses on the ascendancy of psychoanalysis and Anna Freud’s consolidation of power.  The point here is that the unconscious was seen as a dangerous menace that needed to be kept under lock and key.  Rational choice, especially by crowds, was unreliable under its influence, so “guidance from above” (in Bernays’ words) was needed from political leaders and corporations for the public good.  The conformity and mass-marketing of the 1950s reflects this view of a public that cannot be trusted to think for itself.  The pendulum swings the other way in the third and best installment, “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads [and] He Must be Destroyed.”  By the 1960s the human potential movement urged the expression of impulses instead of their repression.  Business was eager to help.  By marketing products as a means of self-expression, business turned from channeling public impulses to pandering to them.  There is a fascinating discussion in the film about political activism being co-opted in this process: making the world a better place gave way to making oneself better in ways that, not coincidentally, required buying more goods and services.  The final segment, called “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering,” follows this impulse-pandering into politics.  Instead of political leadership, we now have politics led by focus groups.  The public gets what it asks for (V-chips and populist slogans), not what it needs (healthcare and infrastructure improvements).

Freud himself is treated ambiguously in the documentary.  Although he benefitted by his nephew’s promotion of his writing, one gathers he was uncomfortable with commercial exploitation of his ideas.  Enigmatically, the final camera shot zooms in on Freud’s tombstone.  Perhaps we are to imagine him turning over in his grave.

How can democracy work best, given that our choices are inevitably swayed by irrational unconscious forces?  Curtis isn’t explicit, but implies that treating people as rational tends to make them moreso.  Even as a firm believer in the dynamic unconscious, I find this a hopeful point of view.  It also occurs to me that it is a researchable hypothesis, and that such research may in some measure counterbalance commercial and political profiteering from research on unconscious influence.  The ethical implications of powerful social institutions exerting covert influence are only telegraphed in the documentary; they deserve a detailed analysis in their own right.

Century of the Self has engaging interviews, rare archival footage, a sweeping view of recent history, and, alas, somewhat irritating music.  It was reviewed quite positively when it came out, and despite being over ten years old, still has a great deal to offer.  I don’t wish to force anyone to watch it, but I do highly recommend it.

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