We are fed this message from the moment we can focus on the glowing TV tube in each home that fulfilment comes from consumer products and services. We are taught to follow fads and fashion, and customs so old we can no longer even explain their meanings. We are usually indoctrinated into our parent's religion, given an all too limited number of choices for political parties and ultimately are the pawns in a massive battle for public mind control being waged between enormous media conglomerates and their affiliated political and commercial allies.
Among the few of us that are politically aware or active, many merely recycle the summaries of our media heroes in blogs as casually as memory permits, while inserting smarmy quips to score juvenile jabs against strangers without really listening or learning from one another.
When middle school kids are taught to construct a persuasive essay, it's most basically done by stating a premise, supporting it with facts and opinion, clearly differentiating what is research-based and what is commentary, and making logical connections to sway readers. But this is all too absent online, lost among a spectrum of political sites where bloggers carelessly mix fact with opinion, in some cases mixing humor with actual calls for killing people. Learning from our media idols, we are trained first to demean those who don't share our viewpoint, looking not to out-reason eachother, but foment mob-style hatred against fellow Americans. In the end, so much of our public discourse on all sides is commentary distinctly fitting the definition of propaganda.
The media does not care if we are at eachothers throats as long as they are generating profit. They know provocative hosts make little sense, and they know well-reasoned, intelligent commentary is too challenging for the type of viewer they ideally want to sell advertising to.
McNeil-Lehrer or BBC reports present two sides of an issue and highly qualified guests in quick order, cutting right to the heart of an issue and leaving it to the viewer to form their own conclusions. But that doesn't sell hemorrhoid cream, so US networks hire nuts like Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter. Suddenly you aren't listening and learning, you're talking back to your set and cheering (or swearing) - this is because responsible, informed journalism breeds discerning thinkers who don't respond to ads well - they are more likely see through marketing and sales hype.
Our primary usefulness to those in power is to buy products, pay taxes, vote for specific candidates and send our young into service. For most everything else, they want us docile and complacent. In order for us to do this however, there must be motivation, otherwise why would we want to do someone else's bidding?
The solution for this is something called Bernaysian manipulation and it works like a charm. This deliberate control of the masses is meant to achieve all of their ends, including the seemingly impossible task of convincing the middle class that laws should cater to the upper class.
But it works and here's how: in order to get you to buy a product, they convince you you want it. Pretty simple really, for example, to sell clothes they show you they same item being worn by a beautiful model. Your subconscious does the rest, turning your desire to look good into an association with that product - it's well proven. We do respond, we buy these clothes to project the qualities of the beauteous model onto ourselves, a promise made by the ad but carried out us. The average consumer is ordinary - a model is gorgeous. Like clockwork, the formula proves true - our hidden desire to be extraordinary triggers the impulse to buy the product.
But this is small potatoes - Bernaysian manipulation actually has us projecting the prestige and power of the wealthiest elite onto ourselves though similar "associative bait and switch" means, even enlisting us to advocate their causes to our own detriment.
Let's look at higher ticket items next: To sell you a car, they show you how empowering it is with nifty animated effects, basically creating a fantasy perception of an ordinary vehicle. Americans are complete suckers for this, while the rest of the world gets more fuel efficient every year, we still buy wasteful SUVs because it fills personality voids, addressing insecurities, such as the need to be "big", be noticed, the need to wield power or the need to impress or compete with others. We could buy a modest car, they're safe, reliable and are fine values - but the American consumer is brainwashed to feel "entitled" our whole lives long - told that we need to be above average, special, unique. That we should seek out the extra protection a Hummer provides and to hell with the other vehicle that gets crushed beneath us.
Ads sell us on the idea that a really fast car, or extraordinary handling is what we "deserve", though any buyer with the same amount of money can obtain the same car. We're trained that we will gain "status" by associating our self with a prestigious brand. Even though most drivers today just sit in traffic and commute, we're sold many types of oversized guzzlers and luxury models. Once we've seen these dazzling ads, we do the rest, justifying the cost and other factors to ourselves to chase the fantasy we saw in the ad.
This works too -- we've been buying these models as expected, to the point where all American car manufacturers have lost sight of the world market and gone into horrible losses and horrendous export deficits for years now. Our advertising is that effective, it works time and again because we haven't been trained to see through and deconstruct it. A truly excellent consumer product really needs little advertising - it just adds to the cost.
But ads are so ingrained into our lives, we may not even know it wasn't always this way. During our agrarian days, most luxury items were considered by heartland Americans to be frivolous and needlessly expensive, for those who needed to "buy" their self-worth.
Then, a man came into the picture that would profoundly change almost every facet of our culture. His name was Edward Bernays, the Austrian born nephew of Sigmund Freud. He came to America and took the country by storm, deeply versed in Freudian theories before Freud's works were widely published.
His early successes included selling Europe on the idea that President Woodrow Wilson was a hero and liberator in the aftermath of World War I, achieved by staged rallies and planted news stories. Yes, Bernays is considered the "father of public relations", opening the first P.R. firm with the U.S. government and the largest U.S. corporations all lined up as clients.