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1950s Guide To Advertising- The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard

February 21, 2022

This 1962 paperback copy of The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard has a colorful cover. I have to admit that I fell for the manipulation, the contrast of colors with the series of questions. I don’t like falling for tricks, even if this particular trick only cost me $1.00 at the used book store.

Originally published in 1957, The Hidden Persuaders is reputed to be one of the first books to expose the techniques behind television advertising. The persuasion techniques (and the effects/consequences) might be well known today, so maybe that makes the book feel outdated, but the attitudes of the time period can be just as interesting as the advertising techniques that are explained.

For example, I keep forgetting that not so long ago cigarette smoking was considered cool. I’m pretty sure people knew that smoking wasn’t good for them back in 1957, but this book doesn’t acknowledge it, and advertisers back in the 1950s weren’t going to either.

But cigarette smoking sure made people look cool. At least that’s what we were told, even in the 1970s when I was a kid. Even as several family members were dying of lung cancer caused from cigarettes, I was told that smoking made you look cool.

I don’t know. If advertisers are willing to ignore the health risks of cigarettes, they are probably willing to ignore anything.

Anyway, The Hidden Persuaders refers to the consequences of smoking one time as a “cancer scare,” and that was it. From the advertisers’ point-of-view, all that mattered was getting more men and women to buy cigarettes. And it was great when advertisers could get kids to sing cigarette jingles. Even back in the 1950s, branding was everything. If not everything, branding was a lot.

The author of The Hidden Persuaders refers to kids as ‘moppets’ and more frequently as ‘future consumers.’ From the advertisers’ point of view, it was important to get these future consumers aware of their brands as early as possible. Also, I kind of like the term ‘moppets.’ That word could make a comeback.

“Get off my lawn, you moppets!”

Yeah, I could bring that back.

“Get off my lawn, you future consumers!”

That doesn’t work as well.

Those ‘moppets’ from the 1950s are today’s Boomers, the generation that gets a lot of blame for the United States’s debt and over-consuming. These moppets were the first generation exposed to massive television advertising designed to make them ‘future consumers.’ The author of The Hidden Persuaders doesn’t use the term Boomers, but that’s who the ‘future consumers’ are.

If it’s any consolation to the younger generations today that blame Boomers for everything, those Boomers will soon be ‘former consumers.’

Almost as bad as cigarettes is fashion. Before the 1950s, men’s clothing was seen as a static business because men would go long periods of time between buying new clothes, and frankly that’s the way it should have stayed. But then television advertisers came along and ruined everything. The fashion industry encouraged women to put pressure on men to spend more money on clothes.

Men’s fashion… pffft! You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that my wife has tried to make me wear.

This might be one of those times when the pre-1950s had it right. I still like wearing the same clothes repeatedly until they’re faded and falling apart. Life is a lot simpler when you choose not to think about the stupid stuff like fashion.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to go back to those ‘simpler’ times. I like air conditioning. I like the internet. I just like wearing the same stuff over and over too.

Hidden persuasion is nothing new. Before television, there was radio, Before that was newspapers. Before that was old fashioned rhetoric combined with misinformation. The combination of effective rhetoric and misinformation has always motivated people to do crazy stuff.

Maybe it’s depressing or annoying that people can be so easily manipulated, but at least we can say no to advertisers. Despite the constant bombardment of advertising, I still buy new clothes only once every five years. But… Arrrgh… I still fall for colorful book covers!

More questions!!!
One Comment
  1. “The combination of effective rhetoric and misinformation has always motivated people to do crazy stuff.” Oh yeah! I’d definitely spend a buck on that book just for fun of it. My kids and I have long been critical of TV advertising, mocking the message, delivery and brand for choosing them. Thanks for reminding us how manipulated me can be.

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