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If you’re interested in the evolution of advertising and propaganda in the 20th century, The Century Of The Self may be the most important film you’ve never seen. The film (really a miniseries) deals with the adaptation of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theories to advertising and PR through the work of Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.

Bernays and his disciples pioneered many of the tactics that advertising and PR agencies use today, most notably sex-based commercials, focus groups and product placement. The central thesis of The Century Of The Self is that Bernays (and by extension Freud) had a highly negative impact on the 21st century, turning individuals into consumer sheep by using their own unconscious desires against them. This, the film argues, was not only bad for the individual but also society at large, for Bernays’ advertising techniques ended up finding their way into politics and corrupting democracy.

The film is divided into four episodes, each dealing with one aspect of psychoanalysis in advertising. Episode 1 deals with Edward Bernays’ revolutionary advertising practices which were partially based on his Uncle’s psychoanalytical ideas. Episode 2 deals with the use of advertising techniques to ‘engineer consent’ and create a consumer economy. Episode 3 discusses the use of psychoanalysis in the 1960s counterculture movement, and how advertisers co-opted the individualistic hippies’ idealism to sell them ‘lifestyle products.’ Episode 4 discusses how advertising techniques finally made their way into politics in the form of political consulting.

The movie does a very good job of highlighting the role advertising played in the evolution of the 21st century. When most people think of advertising, they imagine annoying but ultimately benign TV commercials. What The Century Of The Self shows is that advertising has actually played a much bigger role in society. Following Bernays’ methods, advertisers and PR people had a MASSIVE impact on popular culture, influencing the news media, Hollywood, and even political campaigns.

There is one particularly eye-opening scene in the first episode, where a news executive discusses the effect that Bernays’ PR people had on his trade. Effectively, the PR agency had ordered the journalists to use specific headlines, pictures and lines in their article. By the end, the piece was basically a glorified advertorial, yet it was passed off as legitimate news.

Overall, the film does a good job of describing the psychoanalytic techniques that Bernays introduced to advertising and PR in the 21st century. However, I take issue with a few specific things in the film:

  • The producers of the film take a very hostile view of their subject matter. There is a very transparent attempt made to associate Freudian psychoanalysis with dishonest advertising techniques; at times, the film refers to the dishonest PR men as ‘Freudians’ while referring to other psychoanalysts–such as Herbert Marcuse–as their opponents. The film simply doesn’t have its facts straight here. Marcuse was himself a psychoanalyst and a follower of Freud; his objection to the advertising industry wasn’t that they were Freudian but that they mis-applied Freud.
  • Many of the psychological claims made in the film are simply factually wrong. There is one scene where the narrator describes Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a theory of ‘personality types’. In fact, it is an inventory of psychological needs common to everyone.
  • The movie seems to have a pretty overt political agenda. In an early episode, the narrator discusses (in a negative light) the ideas of Walter Lippman, an American thinker who believed that democratic politics ought to be guided by a class of educated opinion makers. Later episodes continually refer back to this idea, insinuating that it is anti-democratic and elitist. The film also seems to associate psychoanalysis and advertising with conservative politics, blaming them for the rise of the neoconservatives in the 80s and 90s. It appears likely that this movie has somewhat of a left wing slant, even though the director has vehemently denied being a leftist.

All in all though, The Century Of The Self is a great movie. If you’ve ready and enjoyed Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, you’ll find similar ideas presented here but with a much lesser dose of propaganda. The movie is rich in historical details, and shines light on the workings of an industry whose influence on the 20th century was immense and yet largely undocumented.

Regardless of what you think about Bernays about his techniques, this film is important for anybody with an interest in advertising and PR.


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