The 7 Tactics of Hidden Persuaders

In 1957, The Hidden Persuaders was published. It quickly gained national attention and launched Vance Packard’s (the author) career.

The Hidden Persuaders lays bare the use of consumer motivational research and other psychological techniques, including depth psychology and subliminal messaging, by advertisers and politicians to manipulate expectations and induce desire for products and candidates. He identified eight “compelling needs” that advertisers promise products will fulfil.

Emotional security: promise comfort, happiness, security, and no bad feelings.

Reassurance of worth: As L’Oreal reminds us: you should have it, ‘Because you’re worth it!’, and once you have ‘it’, it will serve to symbolize to you and others that you are adding value and deserve your place in society. You’re one of the ‘set’, who are worth it. I assume those who can’t afford their products, by implication, are worth-less?

Ego gratification: This plays to our need for affirmation; adverts regularly affirm to us, even ahead of purchase, that we have made the ‘wise choice’, ‘right choice’, and ‘smart choice’.

Creative outlets: Famously when Betty Crocker cake mix first hit the shelves it was not at all successful. Ernest Dichter, a pioneer of advertising and one of the first to use focus groups and psychoanalysis, was called in to aid with product development and advertising. He resolved the issue by suggesting, that “Housewives be asked to add an egg to the mix”. This appealed to a sense of creativity, but also satiated any guilty feelings that women who were interviewed as part of motivational research claimed they experienced as a consequence of taking short cuts. This was the 50s! Still today potential buyers are regularly sold products on the basis that they can personalize them, and in so doing these products become a form of user led creative expression, or so the spin has it. 

Love objects: We all need something to love, and if you don’t have that special love object, don’t worry! The market will invent it and then convince you that the one they’ve invented is the one you need. Given that having a love object is such a basic need, if that need isn’t sufficiently met outside the market place for you; you are very likely to be open to persuasion.

Sense of power: Many products are presented as symbols of power. One of Edward Bernays’ (the Father of Public Relations discussed below) early Public Relations (1929) stunts involved reframing cigarettes astorches of freedom’, for women. Cigarette sales across the target demographic went through the roof.

Roots: Even in a world where the culture of ‘self’ dominates, our identities remain intimately tied to our sense of place, our sense of where we come from. Hence, McDonald’s, who have perfected the art of standardisation, take care to include regional twists in order to demonstrate their deference to the ‘local’. These are of course minor concessions, ploys to get us to feel better about buying that which is not of our place, or by our hand.

Immortality: Marketers work hard to convince us that they are our number one cheerleaders and co-conspirers in the fight to cheat old age and death.

When they are not busy helping us live forever and concealing the ageing process, hidden persuaders are preoccupied with helping us in the enterprise of building our legacies. Few of us sit easy with the notion that we are fodder for the worms. We are seekers of meaning; we procreate, grow companies and write poetry so that we may be memorialised. We endeavour to live on in the memories of those we leave behind. We live in the hope that our legacy will endure and our life can be counted as purposeful. The hidden persuaders have a field day with this one.

According to Packard these eight ‘needs’ are so strong that people are compelled to buy products to satisfy them.

Sigmund Freud & Edward Bernays

Although these techniques of persuasion had evolved considerably by the time Hidden Persuaders was published, the primary source of most of these tactics was Freudian Psychoanalysis. Hence to understand the full extent to which hidden persuaders operate within society it is important to understand how Freud’s thinking and the techniques of Psychoanalysis were employed in the worlds of commerce and politics to manipulate the masses. 

We all know a Freudian slip is when you say one thing and mean another. Or as someone once quipped: “when you say one thing and mean your mother”. Typically it happens without conscious intent. Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s American nephew, changed all that. In a lateral sense he was to make Freudian slips an institution, for all the wrong reasons. He called his profession of choice, Public Relations Counselling, in preference for the use of the term ‘Propaganda’, which in fact was what he was practiced in.

Notwithstanding the finesse in the language, on his return from Paris at the end of the First World War -where he ably assisted the American President Woodrow Wilson to use propaganda to convince the masses that he was “bringing democracy to Europe”- his main preoccupation was around how he might use propaganda in the corporate world to similarly effect mass manipulation, albeit for very different purposes.  Freud’s theories were to play a significant part in how he went about doing so.

Freud had a rather desperate view of human nature; in his estimation we are driven by all kinds of unconscious urges and libidinal ‘animal’ instincts, which, if unleashed, could be the undoing of civilisation. In his view the First World War was evidence aplenty of the maniacal nature of the maddening crowd. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to suggest that Freud, if he could have swung it, would have had us all on ‘the couch’ as soon as we could speak for some of his ‘talking cure’. That said he was not one of the hidden persuaders; it fell to others who were took his ideas in a direction Freud himself would never have approved of, to engineer consent. Chief among these hidden persuaders was Freud’s dear nephew Edward Bernays.

From 1919, Bernays combined the ideas of Sigmund Freud with Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with a view to becoming a kind of psychoanalyst to troubled Corporations of America. Bernays played a pivotal role in popularizing the ideas of Sigmund Freud in America. I think it fair to say he used his connection to Freud to ‘big himself up’, and it worked. That said, he was a man of considerable talent in his own right and authored a number of seminal works in the field of Public Relations, the best known being Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923). This was a text that was later to be cited by Goebbels (Nazi head of Propaganda) as having had a significant influence on his thinking.

Adam Curtis‘ award-winning 2002 documentary for the BBC, The Century of the Self, offers an excellent analysis of Bernays contribution to the manipulating the masses post WWI towards a culture of mass consumerism. The documentary, which I would highly commend, suggests that Bernays was instrumental in transforming post war America from a people who for the most part consumed goods and services on the basis of necessity, to mass consumers who purchased goods and services on the basis of whims and wants. Curtis goes on to make the point that this form of mass manipulation set the template for the rest of the Western World for the last 100 years.

Though Curtis does not offer this as part of his analysis, it is clear to my eye that by time the New Deal was framed the human service institutions that the ‘Deal’ heralded were also modelling themselves on the structures and strategies of corporate America and were thinking of their ‘end users’ more as clients than citizens. Prior to the New Deal in America the ratio between manufacturing and production industries and service industries (the professions) and was 9:1, in favour of manufacture and production. The reverse is now the case. It is also important to pay attention to the fact that today the helping professions form a significant cohort of the professional classes operating within service industries across the world, and especially in Europe.

Bernays’ knack for turning citizens into consumers became legend and was welcomed by the captains of Corporate America, who feared that the assembly lines that ran non-stop during the war (from which they became very rich), would ground to a halt. Bernays ensured that that did not happen. Of course he was not solely driven by capitalist ideals, although there’s little doubt they featured significantly. He also believed that mass manipulation was essential in society, to control the irrational drives and ‘herd instincts’ of the demos. Based on these beliefs he was able to rationalize the use of techniques of mass manipulation to influence not only purchasing trends, but also voting trends.

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.

He termed this means of control as theengineering of consent‘, and was absolutely certain that these techniques were both necessary and desirable. He thought it a logical consequence of order and civil society that the ruling classes would accordingly have to employ such techniques to quell and control the herd instinct. In essence he believed if people were consuming as individuals, these animal instincts, which previously spilled over into war, would be satiated.

It may seem strange now to think that mass manipulation on this scale could have been rationalized as an anti-war device, but post WWI it was. Its second driver was corporate greed. I would suggest that we are to this day using very similar rationalisations. The third apparent driver was political. The message sent out by American politicians was that if you want to be a good American, be a good consumer:

“Economically we have a boundless field before us; that there are new wants which will make way endlessly for newer wants, as fast as they are satisfied.”

President Herbert Hoover’s 1929 Committee on Recent Economic Changes

(Quoted in The Abundant Communities (McKnight & Block, 2010); citing Jeffery Kaplan)



As mentioned above, Crystallizing,published in 1923, became a primary textbook for Goebbels in developing his propaganda campaign against the Jewish people of Germany and beyond under the Nazi regime. Much to Bernays’ shock, he discovered that engineering consent could also be used to propagate a holocaust. The propaganda used during WWI to promote the idea that Woodrow Wilson was the great saviour of Europe who would restore the democratic ideal and secure enduring peace, was also used to excuse mass genocide during WWII. 


Banana Republic

Despite Bernays’ pretence at purity, whereby he positioned himself as the prime defender of democracy against the herd, some of his activities were highly questionable, and from a Freudian perspective, narcissistic. Perhaps the most eyebrow raising of them all was his propaganda campaign to overthrow the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. The tab for that piece of Public Relations was picked up by Multinational Corporation United Fruit Company (today’s Chiquita Brands International). Bernays’ campaign simply worked through American media outlets to brand Jacobo Arbenz Guzmanas a Communist.  Having delivered the kiss of death, the overthrow was ‘legitimately’ assisted by the US Government and was somewhat inevitable. Such is the power of spin. Bernays preferred to manipulate the masses through news broadcasting outlets rather than standard advertising, since people’s defences were down when they read or listened to the news; since they naively expect the truth.

Reversing Barnes

People like Bernays are masters at maintaining the status quo and shoring up the hegemony of the ‘priestly classes’.  They do so through the use of spin to legitimate this abuse of power. In a very real sense asset Based Community Development is an attempt to ‘reverse Bernays’, to make the journey back from being clients to being citizens. To that end Asset-based community builders must encounter the world as it is, not as it should be, and that means being wise to the tactics of hidden persuaders. With that in mind here are the seven tactics most often employed by hidden persuaders, to which community builders and citizens need to be most alert.

Tactic #1: Create a culture of self

It’s the old rule of divide and conquer. If people rely on each other and exchange things among themselves, they buy less. People organized into collectives are also more difficult to rule. Hidden Persuaders use media and politics to convince us of the virtues of the indefensible, such as long commute times to work, atomization across family generations, single use land planning, social stratification of housing etc. Their primary message: you are freer on your own.


Narcissus-Caravaggio (1594-96)


The culture of self is now over a century old, and is typified in the immortal words of the Frank Sinatra song:My Way’.

Just as in the Greek myth, narcissism turns a river into a mirror (see the myth of Narcissus) consumerism turns a community asset into a self-serving commodity, which in due course turns on us. It is the job of hidden persuaders to convince us that happiness can be commoditized in keeping with personal preference, and that success is therefore commensurate with one’s capacity to grow one’s own purchase power. Independence becomes prized over interdependence, and overtime a culture of narcissism replaces a culture of community. 



Tactic #2: Turn productive villages into dormitories for consumers

Village economies have a proven track record for promoting economic self-reliance and sufficiency (cf. Debt: The First 5000 Years by anthropologist David Graeber published in 2011, for evidence aplenty of this assertion). We know intuitively and now evidentially that village economies are better when it comes to environmental sustainability and sustaining the health and well being of its inhabitants. These competencies are the enemies of an open economy, which is predicated on making people dependent on ‘your’ products, goods and services. To grow national GDP in the face of Globalisation, hidden persuaders work hard to get people to buy the idea that a good life exists outside the village, in the marketplace. We are now so invested in this idea that we have become significantly indebted in order to personally compete for consumption rights. Accordingly, we have organised our societies so as to ensure that what makes the rich richer, makes the poor poorer.

Village economies operate more on a principle of gift exchange than money exchange, and, therefore, are potentially better placed to become repositories of fairer wealth redistribution. Hence they run contrary to the values that underpin a culture of consumerism-narcissism.

Hidden persuaders are dab hands at dealing with such ‘cultural contradictions’. Why let the truth get in the way of a good story? The spin they use convinces us that our home places are rustic, backward, populated by amateurs and witch doctors that want to limit our freedoms and hold us back by thwarting our individuality.

The message of the hidden persuaders: “Look to the hills, the bright lights, the big city…there’s gold, and freedom there and no one to hold you back. That’s where you’ll find yourself, and make your fortune. And on the days where you’re feeling sad and lonely, they’ve got some really good therapists who can help”.

Hidden persuaders also use the argument of scale to great effect: “how are we to reach everybody and ensure that everybody’s needs are met if we stay small and local? To efficiently and effectively reach everyone we must go to scale”. They even try to convince us that this is a form of radical inclusion and equality.

Many of our economic, housing, environmental, health and social care policies are harmful to village life and community cultures, but inversely beneficial to commercial interests. The art of spin is in getting us to cut off our nose to spite our face while sustaining a smile, and so for the last forty years policies that have eroded community life have gone through ‘on a nod’.


“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.”

“The Social Contract”by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Tactic #3:  Promote a culture of competition and pursuit of perfection

Villages are not, of course, perfect places; there are all sorts of feuds and fault lines to be negotiated. Notwithstanding, the primary function of the village is to provide a context within which a culture of community can proliferate and prevail. Such a culture is created through practices of hospitality and cooperation.

Consumerism abjures such cooperation, since it runs contrary to its principles. To borrow from Alfie Kohn (author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition) the rule of consumerism, which promotes competition over cooperation, is: ‘for me to win, you must lose’.

Hidden persuaders understand the importance of feeding that competitive urge, not only between individuals, but also to promote a sense of competition within us. The pursuit of perfection, translates into the annual changing of our iPhone, and explains why en masse we have passively accepted that these days nearly everything we purchase has built in obsolescence after a couple of years. We rationalize it as the price and pace of progress. Our pursuit of perfection has also fuelled a cult of anti-ageing, a fear of death, and an active hostility towards human fallibility and vulnerability. This has translated into multibillion dollar pharmacology and healthcare industries aimed at winning the ‘battle’ against our finite humanity, and an exoneration of responsibility to care for those who don’t measure up to our standards of perfection.

Tactic #4: Convince people they can buy care

The hidden persuaders have worked hard to assuage our pangs of guilt around outsourcing the care of our own imperfectabilities, and the fallibilities of our families and neighbours, to those who in the professional world are suitably credentialed. We have actively outsourced the care of older people, people on the margins, and labelled people of all kinds, on the assumption that what they need is located within institutional programmes, not in community life. This assumption is a recent one in human history, and is directly tied to our journey over the last century from citizens to consumers.

Guy Robertson, a friend and colleague (Positive Ageing Associates) recently published How to Age Positively, A Handbook for Personal Change in Later Life. In it he makes much of the writings of the brilliant Marie de Hennezel.

“Something within us does not grow old, I shall call it the heart. I don’t mean the organ, which does of course age, but the capacity to love and desire. The heart I refer to is that inexplicable, incomprehensible force which keeps the human being alive…

It is this heart that can help us to push on through our fears, and bears us up amid the worst ordeals of old age.”

Marie de Hennezel, from The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting: Ageing without Growing Old.

She rightly notes that the commodification of care has become big business, and it has come with a double charge. Firstly, the overt financial charge for the programme or intervention consumed, and secondly, the hidden charge paid in the currency of personal agency and social capital. Hidden persuaders perform a clever sleight of hand to distract our attention from this inherent contradiction. This involves drawing our attention away from the right to self and collective determination, and towards our right to receive services, and have our needs adequately addressed by those best placed (qualified) to do so. Yet we all know instinctively that institutions don’t care, people do. Prefixing the word ‘care’ to institutions will not change that fact. Medicare even with the word care in it, is still an anonymous monolithic institution which is in fact not designed to care.

Tactic #5: Make people dependent on goods and services

Bernays perfected the techniques now ubiquitously used to confuse actual needs with product and service categorisation. As a consequence, in the space of 100 hundred years regular people have transitioned from understanding their needs by first inventorying their local assets, to now having their needs assessed by outside agents intent on persuading them that the only way their life will get better is if someone/something from outside comes into their life to make it better. The basic message coming from institutions (commercial, public sector, and civil society) to us is: “you need us, we know best. Consume (goods or services) what we have to offer, and you’ll be better.” The corollary of this message is: “you cannot depend on each other, you and your neighbours are inadequate and insufficient in the face of your complex needs. You are not qualified to understand and solve your own problems, hence the worst solutions come from neighbourhoods.”

Tactic #6: Discredit associational, amateur and civic space

The function of associations is to act as a vehicle to amplify and multiply our individual capacities, skills and talents. They perform this function by creating an ambient context within which gifts can be exchanged and accordingly positively compounded. Associations can only function well within a non-hierarchical gift economy, which is to say an egalitarian cooperative environment which is deeply relational, not transactional.

In that kind of ideal environment, freedom and democracy can flourish, but associational life is highly susceptible to external counter-forces. Hidden persuaders understand this, and actively exploit it, this is exactly what Nazi propagandists did to undermine freedom of association and expression in Germany. If you can turn the scouts into the Hitler Youth, while simultaneously making the trains run on time, and restoring people’s financial security, you can rule a nation, and corrupt a generation.  

Tactic #7: Remain hidden even to yourself

Imagine if despite being top down, and patrician, you could persuade yourself that you are not operating in an imperial, patriarchal manner. There is a way of doing so: by wearing what John McKnight once called the ‘mask of love’. With the mask of love on, you can rationalize almost any form of manipulation. The best hidden persuaders are, therefore, hidden even unto themselves. They have convinced themselves that they are operating in people’s best interests, using their superior positions and intellect to ‘nudge’ the unsophisticated ‘herd’ towards their better selves.



In concluding, I think it important to recall Paulo Freire’s concept of praxis:

It is not enough for people to come together in dialogue in order to gain knowledge of their social reality.  They must act together upon their environment in order critically to reflect upon their reality and so transform it through further action and critical reflection.”

Praxis reveals the tactics of hidden persuaders, not so that we can be better serviced consumers, but so that those who the hidden persuaders have defined as the problem can secure the power to redefine the problem. We can all reverse the Bernays curse and make the long journey from consumers to producers, but it requires a collective will, which is fundamentally counter-cultural. It is thus that deep democracy is co-created and enduring social justice realized.

“Th[e] modern susceptibility to conformity and obedience to authority indicates that the truth endorsed by authority is likely to be accepted as such by a majority of people, who are innately obedient to authority. This obedience-truth will then become a consensus truth accepted by many individuals unable to stand alone against the majority. In this way, the truth promulgated by the propaganda system-however irrational-stands a good chance of becoming the consensus, and may come to seem self-evident common sense. “

David Edwards, Burning All Illusions, p203

Cormac Russell 

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