The Century of the Self

Marketing has changed greatly over the last 100 years. The ideas of Sigmund Freud about self and our identity have shifted how marketers persuade us to buy.

As we watch the rise of populist political movements around the world, I wanted to reflect on how political “marketing” has evolved.

In the first half of the twentieth century, politics was very much class oriented. As we moved to the later half of the century, politics became increasingly individual oriented… the question “what’s in it for me?” became key from each voter.

We moved from politics of ideals to politics of WIIFM.

Are we now moving to the politics of “WAYA”… Who Are You Against?

The idea of a self and what it is to be a complete individual are recent. Freud rejected the rationalist idea that human beings act with reason… emotion and unconscious desire have great power in moving us toward action. These forces are amplified when we act as part of a crowd.

Marketing in the late 1800s was entirely based on explaining the features of any product. Soap = it cleans better. Car = it starts easily.

In the early 1920s the ideas of Freud shifted marketing away from product explanation to telling you what type of person you would be if you bought the product. Products were no longer sold to meet needs, but as a way of showing the type of person you were. Cars were not sold for the power of the engine, but what type of man would drive a car like this.

The documentary The Century of the Self follows the journey of persuasion from the beginning to the end of the 20th century.

Documentary: The Century of the Self

This is a 4 part documentary that I watched on my travels home from USA to Barcelona over the last couple of days.

  • Part 1: Happiness Machines
  • Part 2: The Engineering of Consent
  • Part 3: There is a Policeman inside our heads, and he must be destroyed
  • Part 4: Eight people sipping wine in Kettering

Part 1: Happiness Machines

This episode introduces Sigmund Freud and how his ideas about the self and the unconscious were used by politicians and corporations in the 1920s to develop a new emotion & identity based marketing.

Part 2: The Engineering of Consent

Post World War II, politicians in the west sought to use Freudian ideas to control the destructive urges of “the masses” that had been released by the Nazi system in Germany.

Part 3: There is a Policeman inside our heads, and he must be destroyed

In the 1960s there was a push back against the repression of the unconscious. Movements in the US sought to free the individual from the constraints and repression of society. The individual needs to transcend society’s expectations to create a unique person who is fully “myself”.

Part 4: Eight people sipping wine in Kettering

Politics in US and UK in the 1980s and 1990s started to use the tools of business marketing to get closer to their electorates. Focus groups and surveys were increasingly used to “market test” speeches and political policies. Tony Blair was the epitome of this approach to politics, where every view or statement was tested on voters.

Thank you as always to my good friend Arnaud for regularly sharing books, podcasts and documentaries that help me learn.

What documentaries or podcasts have helped you take new perspectives? What would you recommend me to watch, listen or read?