Alan's Reviews > The Hidden Persuaders

The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard
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Oct 08, 2010

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Recommended to Alan by: CGW
Recommended for: Consumers
Read in October, 2010 , read count: 1

This slim volume, already more than half a century old, remains readable and relevant today, despite largely preaching to the converted about a war that's already been lost.

Its thesis is simple: sometime before the midpoint of the 20th Century, American advertisers began appropriating techniques from the burgeoning fields of psychology and sociology to manipulate us as consumers of goods and services, religions and politics, to a great extent without our knowledge or consent. The effects of such manipulation were already pervasive and insidious even at the time Packard was writing, and have only grown more so since.

Packard makes a good case, filled with telling anecdotes drawn from trade magazines and interviews with advertising industry insiders. The Hidden Persuaders is written in a clear, accessible prose style—assertive, but not at all rigorous. A Wikipedian would constantly be crying "citation needed"—as the introduction to this 50th-anniversary edition by Mark Crispin Miller mentions, this book is devoid of footnotes, endnotes and bibliography. It's a polemic, intended to awaken the hypnotized masses, not a scholarly analysis with an audience of several dozen.

Unfortunately, the edition I read was also abysmally proofread; I believe it might have been scanned and OCR'd (run through optical character recognition software), and possibly spell-checked, from the types of error that remained... but surely no human proofreader of any competence would have missed so many mistakes, especially late in the book. Page 144, for one example, uses "church" for "churn," and the phrase "a large number women" is missing its "of." Page 205 coins the odd portmanteau word "fundraiobably" (for "fundraisers probably," I'm sure), and on page 201, the phrase "pubic-relations men" actually puts in an appearance! I but skim the surface of the solecisms in this edition... if this is the kind of thing that grates on you, you may wish to seek out an earlier release of this work.

The Hidden Persuaders was enormously persuasive in its time... it's sold millions of copies since its original publication. Yet I found Packard's perspective severely dated, almost a time capsule of the 1950s in America. I found myself wondering, What Would Packard Buy—what were his brand loyalties? There's little hint of them in the case he makes; he skewers the very idea of the consumer culture liberally, but without bringing any personal perspective into the argument. I wondered whether Packard was himself a cigarette smoker; his repeated dismissive references to "the lung cancer scare" began to sound a little defensive after awhile. And then there's the constant gender stereotyping... the distinction between what aimless "housewives" want to buy, now that they're bereft of purpose due to their labor-saving devices, and the expensive objects their breadwinning husbands bring home, is simply accepted, both by Packard and by the sources of his information.

In other places, though, it must be said that Packard's observations seem as deadly accurate as ever; our national obsession with the size of our automobiles has only recently shown signs of abating, for example, and his jaundiced view of the packaging of politicians makes even more sense now than when our leaders were still innocently deciding what color their televised chairs should be and whether the President's eyeglasses made him look too pale.

At the end of the day, and despite its significant flaws when looked at through modern eyes, The Hidden Persuaders is still a landmark analysis, and it's still fun to read.
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