The Century of the Self

For the third week of the Interior and Spatial Design Lecture series, we watched a British documentary film by Adam Curtis, ‘The Century of the Self.’  We viewed part one of four, ‘Happiness Machines.’ This documentary looked at Sigmund Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, who influenced the way that the government and corporations presented themselves to the people of society in the 20th century. The first episode looked at how Bernays used Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis to control the masses.

Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis, that is, the theory of personality that focuses on repression and unconscious forces and includes the concepts of infantile sexuality, resistance, transference, and division of the psyche into the identity, ego, and superego. He was a former propagandist for America but started to explore ways in which to use propaganda outside of the context of war, “if you can use it for war, you can certainly use it for peace.” Freud’s nephew put his theories of human behaviour into practise in the attempt to manipulate people, having a great impact on society. The main idea was to play to people’s irrational emotions, making people of society believe that they are able to create their own happiness though fulfilling their material wants.

To test Freud’s theories of persuasion, Bernays experimented with the minds of the working class by attempting to persuade women to smoke. During this time, there was a taboo against women smoking in public, but Bernays managed to make them socially acceptable with a simple act. He did this by using his technique of ‘symbol and phrase.’ He persuaded women that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom and labelled them “tortures of freedom.” This appealed to women as it gave them their desired appearance of independence and gained power. Bernays held a mass demonstration, where a group of women lit up cigarettes (simultaneously after a given cue) at a parade. He cleverly notified the media that these particular women were to be lighting up ‘torches of freedom’ during the parade. By communicating this to the masses, Bernays was able to convince the public that smoking was a symbol of “how you wanted to be seen by others”, and therefore shifted the perceived power balance from male to female. After this experimentation, cigarette sales went up, proving that this act was effective in changing the public’s perception of what is acceptable as well as satisfying the female envy for male power.

Bernays realised that by linking products to emotional desires and feelings could make people act irrationally. His findings fascinated American cooperation’s who were beginning to worry that after the war there was such a large amount of products available that soon people would have bought everything they needed, as products during this period were sold for necessity. The cooperation’s knew they had to change the way the consumer thought about products changing from needs to desire culture. Curtis describes, “[Bernays] showed American corporations for the first time how to make people want things they didn’t need by linking mass produced goods to their unconscious desires. Out of this would come a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying people’s inner, selfish desires, one made them happy, and thus, docile. It was the start of the all consuming self which has come to dominate our world today.”

He persuaded members of society to buy things not for needs but to express their character to others, making people believe they will feel better with the [new] piece of clothing,’ one of his methods for this was to host fashion shows. Bernays also pioneered celebrity endorsement. By featuring famous people in advertisements, people were encouraged to buy products under the illusion that it increased their social status. He also introduced the advertising technique of product placement in movies, film premieres and events where he dressed the stars in products he represented.

In the 1920s, products were solely designed for the purpose of usability and function. Advertising focused on enhancing the product’s virtues and its usefulness in helping enrich everyday life, for example, car advertising simply showed the image of the car and it’s selling price. Bernays shaped a new mentality from “you should buy an automobile” to “you should buy this automobile, because you will feel better about yourself.” Bernays created an emotional connection to a product or service in the attempt to make the consumer happy. This strategy formed the foundation of many advertising strategies. Curtis explains, “Bernays was determined to find a way to manage and alter the way these new crowds thought and felt”. He was also know as ‘The man who understood the mind of the crowd.’

We now “design for redundancy,” meaning products will be made for temporary use or be improved and superseded so that consumers will continue to replace products and therefore, keep buying.

Although Bernays isn’t very well known these days, he had great importance in the founding of the idea of public relations and advertising. His advertising techniques are still used and are equally as effective. Bernays has successfully changed the average American from the title of citizen to consumer.

BBC UK, 2005, BBC UK, ‘Century of the Self’, viewed 6 April 2011 <;

The Century of Self: Happiness Machines,‘ video recording, viewed 6 April 2011 <>

This entry was posted in IS Lectures. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s