The Big Lie – the complete book online - Preface

Article Index



More than forty years ago Vance Packard concluded his seminal exposé of advertising’s blandishments, The Hidden Persuaders, with a conside-ration of the morality of its manipulative motivational techniques. “What is the morality”, he asked:


of encouraging housewives to be non-rational and impulsive in buying the family food?


. . . of playing upon hidden weaknesses and frailties – such as our anxieties, aggressive feelings, dread of nonconformity, and infantile hang-overs – to sell products?


. . . of manipulating small children even before they reach the age where they are legally responsible for their actions?


. . . of treating voters like customers, and child customers seeking father images at that?


. . . of exploiting our deepest sexual sensitivities and yearnings for commercial purposes?’


. . . of appealing for our charity by playing upon our secret desires for self-enhancement?


. . . of developing in the public an attitude of
wastefulness towards national resources by
encouraging the ‘psychological obsolescence’
of products already in use?


. . . of subordinating truth to cheerfulness in keeping the citizen posted on the state of his nation?


If these concerns seem quaint now, it is because we have now surrendered to consumerism as the dominant cultural force in the world, and the attitudes Packard feared are now the tenets of the imperial religion: New Hedonism. All the traditional cultures teach us that falsehood will eventually be destroyed by truth. Yet all around us, in public life, in the packaging of government policies, and throughout the media – in the marketing of entertainment, in the hyping of popular culture and fine art, in the fabrication of a product which is still called a newspaper – hyperbole shades into untruth. Its dogmas are promulgated by the technique of the Big Lie, favoured by zealots since the dawn of communication and latterly adapted to mass media by Josef Goebbels. In his more judgemental era, it was labelled propaganda; now it’s called public relations or lifestyle.

Yet, if these manipulators are so skilful, why is it that people so often feel that advertising is crude, tasteless, silly, irritating, condescending, irresponsible, irrelevant – in the time-honoured phrase, “an insult to my intelligence”? Partly because it is unlikely to be directed at their intelligence, partly also because most advertising is not addressed to people who read books like this, or read books at all. Yet, even when advertising is clearly aimed at you, you may often feel that it is a waste of your time, and their money. Or is it? Surely these subtle advertising people, with all the research they do, must know what they’re about?

No, they do not. The people who create advertising delude themselves. Frequently it is because those practitioners who understand the principles of persuasion are not those who create and select the message. There is no general consensus on what constitutes good advertising, and little serious intellectual framework to support opinion. Of all areas of major business investment, only advertising has no accepted measurement of effectiveness. While research techniques are good at measuring what is already happening, they are poor at predicting behaviour. In mathematical models of effect, advertising expenditure is given great weight, because it is something that is easily measured. The creative factor is usually excluded, because it has proved impossible to measure it. And so, although messages which make meaningful contact can implant ideas, sway opinion, and change behaviour, most advertising content is the product of guesswork.

The managers who authorise immense expenditures on advertising do so with scant evidence that their campaigns will have any productive effect whatsoever. While a capital investment of only tens of thousands of pounds in new plant will be subject to exhaustive routines of technical specification, rigorous professional evaluation, and close financial scrutiny of its pay-out period, a television campaign for ten or a hundred times that amount will be nodded through on the basis of ‘gut feel’, or naive and spurious arguments. Most people who work in advertising like it that way. The result is wasteful investment on a colossal scale; inevitably, much of it has a negative impact.

If, in the advanced industrial nations, we have not quite become the biddable zombies of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is because the manipulators Packard feared are ignorant of the real effects of their efforts. But is it only a question of time, as more powerful technology falls into the hands of the hucksters? Not necessarily, because the new technologies will actually redress the balance of power in favour of the oppressed consumer.

Over £17 billion ($24 billion) was spent in 2000 on paid advertising in British media, amounting to more than two per cent of the nation’s domestic economic activity. There are few industries in which so much money is invested with so little understanding. This book is not a quick-fix “1-minute manager” manual for those who are responsible for advertising, but through evaluating the ideas it puts forward in the light of their own experience it will provide them with a conceptual framework to appraise their own work more critically. The universal target, the consumer-citizen, can use this book to develop an essential survival skill: the identification of hypocrisy and cant. Examples are drawn principally from advertising, as the most overt, most familiar, and most controllable method of mass persuasion, from the countries in which it most advanced – Britain and America – but the principles of the Big Lie, whether you hear it from a spin doctor or a shaman, are universal.