Sunday, 6 September 2009

Desire vs Needs: You got it all wrong!

I've just watched the first episode of "The Century of the Self", a short documentary series by Adam Curtis from 2002 which aims to show "how those in power have used [Sigmund] Freud's theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy."

And there's one bit I absolutely must share.

But first a little context. This first episode focuses on Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, who was the first person to apply Freud's ideas of psychoanalysis to public relations. Bernays was fascinated by his uncle's writings and realised a lot of money could be made out of driving people's behaviour by playing on their irrational feelings.

He proved this fantastically by encouraging women to smoke, who in the early 20th century were discouraged from doing so because of a social taboo. This taboo held that the cigarette was indomitably masculine, that it was a symbol of the male penis.

So, at an annual New York street parade, Bernays enlisted the help of some women who hid cigarettes on their person, and at his signal, lit them up in front of the press. Even better, they were given the slogan "Torches of Freedom", thus seizing the cigarette from male exclusivity and turning it into a symbol of equality, despite them clearly not being in the best interests of women's (or anybody's) health.

This idea of unnecessary objects making people feel better was then seized upon by corporations everywhere. Whilst goods rolled out en masse, there was a fear that people would not want to buy any more once they had fulfilled their needs, hence, people must be made to consider goods differently. At which point Curtis quotes Paul Mazer, a banker working for Lehman Brothers in the 1930s:

"We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America, man's desires must overshadow his needs."

That's right. Lehman Brothers. Desires over needs. Oh! How that turned out!

You can watch the documentary here on Google Videos. The actual quote is not until 16 minutes into the programme, but it's a fascinating film and well worth watching in its entirety. See also his other documentary series The Trap and The Power of Nightmares.

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