The Century of the Self is a four-part documentary that follows the evolution of advertising and PR. We’re all familiar with Edward Bernays, the marketing genius who convinced women across the country to take up smoking. He paid suffragettes to light up during NYC’s annual Easter parade, then ran ads calling the cigarettes “freedom torches”. Smoking was empowerment.
Bernays went on to work for the CIA. Sex appeal and status signaling continued to be effective marketing devices until the strategy hit a wall in the late 1960s. Consumer financing had taken off, catalyzed by computers and information brokers and data analysts. Whereas loans used to granted on a personal basis, banks could now use credit scores to quantify a borrower’s creditworthiness. Luxury goods became lame status signifiers now that anyone could buy a car on credit.
Advertisers turned to Maslow and realized they needed to aim one step higher on the hierarchy of needs. People will spend money on comfort and sex appeal, but they’ll spend infinitely more on self-actualization. Every product should be a statement of personal values.
If you want to sing out, sing out
And if you want to be free, be free
There’s a million things to be
You know that there are
–Jeep Grand Cherokee commercial
Instead of trying to make the viewer feel slightly inadequate, ads should make the viewer feel like a beautiful and unique snowflake. A beautiful and unique snowflake whose uniqueness can only be captured by driving a new car.
That’s why tech bros buy Patagonia vests to sit in climate controlled offices, wear Allbirds that look like cloned Keds, and pay $10 for artisanal toast from The Mill.
The self-expression strategy flowed into politics. A political campaign is no different from any other marketing campaign, only instead of selling new cars you’re selling old boomers. Reagan’s campaign advisors realized they could pander to the people by telling voters that it’s okay to be selfish. Earlier generations asked not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. Now it’s all identity politics all the time.
Why are corporations so woke? Because their employees have been brainwashed by a lifetime of marketing, and workplaces must cater to personal identity just like everything else in life.
Maybe this is an oversimplified explanation. Millennials are selfish and self-absorbed all over the planet. Then again, maybe that’s a testament to the power of American advertising.