Friday 20 August 2010, 19:19

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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The widespread fascination with the Mad Men series is far more than just simple nostalgia. It is about how we feel about ourselves and our society today.

In Mad Men we watch a group of people who live in a prosperous society that offers happiness and order like never before in history and yet are full of anxiety and unease. They feel there is something more, something beyond. And they feel stuck.

I think we are fascinated because we have a lurking feeling that we are living in a very similar time. A time that, despite all the great forces of history whirling around in the world outside, somehow feels stuck. And above all has no real vision of the future.

And as we watch the group of characters from 50 years ago, we get reassurance because we know that they are on the edge of a vast change that will transform their world and lead them out of their stifling technocratic order and back into the giant onrush of history.

The question is whether we might be at a similar point, waiting for something to happen. But we have no idea what it is going to be.

I have quite a lot of film from the archives that was shot in the Madison Avenue agencies in the mid 1960s, and I thought I would put some sections up. It is great because it shows some of the major advertising men and women of the time, many of whom are the real-life models for characters in Mad Men.

But it is also fascinating because it shows how some of those individuals would go on to play crucial roles in breaking open that static world.

And in a strange way - by achieving that - those same advertising executives would lay the foundations of another static world - the one we find ourselves living in today.

I thought I would tell the story - and show film of the people who were central to this revolution.

The story begins at the end of the 1950s. There were two distinct camps on Madison Avenue. And they loathed each other.

One group was led by Rosser Reeves who ran the Ted Bates agency. Reeves had invented the idea of the USP - the unique selling point. You found a phrase that summed up your product and you repeated it millions and millions of times on all media so it "penetrated" the minds of the consumers.

His favourite was Lucky Strike's "It's Toasted"

He laid this all out, with diagrams, in his "bible" - called Reality in Advertising.

reevesall.jpgThe other camp were known as "the depth boys". They believed the opposite. That you penetrated the consumer's mind by using all sorts of subtle psychological techniques to find out what they really wanted. These were feelings the consumer often didn't even consciously realise themselves.

It was called 'Motivational Research'.

One of the leading "depth boys" was the wonderfully named Norman B. Norman who ran the Norman Craig & Kummel agency. Here he is explaining his "Empathy Technique" and why it is better than the old "propositions" (i.e, USPs) of people like Rosser Reeves.

I have also cut in some documentary film of some of the motivational research that was being done by the agencies - including an early focus group, and women being tested for the reactions to TV adverts. The ads they are shown are cut into a "neutral" TV programme so as not to bias the responses. For this the American researchers for some strange reason use the coronation of Queen Elizabeth.

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Behind the techniques of people like Norman were a group of Viennese and German psychologists and psychoanalysts who had come to America as refugees in the 1930s.

One of the most important and influential was one of the few women high up in the Madison Avenue of that time. Dr Herta Herzog.

Dr Herzog had trained as psychologist in Vienna but then adapted her knowledge to studying the effects of mass media in America.

In the first episode of the first series of Mad Men, Dr Herzog is parodied. "Dr Greta Guttman" comes in to tell Don Draper that because of growing evidence of the link between lung cancer and smoking the only way to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes is to link them to the Death Wish.

In the scene Mad Men is dramatising the war that was going on in Madison Avenue. Draper is obviously modelled on Rosser Reeves who hated the psychologists. In the scene Draper is rude and hostile to Dr Guttman and drops her research in the bin.

Later in the episode Draper invents the slogan - "It's Toasted" for Lucky Strike. It was Rosser Reeve's favoutite USP.

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When I was making Century of the Self I went to see Herta Herzog in her house high up in the Austrian Alps and filmed an interview with her. She died in February of this year at the age of ninety nine.

I never used it in the series - so I thought I would put some of it up.

Dr Herzog was a really nice person, and she was also incredibly influential. She was an example of a European intellectual trained not just in psychology, but in the radical theories of people like Theodor Adorno, who took many of those concepts and used them to reshape modern consumerism. Not to destroy it, but to give it an extraordinary new vigour.

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But at the same time there were growing attacks on the techniques of Motivational Research. The most powerful was The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard which was first published in 1957. Its front and back covers say it all - millions of you are being secretly manipulated by evil ad-men who have wormed their way into you innermost feelings.

hidden.jpgWhat Vance Packard did was touch on a collective feeling that had been growing among consumers about modern society. It was a fear of conformity, of manipulation, of fraud, and above all of powerlessness - and that this had somehow all been created to sell products.

But at this very point a true advertising genius came to the rescue of modern consumerism. He was called Bill Bernbach and he ran a Madison Avenue agency called Doyle Dane Bernbach.

There is a brilliant book by the American writer Thomas Frank called The Conquest of Cool which anyone interested in this area should read. In it, Frank argues that Bernbach responded to the growing criticisms by inventing what might be called anti-advertising. It was a new kind of style that deliberately linked the public mistrust of advertising and consumerism - to consumerism itself.

Bernbach began it with cars.

Critics like Vance Packard had told millions of Americans that the auto-industry of Detroit was a giant conspiracy against them. That the manufacturers changed styles every year in order to deliberately make their earlier models obsolete, and that their cars were specifically designed to fall apart after a certain amount of time. Built-in obsolescence.

In 1959 Bernbach began a campaign for the VW beetle. His campaign basically said - yes, Detroit is a conformist con-trick, but here is a way to be different, to stand out from the crowd. To be Hip.

Here are some examples. One shows that, unlike Detroit-made cars, the VW model never changes its style over the years. Another parodies the ludicrous decoration of cars by car dealers. While a picture of suburban conformity - with a VW next to every house - says -

"If the world looked like this, and you wanted to buy a car that sticks out a little, you probably wouldn't buy a VW Station Wagon.

But in case you haven't noticed, the world doesn't look like this.

So if you wanted to buy a car that sticks out a little, you know just what to do."

bernbachvw.jpgHere is some film of Bill Bernbach from 1967 explaining his work - not just with VW but also with Avis rent-a-car. He astonished the advertising world by using the slogan "We're Number Two", and one of the Avis print adverts began '

"People in this country don't believe anything they read in ads anymore.

And with good reason."

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It is impossible to over-emphasise the influence Bill Bernbach had on advertising - and beyond that, on the whole engine of consumerism. His central idea was to encourage people to be "different" - and what that led to was a new dynamic in society.

If you want to be different you are always running away from the others who are also trying to be different - and thus become like you. So you are continually searching for something newly different, something Hip.

And that required an endless stream of new - different - products. As Thomas Frank puts it very eloquently in The Conquest of Cool:

"Bernbach's enthusiasm for the idea of 'difference' became the magic cultural formula by which the life of consumerism could be extended indefinitely, running forever on the discontent that it itself had produced

Hip was indeed the solution to the problems of the mass society, although not in the way its ideologues had intended"

But one could argue that it is precisely that continual search for difference that has led us into the static world of today. If consumerism continually scours the margins of society for rebellious or contrary notions and then immediately turns them into stuff to sell - it ironically becomes very difficult for new ideas to change society. Instead they tend to end up reinforcing it.

Bernbach's work in the early sixties pitched Madison Avenue into a state of confusion. And here is a montage of the sort of things that were going on in the offices of the major agencies then.

There is footage of a great pitch meeting at the offices of Norman, Craig & Kummel for a bread advert, plus three ad-men trying to compose a song - "I think it should be a folk-rock kind of thing, with more rock than folk". And some other stuff.

It ends with some footage of the photographer Richard Avedon shooting one of the top models of the new emerging age of mass hip. She was Donyale Luna who was the first African American to get on the cover of Vogue.

Luna was one of Warhol's first divas. At the time this film was recorded she had just shot one of Warhol's early films which he named after her.

Her real name was Peggy Ann Freeman.

She died in 1979 of a drug overdose

From all the footage you get a sense of the confusion yet dynamism of the time. An industry torn between an old world of consumerism and the glimpses of a new one.

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But there was one final ingredient that needed to be added to the mix in shaping this new consumerism. And that was feminism.

Other than Herta Herzog there were few women in high positions in Madison Avenue. But then Shirley Polykoff rose up because she invented the phrase for Miss Clairol hair colour bath - "Does She, or Doesn't She?"

polykoff.jpgPolykoff is the model for Peggy Olsen in Mad Men. She was a junior copywriter at Foote Cone and Belding and she was convinced that women should be allowed to be what they wanted to be - and she expressed that through a series of adverts for Clairol.

Clairol's products allowed women to colour their hair themselves at home for the first time. But there was widespread social disapproval - only "chorus girls" coloured their hair. Polykoff broke that. For Nice 'n Easy, Clairol's combined shampoo and colour she wrote - "The closer he gets, the better you look".

And then for Lady Clairol - which allowed you to become a platinum blonde for the first time - Polykoff wrote one of the greatest slogans ever:

"If I've only one life, let me live it as a blonde"

blonde.jpgThis campaign was running when Betty Friedan was just finishing The Feminine Mystique. She was so "bewitched" by the slogan, and its message, that she went out and bought some Lady Clairol and bleached her hair.

But what Polykoff was doing was still demure. Being yourself but fitting in.

Then came Mary Wells.

Wells was one of the great characters of Madison Avenue in the mid-60s. She had worked under Bill Bernbach, and she took his ideas about being different - and pushed them.

She became famous for her campaign for an obscure American airline called Braniff International Airways. Every plane was painted different colours, and all the stewardesses wore uniforms designed by Emilio Pucci.

Pucci's uniforms were deliberately designed with lots of separate individual components that could be worn in all sorts of combinations. It meant that each stewardess (and pilot) was an individual, not a corporate conformist.

braniff.jpgWells then set up her own firm - Wells Rich & Green - and here is some film of her talking about her work. It includes the famous "air strip" TV advert she did for Braniff.

Next to her is her business partner Dick Rich who she was about to have a terrible bust up with - and he left the company. She then married the head of Braniff, and became the highest paid executive on Madison Avenue.

She is wearing a great dress.

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Both Polykoff and Wells were creating new confident images for women - but they were still about how men looked at you.

A third woman on Madison Avenue changed that. She was called Ilon Specht. In 1973 she invented a slogan that finally expressed the full flowering of the new kind of consumerism that Bill Bernbach had begun.

Specht was a hippy who had been employed by McCann Erickson. One day she was sitting with a group of creatives in New York trying to think of copy for L'Oreal who wanted to challenge Clairol's dominance of the American market.

Specht described to the journalist Malcolm Gladwell how she looked around at the others in the room. And then what happened:

"I could just see that they had this traditional view of women, and my feeling was that I'm not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me they were doing.

I just thought, F**k You.

I sat down and did it in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wrote it.

- 'I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference, by L'Oreal. It's not that I care about money. It's that I care about my hair. It's not just the color. I expect great color. What's worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don't mind spending more for L'Oreal.

Because I'm worth it.'"

It was liberation through shopping.

And you would spend as much money as it took to get that freedom. It meant that women could be free to be themselves and fulfil their own inner desires - but through consumerism.


(Ka-ching - A word invented by an advertising executive - Ed McCabe in 1991 for a TV advert for Rally's Hamburgers. In the tradition of Bill Bernbach the advert satirises the greed of other burger companies. It stars Seth Green - later of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ka-ching was then taken up and used in Wayne's World)

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    Comment number 1.

    From the shopping bill board, to the political hustings... or is it the other way round?

    The evolution seems ominous: Let's find out what the shopper [worker] wants, then adjust our slogans [manifesto] to win custom [votes]. But the shoppers [workers] have their own minds, they aren't doing what it says on the tin. So we must tell them what to want, by making it fashionable [politically correct], because you're worth it.

    The first wave Marxism, was all about resting control from capitalists, and giving the workers the power of production; but it didn't work well. So the new wave Marxism is about controlling the workers, by telling them what to think. This allows the Marxists to focus purely on the bureaucracy, effectively liaising symbiotically with the capitalists, who actually feed everybody, and the workers, who are now the obedient serfs of the state. To be employed, and ultimately fed, you have to succeed past the states employment filters, such as CRB checks; gender quota checks; various obscure psychometric tests for job suitability, &c.

    This has been achieved by the flattery techniques employed and developed for both political control and advertising products; and those most easily flattered are women.

    Marxist-Feminism, has turned women into Trojan horses. For the Capitalists, the adverts today are mostly aimed at 'women's empowerment', which ultimately makes divorce and independents from men, a fashionable choice; thus breaking families and partnerships, leads to more households to sell more produce. The ideal man is seen as obedient and generous to a fault; whilst the women is 'empowered' by her profligacy, because she's worth it, and he does what he's told to do, on the tin.

    The future is not bright, and it certainly isn't orange. It is a bleak self imposed 'fashionable' serfdom; where 80% are told what to do, say, and think; by 19% of the bureaucracy, who in turn, supply the workers for the 1% nomenklatura, of the international corporate elite.

    To avoid the monkey trap, you have to let go of fashion, and the Gleichshaltung of political correctness. You're no more worth it than anybody else; and it doesn't always do what it says on the tin.

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    Comment number 2.

    Excellent insights Mr. Curtis. When I watched the first episode of Mad Men, I was thinking of 'The Century of the Self' and assumed that the Guttman character was based on Anna Freud, but Herzog is definitely a closer match.

    Can you (or anyone) tell me what the song is in the montage of clips (5th video?) It's superb.

    I am reading the excellent autobiography by John Boorman at the moment and he says when he worked in television he was going for an impressionistic blend of journalistic documentary and poetry; something he was often unable to do due to the constraints on him at the time. I think Adam Curtis has more closely approached that vision than anyone since.

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    Comment number 3.

    How many syllables, Mario?

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    Comment number 4.

    Excellent piece,

    I wanted to add there is a fellow on CBC (Canada's BBC) named Terry O'Reilly who has an interesting show called "The Age of Persuasion" which covers similar content. You can listen to the shows free as they cover some interesting aspects about advertising from an advertisers perspective.

    One of the main points that Terry often describes is that advertisers are not about producing new manipulative thoughts. Instead, they are working with what is already existing and at times they are successful and other times they fail. It is worth checking out,

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.


    I'm from Spain and the second and last videos 'aren't available in my area'. A lot of people wolud be pleased if you could fix that, thank you. Great job, as always.

    BTW the slogan 'Because I'm worth it' was translated to spanish (porque yo lo valgo) and it's used nowadays here, it's even part of the modern language. But i don't think advertising has the power that had then, it shaped a new economy and thus a new society but now it's only part of the media shit. The part I love of all this revolution of the self in advertising is that I realise that today the corporations make products for almost everyone (maybe everyone if the wine tetra bricks for bums are included), I don't consider myself an ad-influenciable person but I have figures, comics, videogames, books, and lots of other stuff marketed to people like me and then I watch me like an idiot. Thanks.

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    Comment number 6.

    Brilliantly interesting, again, thank you.

    I remember thinking about these ideas when high aged 17. Without knowing any of this history, there was an intuitive dark unease about the idea of cool. Cool was as corporate as anything else of course and felt like an equivalent form of brainwashing to mass 'jock' culture.

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    Comment number 7.

    Did that Rally's ad really 'invent' the term 'ka-ching'/'ker-ching'?

    The nearest I heard him come to 'ka-ching' was 'cha-ching'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "In Mad Men we watch a group of people who live in a prosperous society that offers happiness and order like never before in history and yet are full of anxiety and unease. They feel there is something more, something beyond. And they feel stuck." Brilliant.

    I am surprised that Adam has not mentioned David Ogilvy. Seeming that not only "Confessions of an Advertising Man" is a text Donald Draper reads on screen, but that Ogilvy is considered to a major influence on advertising and, 'creative' during this era. I'm aware that the man had quite a fascinating life, including working as a chef in Paris. Less interested in the anecdotal peaks in his career, is there any footage of Ogilvy available whereby he discusses his intentions and subsequent influence (etc.)?


    If you're referring to the track at the end of the clip it's: Ennio Morricone - C'Era Una Volta Il West.

    I'm struggling to recognise the track at the beginning as it's embedded too deep into the mix.

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    Comment number 9.

    I'm wondering if Adam had anything to do with this, which was shown again recently -

    The end of the program has some lovely editing actually, and some footage from the films above.

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    Comment number 10.

    I'm not sure about the notion that Rosser Reeves created Lucky Strike's "It's Toasted" slogan in the 1950's. 

    I've heard Lucky radio commercials from the '40's that used that phrase, and Wikepedia's article about the brand says they started using it in 1917. 

    BTW, when I was in high school in the '60's we had our own translation of "LSMFT."  And I suspect it was older than we were: "Loose Straps Mean Floppy Titties."

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    Comment number 11.

    If you haven't, Mr Curtis, I strongly recommend you read David Foster Wallace's 'Mister Squishy', in his Oblivion (2004).

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I always think that there is a connection between mad men and Joseph Hellers book Somthing Happend. I though the writers might have used it as a template for the show but now I am wondering if its just that Heller drew on the same group of people as inspiration for his novel.

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    Comment number 13.

    Dear Adam,

    On a tangent here, but - you may be able to dig up some archive nuggests on this factoid regarding the "ground zero mosque" debate right now.

    The irony about the "ground zero mosque" media storm is that the original world trade centre complex design was based directly on the design of main mosque complex in Mecca!
    Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who designed worked in the middle east before designing the World Trade Centre, copying the main elements of the Mecca complex to design the World Trade Centre...
    Here's a few links

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    Comment number 14.

    he chap in the 'Beware of The Spoiler' ad - in the first clip; that's not Christopher Lee, is it?

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    Comment number 15.

    Hey Natalie ^^

    I thought another interesting thing about the ground zero mosque thing, that relates to advertising... Paul Arden, who wrote all those books on advertising and did the British Airways campaign... said of ground zero a few years ago:

    "If instead of showing strength by spending billions on weapons of war, the West was to build a mosque on Ground Zero, it would be a remarkable symbol of our understanding of the Islamic point of view. It would be a major step towards world peace."

    There's a pretty interesting blog post by momus about him here:

    Pretty ironic eh?

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    Comment number 16.

    Excellent post! You have done a great service by pulling these clips together. Two notes: 1. marks against the expected rigor of Mad Men, "the death wish" should have been "the death drive" (or, per some translators of Freud, "the death instinct"); and 2. for those interested in the disconnect between (pseudo-)psychoanalytic hype in the service of exploitation and theory proper, Lacan wraps it up in a timely fashion (1960): "Here arises the ambiguity of a misrecognizing that is essential to knowing myself. For, in this 'rear view,' all the subject can be sure of is the anticipated image—which he had caught of himself in the mirror—coming to meet him. I won’t go back over the function of my mirror stage here, the first strategic point I developed as an objection to the supposedly 'autonomous ego' in favor in psychoanalytic theory, whose academic restoration justified the mistaken proposal to strengthen the ego in a type of treatment diverted thereafter towards successful adaptation—a phenomenon of mental abdication tied to the aging of the psychoanalytic group in the Diaspora owing to the war, and the reduction of an eminent practice to a Good Houskeeping seal of approval attesting to its suitability to the 'American way of life.'"

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    Comment number 17.

    Interesting article but worth remembering that the advertising industry has always been susceptible to pseudoscientific bunkum as far as psychology is concerned.

    Psychoanalysis is pure nonsense and was laughed out of serious psychology departments sometime in the 60s only to find a home in literature departments where scientific rigour is less important than sounding clever.

    Freud is little more than a footnote in the history of psychology proper, Lacan doesn't even amount to that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Good insights but Mad Men is about advertising. As your work has show it is public relations that is a bigger problem although of course the two work hand in hand. As a social psychologist or for someone who learns about it is easy to see which techniques are being used for every TV ad and every political campaign. For example, the Republicans in America ideas fell outside the American's public's "lattitudes of acceptance." According to the textbooks, they have two choices: (1) either become more extreme and in so doing make the other sides ideas appear more extreme (most people desire to take the middle position in a debate) or (2) they can change their ideas to bring them into alignment with the American public's "lattitudes of acceptance." Clearly, the Republican party has gone with choice number 1. Fear mongering is a simply a technique to change people's attitudes that is used when the message is outside most people's "lattitude of acceptance." Yelling at elected representatives about modest health care reform, as they did in America, is simply another technique with the same idea behind it. Make the opposition look extreme and your ideas no matter how extreme will be perceived as more moderate. The technique has been around of centuries.

    In a local election, one candidate approach is right out of Bernay's playbook from his NAACP convention campaign. On TV, most adds take the approach of having you identify with someone and then they show you the behavior that you are supposed to engage in (e.g., Hey I'm cool and look now I'm buying some beer.)

    The answer, I believe is education. Education about specific techniques because if the public knows the technique, then it becomes ineffective. There are not that many techniques and if you want a conspiracy story, I believe a good one can be found by examining why such techniques are not mentioned on the nightly news or in the public schools. As soon as most people understand the techniques and how they work, they lose their power but you have to be very specific and make sure that your audience understands the ruse and why it is appealing. A few years ago, a social psychologist "Raul Huesmann" conducted an experiments where he explained to some kids how violence on TV is not real. Sure enough the kids no longer saw aggressive behavior as a realistic choice and they were better behaved than kids who did not receive the training until later. He shows his little program had an impact that lasted for many years and it's not surprising that it did. We receive all sorts of messages that teach us inappropriate ways of making decisions but the truth can be taught easily and it "innoculates us" (see William McGuire) against dishonest persuasion and self-destructive behavior but how many school teachers or reporters really understand this? Something that could be taught in a semester. Why is that? Answer that question and you will understand how the world currently works and how it could be vastly improved.

    As noted by Adam Curtis, another persuasion technique is "expert power." People place too much confidence in expert opinions. Yet research shows, people stop doing that if they're taught a little about informal logic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.


    Nice post. Of course, teaching the public how to spot the difference between a hawk and a heron, would be the death of Jeremy Kyle and Oprah Winfrey.

    And I've often wondered why the little gem of a book: "Straight and Crooked Thinking", by Robert Thouless, is out of print; especially since it used to be so popular, right up to the 90s?

    Or have I just answered my own question?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    They recently showed a few episodes of Mad Men on BBC2 again. I hadn't seen them before so I thought I'd have a look to see what the show is about.

    I particularly liked a scene in which the lead character hangs out with a bunch of hippies, of which one is his mistress I think. He takes a photo of this woman, with anohter member of the group, and realises looking at it that they are in love. There's also another good bit where one of the group says to him accusitively "you created the want".

    I'm not sure if this is the point that archetect is making, but is how we perceive the use of psychoanalysis in advertising and PR today flawed? I posted previously and asked basically whether Freud's work really had been a discovery of how people's minds work, and this knowledge was exploited to make people desire products, or political parties, whatever. What I'm asking is psychoanalytic theory where really applied at the heart of advertising effectiveness? Or are there other factors in play, does it work the way we think it does?

    I took a course in psychoanalysis in my year of uni. Most of what I remember was that it seemed like tosh. I remember the analysis of Dora, and thinking he was just making this stuff up. He had some imaginative reasons for why a woman had a sore throat, I can tell ya.


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