huckster optimism

“Motivational research” guru Ernest Dichter’s, magnum opus, The Strategy of Desire (1960), is a compendium of vernacular American ideology. Its gospel celebrates the overcoming of Puritan inhibitions to enjoy and truly discover oneself in consumer choices. 

What makes it fascinating is how baldly it states its commitments to consumer capitalism, announcing straightforwardly its claims about how shopping makes you creative and free that today’s ideologues would tend to cloak in euphemisms, things like: “Every new acquisition represents an enrichment of our personality.” And: “The more intimate knowledge of as many different types of products a man has, the richer his life will be.” 

His denunciations of “rationality” are especially frank: “whenever we deal with human motivations, direct questions [of subjects about their feelings] are not only inadequate but unscientific and therefore are to be rejected.” In other words, people should not be trusted to explain what they want or feel; it is better to trust various psychological experts (including, of course, Dichter and his advertising comrades). “A rational explanation is always a more suspicious type of answer than one which goes back to a less pleasant but more realistic analysis of our attitudes.” For Dichter, all pretense to rationality is de facto a lie, and realism is a matter of the “unpleasant” truths about humanity, which are always, oddly enough, about them wanting more stuff. 

The problem with listening to people talk about about their feelings and acknowledging it as valid is that they are liable to rationally conclude that they are satisfied with what they have (and reveal themselves to be mere “beachcombers of life”), when the fate of the free world itself rests on their ability to want and buy and want more: 

The real defenders
 of a positive outlook on life, the real salesmen of prosperity, and therefore of democracy, are the individuals who defend the right to buy a new car, a new home, a new radio.

This while admitting that “our economy is one of psychological surplus, in both consumption and production.” The patriotic duty of all Americans, he suggests, citing an unnamed U.S. president (though it could be any of them) is to essentially experience psychological surplus as an emotional deficit, and to view unfulfilled consumer desire — Dichter calls it “constructive discontent” — not as a grievance but as a right. With this desire, people become “controllers” of their lives: They cease to be passive and practice self-management through purchasing decisions. Without it, they are apparently managed by their apathy.

Of course, this makes advertisers the guardians of the American spirit, those who can be relied upon to stoke consumer desire in the face of evil rationality and secure that essential positive outlook on the future. ”It is our job to make concrete recommendations which will assure the development of the positive attitude on which prosperity is based.” 

Dichter notes that “if, for example, I believe that the world is heading for collapse or that the nation is on the verge of a long, drawn-out depression, I will buy less or I will buy differently than if I have a more optimistic philosophy.” Then he reverses causality and reasons that an individual having an optimistic philosophy rooted in buying is sufficient to ward off economic depression. Hurray for animal spirits! 

For all its phony optimism, the governing insight of The Strategy of Desire is the depressing view that the surest touchstone of human behavior is individualistic selfishness. You can’t go wrong expecting other people to be greedy — this view of human behavior is what advertising generally sells, regardless of whatever specific product is being touted.   

Of course that is an easy attitude to take, much like optimism itself, which is typically predicated on the fantasy of being able to live in a world that other people figure into only at your convenience. Optimism is easy (albeit arid and unsustainable) when other people can be shuffled out of the picture, muted by the personal pleasures of property and things and technological contrivances that buffer individuals from one another. But actually dealing with other people is hard, requiring attention and inevitable compromise. But what the solipsistic optimist never experiences is the true joy, the miracle of interdependence that outlasts all disappointments. The optimist merely knows a series of disappointments and the revival of desire for more of them.


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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s