Hypnosis in Advertising and Politics

Media Hypnosis in Advertising and Politics

Hypnosis, suggestions can drastically alter the way individuals perceive and think about their world. There has always been tension between the rulers and the ruled, the masters and the masses. It is the centrifugal pull of self-desire against the welfare of the larger society, the tether that holds human history together. For much of that history society at large was the concern of a governing class: kings or priests, who often viewed the masses, scrabbling for survival, with disdain.

As long as the masses were tied to the land and easily subjugated the system remained more or less stable though far from just. Then, a few hundred years ago, things began to change. The invention of moveable type, mercantilism, the emergence of a middle class, and the beginnings of industrialism spawned political philosophies that proclaimed the rights of ordinary men and women.

The dragons of Eden

In North America these changes gave birth to a new nation whose growing pains could simply be pushed westward until they had to be resolved. In Europe they produced a bloodbath that saw aristocrats beheaded and left the bourgeoisie quaking.

The question was could the power of the masses be controlled or was civilization to end in anarchy? It is a question that remains open. The harsh truth is that human beings are an unstable amalgam of altruism bonded to a base of vicious selfishness. The base, what author Carl Sagan called “the dragons of Eden,” is what nature has given all vertebrates to survive as individuals and as a species. The altruism, annealed over eons of evolution, enables us to overcome our animal nature and live in caring social groups.

The enormity and complexity of our current world is proof that it has worked. The existence of atomic weapons and the palpable danger that we will use them is proof that it has not.

Even in the allegedly egalitarian United States the wealthy and powerful never really trusted the masses. In the Constitutional Convention of 1781 Colonel George Mason of Virginia said that giving the ordinary citizen the right to vote would be like referring “a trial of colors to a blind man.”

Similarly, George Washington proclaimed that “mankind when they are left to themselves, are unfit for their own government.” The Constitution is a compromise that recognizes these views. It allows each citizen the right to vote for President, for example, but even today reserves the final choice to the College of Electors.

The electors, appointed by the state legislatures, are technically free to vote for anyone eligible to be President, even if that person was not on the ballot. Occasionally a so-called “faithless elector” will do just that but in practice the electors vote for the candidates to whom they are pledged on the basis of the popular vote.

Karl Marx – dissolve individual rights

Throughout the nineteenth century political philosophers struggled to find a new formula that would allow altruism and anarchy to co-exist in an industrialized world. For Karl Marx the answer was to obviate selfishness by eliminating private property, in other words, to dissolve individual rights into the well-being of the greater society.

Gabriel Tarde
Gabriel Tarde

That solution was anathema to wealthy and powerful interests in Western Europe and the United States where a new understanding of the masses emerged based on psychology rather than economics. A critical problem for those who championed democracy was the reality that common men and women sometimes transformed, like Dr. Jekyll becoming Mr. Hyde, into an unruly mob that committed heinous acts of violence.

Examples readily at hand and in recent memory included the Reign of Terror that occurred in France at the onset of the French Revolution (1793 – 1794) and the insurrection of the Paris Commune in 1871. French social psychologist Gabriel Tarde anchored his explanation of social behavior in the concept of imitation.

For Tarde the son’s imitation of the father was the primal phenomenon that lies at the root of social behavior, a phenomenon that was not based on force or cunning but upon prestige. Tarde compared it with hypnosis and his theories directly influenced those of Sigmund Freud.

The use of communications media

Tarde’s views were simplified and popularized by his younger contemporary Gustave Le Bon who believed that one who became part of a crowd lost his or her individuality to what Le Bon called the “crowd soul” which he believed was intellectually inferior to the individual and inherently malignant. Le Bon viewed the crowd’s emergence as “a kind of hypnotic regression to a prehistoric mental state of mankind.” Le Bon’s theories of crowd psychology contributed to fascist theories of leadership, such as Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which emerged in the early twentieth century, but it is the writings of Tarde that are most relevant today because they relate to the use of communications media to influence the masses.

Le Bon focused on the destructive proclivities of crowds which by nature exist in a particular place. Tarde, asserted, on the other hand, that the media were creating a vastly powerful public that existed across geographical boundaries. The importance of the crowd, he said, was a thing of the past, because it was incapable of extension beyond a limited area, whereas the public could extend indefinitely and its life became more intense as it extended.6 The question became how to shape and control it.

Antonio Gramsci

Answers emerged after World War I. The war resulted not only in terrible death and destruction but in political revolutions that swept away the imperial houses of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia and, in the latter case, led to the creation of the Soviet Union.

Antonio Gramsci

The revolution did not spread westward, however, and to classical Marxists that was a bit of a puzzler because Marx had predicted that the most industrialized nations, such as Great Britain, would be the first to fall. Italian philosopher and Communist Party leader, Antonio Gramsci, explained why they had not.

According to Gramsci the capitalist states had maintained their status because they had achieved what he called “cultural hegemony,” that is, they succeeded in convincing the working classes, (the “public”) that upper class values were the common sense values of everyone.

In the United States that meant that notions of limited government and private property became everyone’s American Dream. The cast of the television show High School Musical 3 (2008) summed it up in the hit song “We’re All in this Together” asserting that: “all our dreams have no limitations.” That is, of course, nonsense but attractive nonsense to teenagers who are the primary viewers of television.

In the years following the Great War Gramsci’s insight was put into effect by a new industry conceived to manipulate public desires for products and politicians. Its primary purpose was to define the American Dream in terms of material wealth. Its birth was signaled by the publication of the book Public Opinion by political columnist and foreign affairs analyst Walter Lippmann. In the book Lippmann argued strongly against freedom of thought and for the scientific control of public opinion and public behavior.


Lippmann’s writings amplified doubts about democracy that had been voiced by the nation’s founders. Democracy requires the average man and woman to be aware of and to understand the contemporary issues of their government and to know something about the individuals whom they have elected to decide the issues for them. This may have been possible in the early days of the republic, although it is doubtful that rural farmers even then fully grasped such issues as currency, banking, foreign trade and diplomacy.

Born in New York on 23 September 1889 to German-Jewish parents, Lippmann studied at Harvard where he developed socialist beliefs and there co-founded the Harvard Socialist Club, simultaneously editing the Harvard Monthly.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Lippmann believed, the United States had become so large and complex that meaningful participation in government by the average American was impossible. As one writer put it, “Average citizens are hardly expected to master particle physics or poststructuralism. Why should we expect them to understand the politics of Congress, much less that of the Middle East?”

In his early career Lippmann was a prominent progressive intellectual, but his progressivism changed in the years approaching World War I. He began to see hostility toward big business, which fueled such muckraking magazines as McClure’s, and Everybody’s as a threat to the nation and as the beginning of social disintegration.

Discipline of science

He turned against the muckraking press in favor of the application of the “discipline of science” to democracy. In other words, Lippmann proposed abandoning democracy in favor of a system that would manage the behavior of average Americans by scientifically controlling the information to which they were exposed.

Some of that information was political. During World War I, Lippmann served as an advisor to President Wilson and supported the creation of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), America’s propaganda machine. It was deemed necessary because many Americans considered the war to be Europe’s business; the United States had stayed out of the war until 1917, its penultimate year; and a large percentage of Americans shared a German heritage.

One of the most effective tools of the CPI was the use of “Four Minute Men,” a group of 75,000 volunteers from all over the United States, leaders of their communities, who gave brief pro-war speeches during the intermission periods at movie theatres. Over the course of eighteen months until the war ended they addressed more than 11 million people, a few hundred at a time.

Powerful radio broadcasts

Talks to live audiences were effective, but the new medium of radio was vastly more powerful. A few broadcasts took place in various countries before World War I. Charles D. Herrold, for example, established the United States’ first broadcasting station in San Jose, California in 1909, but radio’s explosive growth occurred after the war. Station KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first licensed commercial station, began broadcasting on November 2nd 1920.

By 1924 there were 2.5 million radio sets in the United States and the number of licensed broadcasting stations had increased to more than 500. By 1930 the majority of American homes had radios and by 1950 that number had jumped to 98 percent. For the first time in history men and women separated by distance, background and inclination became a mass audience.

Today there are more than 10,000 commercial radio stations in the United States, almost every household owns at least one radio, and more than 95 percent of Americans over the age of 12 listen to radio on the average more than three hours per day. Once the mass audience was formed it could not be dissolved.

The power of radio was its ubiquity and constancy. Listeners heard the same voices repeating the same political and commercial messages over and over, day after day. As Stewart Ewen wrote in his book PR!: A Social History of Spin: “If, prior to the war (World War I), public relations had been fired up by the apparition of an aware discerning population – one that had vigorously influenced the boundaries of public discussion – the public was now being conceived as an unconscious organism, eminently susceptible to the mesmeric power of mass suggestion.”


This book (Media Hypnosis in Advertising and Politics) presents the case that Ewen’s reference to mesmerism, or as it is also called hypnosis, is neither a metaphor nor hyperbole. Through radio, and later television, the power of suggestion drew not hundreds or thousands but millions of listeners into conformity as a magnet lines up iron filings. It made Bernays’ goal of the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses” possible, and, as the world soon saw, the results could be terrifying and apocalyptic.

Radio, abetted by television after World War II, became the force behind two of the most powerful social movements of the twentieth century: the emergence of Nazism in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, and the creation of the post-war consumer economy in the United States. Each had wide-reaching consequences. Nazism was a nightmare that resulted in tens of millions of deaths and the destruction of much of Europe.

Consumerism, on the other hand, seems more benign, the fulfillment of the American Dream. Author and environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg, for example, points out that it has given us more leisure time, greater security, more education, more amenities, higher incomes, more food, and a healthier and longer life than people have ever had before. This is, he says, “the fantastic story of mankind, and to call such a civilization ‘dysfunctional’ is quite simply immoral.”


There is, however, a down side. The public relations industry is largely devoted to convincing ordinary people that the fulfillment of the American Dream is found in such things as automobiles, cigarettes, and other consumer goods. It is an industry built on two solid psychological principles.

One is envy, that is, that human beings imitate the actions and desires of those whom they look up to or, as Tarde phrased it, those who have prestige. From the earliest days of media advertising products have been associated with famous and admired people.

Advertising, in other words, is not generally based on the inherent qualities of a product, such as its speed or durability, but on the prestige of owning it. An economic system built on envy, on goals that by design can never be reached, on desires that can never be fulfilled, is frustrating, psychologically unstable, and unhealthy. Evidence is there if we look for it in a significant increase in alcohol consumption per capita in the United States since 1950, when the post-War media boom began, compared to the previous 100 years; the massive, wholesale use of prescription drugs for anxiety and depression by the public, drugs which are now bought widely and easily over the internet; and an increase in the United States of psychologists and other counselors since 1950 of more than 2000 percent.

Manipulating children

Media Hypnosis
A must read book Media Hypnosis in advertising and politics

Moreover, much of the advertising that fueled the consumer boom was targeted at children who are more suggestible than adults, as in the common pairing of popular movie characters and toys with fast-food meals. Aside from the ethics of manipulating children in this manner, one result has been the explosive growth of childhood obesity.

The second principle upon which the public relations industry is built is suggestibility. Humans have a natural tendency to comply with suggestions, such as “you should try this product,” especially when the suggestions are given, again, by someone to whom they look up.

Suggestions given in the right context can produce powerful changes in the way individuals think about and perceive things including products, but suggestion is less well understood by social psychologists than imitation because it has been most identified with hypnosis whose peculiar and misguided history has deflected the serious study of suggestibility and compliance in everyday settings.

Most importantly, measurements of individual differences in suggestibility, conducted in the context of hypnosis, show that a significant fraction of any population is more suggestible than the rest. Approximately 20 percent of men and women are much more influenced by suggestions given in hypnosis than are others, and there is evidence that these differences hold up in everyday life outside of hypnosis.

This fact, that suggestibility may act as a sort of catalyst, has not been much explored in media studies but it may have far reaching social implications. In the 1930s author and editor V. F. Calverton said: “Contemporary society, with its radio, newspapers, films, schools, and churches, all attuned to the minute to what is happening in their respective realms, is more subject to hypnotic compulsion than any society which has ever existed in the past.” That is what this book is about, what some people call mass hypnosis.
sic. Kenneth R. Graham, PHD. Media Hypnosis in advertising and politics https://amzn.to/3e73BY1

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