Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders (1957) was a landmark critical appraisal of the relationship between the advertising industry and psychoanalysis. Nothing Exists Until You Sell It assesses the story of the book’s reception, highlighting its extensive and surprising influence. The film examines the history of the “dark art” of consumer persuasion alongside its contemporary relevance for surveillance capitalism, cyberspace, and the online economy. It suggests that advertising’s power is more nuanced than is sometimes insinuated, although no less alarming for that.

The full unabridged version of this film will be released next year. If you would like to contact its maker (Bartek Dziadosz) please do so at bartek.dziadosz@bbk.ac.uk

Director
Bartek Dziadosz
Production Date
2019

Synopsis

Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957) was the first major critical assessment of the advertising industry’s use of motivational research. It explored Madison Avenue’s ability to use depth psychology to tap into people’s emotions in an attempt to manipulate their buying choices.

The book appeared at a pivotal moment in the history of American consumerism. A growing understanding and suspicion of psychological research coincided with a rapid expansion of America’s advertising agencies. Critics such as Packard suggested that these apparently glamorous organisations were having an increasing impact in shaping people’s behaviour and aspirations. Many in the industry refuted Packard’s accusations and challenged his claims about the exploitation of the unconscious mind; others accepted or even claimed to be inspired by his findings.

Either way Packard has opened up new questions about the rationality (or otherwise) of the consumer‘s decisions. His work prompted many other explorations of adland’s persuasion techniques and its capacity to target our innermost fears and desires.

Nothing Exists Until You Sell It considers afresh this landmark book, its cultural reception and far-reaching influence. It features interviews from advertising executives, historians and psychoanalysts, alongside memorable advertisements, in order to prompt new debate about consumer persuasion today.

What are the continuities and differences in advertising technique past and present? How have the power and reach of advertising changed since the 1950s? Are the “dark arts” that worried Packard, more nuanced, and disquieting now, or have some of his fears turned out to be overblown?

About the filmmaker

Bartek Dziadosz is a filmmaker and lecturer with a PhD in the theory of editing. He manages the Derek Jarman Lab at the School of Arts at Birkbeck

Cast & Crew

Voice
Bean Downes
Camera operators
Bartek Dziadosz, Ella Walker, Bea Moyes

The film features interviews with Tamara Ingram, Paul Feldwick, Daniel Pick, Marcia Holmes, Rory Sutherland, Federico Pernechele

Related Sources

  • Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Ig Pub, 2007.
  • Feldwick, Paul. The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising. 2015.
  • Sutherland, Rory. The Wiki Man: Rory Sutherland. London: It’s Nice That, 2011.