Just over fifty years ago Vance Packard provoked worldwide alarm when he published The Hidden Persuaders, a book which exposed the ruthless way in which advertisers were using covert psychological techniques to manipulate our thoughts, fears and purchasing decisions. The book sold over a million copies, and for a while made the public aware of its vulnerability to the clandestine use of subliminal stimulation and Freudian depth psychology. The hue and cry that Packard caused has long since abated - but we're still being bombarded every day by the same coercive techniques. These are being subtly and incessantly applied, not only by advertisers, but also by politicians, newspapers, press agents, slogan writers, spin doctors and public relations consultants. Our subconscious minds are under constant attack, bombarded with feel-good stimuli designed to encourage us to buy products we don't need, won't use and often can't afford.
This, of course, is nothing new. Many regard Niccolo Machiavelli as the founding father of political thought control. He was the strategic adviser to the Florentine Republic in the early sixteenth century, and was one of the first to compile a written guide for rulers on the acquisition and deployment of political power. His book The Prince circulated privately during his lifetime, and was only published after his death because it was thought that its advice on the use of cunning, deceit and guile was far too dangerous to fall into dissident hands. 'It would be best to be both loved and feared', is one of the instructions he offers would-be rulers. 'But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved.' The book was banned by the Catholic Church, who added it to its Index Liborum Prohibitorum, while no doubt keeping several copies in the Vatican library for the guidance of senior members of the all-powerful Roman Curia. It became one of the bibles of the Founding fathers of the American colonies, John Adams finding its advice invaluable, particularly the practical guidance it gives on the centralization of power and the control of rebel factions.
Many writers have developed the art of Machiavellian cunning. One of the earliest was the Spaniard Balthasar Gracian, who wrote The Art of Worldly Wisdom, which was published in 1637 and widely distributed throughout Europe. The book offers three hundred tips on how to achieve personal and public success. Much of this wise advice relates to personal life style change, and covers the same ground as the vast genre of contemporary self-help manuals. But, like Machiavelli, Gracian also provides suggestions for manipulating people. Here, for instance, are four of his tips, taken at random and suitably paraphrased. Axiom 5: 'Aim to make people dependent on you. The astute person prefers to have people needing them than thanking them. Keep their hope alive without entirely satisfying it, for then you'll preserve their dependency.' Axiom 7: 'Avoid surpassing your superiors. All victories generate hate, and to provoke such feelings in your seniors is foolish and self-destructive.' Axiom 17: 'Vary your pattern of behaviour, otherwise your rivals will be able to anticipate your course of action and frustrate your plans. It's easy to kill a bird that follows a straight course, not so one that twists and turns.' And Axiom 77: 'Be all things to all men. Observe, and mimic, their moods and mannerisms. Follow their lead. Be learned with the learned, and saintly with the saintly. This is the way to gain their sympathy and support.'
These are the techniques which politicians employ today, usually with the help of spin doctors trained in the art of psychological persuasion and Machiavellian cunning. It's no coincidence that the founding father of American PR, Edward L. Bernays, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. One of his first tasks when he set up in practice was to give the Machiavellian art a more benign public face. This he did with great success, encouraging the man-in-the-street to think in terms of 'public relations' rather than 'propaganda.' But despite these attempts at rebranding, the work of the modern spin doctors is still largely devoid of ethical standards. This was shown on 9/11, the day when the Twin Towers of New York's Trade Centre were raised to the ground by al Qaeda terrorists. Seizing the opportunity this presented, Jo Moore, one of the UK government's press officers, sent a message to her political chiefs telling them: 'It's a good day to bury bad news.' (Her actual words were slightly different, but equally callous and unprincipled.)
These mind benders are hell bent on pulling the wool over our eyes. They're offering us not facts, but romantic fictions. Their power is immense; their presence all-pervasive. In Washington DC today there are over seventeen thousand lobbyists, promoting the interests of pressure groups ranging from those of large pharmaceutical companies, to anti-abortion campaigners and the National Rifle Association, which wants to ensure that every American has the right to carry a gun. Last year these movers and shakers received nearly $3.5 billion in funds, which doesn't include the amount they paid directly into the campaign accounts of Federal candidates. Unless we're vigilant, we'll be the victims of constant subliminal manipulation. Our hard won freedom will be lost, the moment we let others dictate our thoughts and purchasing decisions.