Ask people if they have read a book about advertising and chances are they will name The Hidden Persuaders.
Since it was first published in 1957, Vance Packard’s Orwellian portrait of ad people probing the unconscious desires of consumers has shaped a widespread view of an industry skilled in the dark arts of motivational research.
Packard’s views were honed growing up as part of a Methodist farm family in Pennsylvania in the 20s. Even when he came to sophisticated New York as a journalist, he simmered over what he perceived as Madison Avenue’s manipulation of ordinary folk.
It was this anger that he channelled into The Hidden Persuaders, which he regarded as a protest against the commercialisation of American life. Packard’s charge that it was involved in such manipulation was rejected by the ad industry. It accused him of exaggerating the power of motivational research and naïvely accepting advertisers’ hyped accounts of their success with it.
Nevertheless, one of the big themes of Packard’s book – the immorality of subliminal advertising – remains as contentious as ever. The BCAP Code bans the use of images of very brief duration, and any other technique that is likely to influence viewers subliminally. And there are concerns about other subtle techniques – the Government is currently being lobbied to protect children from advergames that promote repeated traffic to websites.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s e-Privacy Directive prevents tracking cookies that compile the long-term histories of browsing behaviour without the prior consent of users.
"Long after Packard, the issue of motivational research is alive and kicking," an industry source says.