Commercialism is tattooed onto the minds of millions of Americans. Commercial streams pervade the national worldview. What drives the “I want?” Some of it may be an aspect of human nature and some of it may be culturally driven. Of course, there were prophets. It would be inaccurate to say that the prophets shepherded the vision. With so much drive creating the commercial vision, the momentum itself would inevitably produce prophets.
I think it’s worth telling the story of the first prophet of modern advertising, the psychologist John Watson, because he is an ancestor of American consciousness. In the early 20th century Watson worked with rats, running them through mazes to find the cheese at the end of the maze. He was measuring performance as an indicator of intelligence. Comparisons of human behavior with a rat’s maze began with him. You know the saying: “Caught in a rat’s maze, I’m slightly out of phase – the universe of missing days.” Well, maybe you haven’t heard it, because I just made it up (though there are lots of times when I think that I’ve made things up, but someone else got there first).
Watson was inspired by the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov – you know, Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov paired food with the sound of a bell. Later, with just the sound of a bell a dog would salivate as if food were actually there. (Wouldn’t it be something if, in a parallel universe, food actually WAS there, and the dog in that universe ate the food when the dog in this universe salivated to the sound of a bell?)
Watson is today considered to be the father of behaviorism. Initially, behaviorism was not popular because it denied or avoided qualities such as consciousness, mental states, mind, and soul. Watson wanted to free psychology from the realm of philosophy. Perhaps even more than that, he wanted to free himself from the department of philosophy so that he could form an independent department of psychology and reign as department head. It worked, and Watson became famous. But in the process of generalizing rat’s behavior, people began to feel like rats in a maze. Free will was on the chopping block. Cheese sales may also have gone up.
In a nutshell, behaviorism is the study of how a dog’s saliva can ring the bell of a researcher conditioned to respond to such things. Behaviorism does not ask what the dog is thinking as it salivates, or if the researcher enjoys watching the drool as it oozes — slowly at first, and then with increasing speed — from the dog’s open mouth. Behaviorism is only interested in observable results and how those results link a stimulus with a conditioned response. In other words, we do the things we do because we are conditioned to do so over time (a half truth, to be sure). A stimulus can be many things, such as a pretty woman, and a response can occur much later – like buying a car because you’ve come to associate the pretty woman in the ads as part of the package.
Take the following example: In World War II Spam was over produced for consumption by the military. Having purchased more than they needed meant that the military overfed the stuff to our men in the field. It was the military’s version of the Monty Python “Spam” sketch.
PRIVATE: What’s for breakfast?
SERGEANT: Spam, Spam, eggs, and Spam, but without any eggs in it.
PRIVATE: I don’t like Spam. I think I’d prefer an omelet.
SERGEANT: Would you like your Spam with or without a can opener?
You’d think the over-consumption of Spam by our service men would make them reject Spam once they were discharged. You’d be wrong. Spam consumption actually went up after the war. Why? Classical conditioning. During the war, men ate their Spam around the sounds of bells, bombs, and brassieres (you’ll have to imagine the sounds they make). Consequently, whenever they heard the sound of a bell, bomb, or brassieres back home they naturally salivated for Spam.
And then there’s sex. Watson clearly understood the strength of the sexual drive as a stimulus that grabs attention, because he himself was so attentive. Even as a married man, he had a “reputation.” But it was the affair that he had at the age 42 that was to change America forever. In 1920, Watson was the head of an expanding psychology department at John Hopkins University, and had been the youngest American to make WHO’S WHO IN AMERICA. He was at the height of his status and popularity when his wife discovered Watson’s love letters, and threatened to expose him if he didn’t break it off. Long story short – the affair was made public. The resulting scandal, which made national headlines, resulted in Watson getting fired from John Hopkins. He was unable, despite being world renowned, and despite his excellent scientific reputation, to land another university professorship. His teaching days were over.
Indirectly, we have the Puritans to thank for the state of modern advertising. When Watson could not land another teaching position, and when a divorce court literally took everything he had, Watson was devastated. He went to New York and managed to get a job with a major advertising firm. He was the first psychologist to work in advertising, and he took his knowledge of human behavior with him. In 1928, 8 years after his start in advertising, Watson was a vice president making $70,000 a year. Compare that figure to the $6000 a year he had made as a highly paid professor.
Prior to 1920, advertising was relatively unsophisticated and mostly consisted in getting product information to the general public. Watson changed all that. The following advertising strategies are directly attributable to Watson’s influence: 1) product placement in stores (such as impulse items at checkout); 2) developing brand loyalty; 3) product image as separate from function (for example: making the product sexy); 4) using celebrities in advertising; 5) selling a metaphor (for example: baby powder becomes maternal instinct); 6) and consumer surveys.
I want to blame the Puritans, but it is commercialism that is the stream. The threads of commercialism were bound to find a prophet. Advertisers eventually learned to study all the psychologists. Anyone drinking their water will have a desire for materialism kindled, and craving for more.
If you want to be honest and classical at the same time, Theseus maze is all around us, and the Minotaur will sell you the shirt off your back. It’s a game of consumption. You remember how Theseus escaped? He followed the threads of his own intention out of the maze. On the way out, he may have looked up and seen Watson’s ghost peering down at his unpredictable behavior. “Bad John Watson, no cheesy treats for you! And don’t you dare salivate as I exit the maze!” You might want to consider getting a Power umbrella if you decide to walk away from artificially created desire. The way out can be deceptively slippery.