Thursday, June 23, 2022

World of buying and selling (1999)

Book Review from the July 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Manipulators by Jeffrey Robinson. Simon and Schuster, 1998, £17.99.

More than 40 years ago an American journalist, Vance Packard, wrote The Hidden Persuaders. In it he revealed how the advertising industry was mass producing customers the same way manufacturers were mass producing goods for the market. Now along comes Jeffrey Robinson to update us on the same theme. Short sentences. Racy style. The blurb is a fair summary of what buyers get for their money. Robinson unveils:

    * The new sciences that are being developed to turn the ads we see into magic bullets which can penetrate our defences.
    * How modern retailers are following hot on the advertisers’ heels with their own sleight-of-hand to snap off any lingering resistance to buy.
    * How we unwillingly contribute to our own commercial seduction.
    * How the worst is yet to come, as the internet and television combine to create a monster whose sole function will be to pick us off, one by one, and make us buy.

A truly scary scenario. One, you might think, that would provoke a call to oppose such a bleak future for homosapiens. Not a bit of it. Robinson’s tone and lack of critical comment amount to saying “Don’t worry about it—it’s the real world—just accept it”.

Most of the book is a series of sound bytes (or sound gnaws, as someone recently called them) about the tragi-comic world of advertising. They range from the disturbing to the tacky. Apparently people are employed to put tiny cameras inside frozen-food compartments in supermarkets to chart the eye movements of shoppers in the hope of determining better placement for high-margin items. My favourite quote is “In the ad biz, sincerity is a commodity bought and paid for like everything else”.

American authors are quite good at writing books about how badly the mass of people are treated and treat each other. Over the years Galbraith has excelled at being a “friendly” critic of capitalism. Don’t expect even that much from Robinson. He doesn’t mention capitalism, let alone say anything against it. The closest he comes to questioning the status quo is his sub-heading “It’s them against us, and the thems are winning”. Enigmatically, the last two sentences of his book are:

“It is not that Big Brother will have won. It is, rather, that we will have become Big Brother.”

To which socialists can only reply “Speak for yourself, brother!”
Stan Parker

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