“Torches of Freedom”: The Anti-Literature of Advertising


“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”1

Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928

The Anticulture of Liberal Capitalism

Patrick Deneen, in his masterful Why Liberalism Failed, identifies “Liberalism” as an “anticulture” rooted in a war on nature, time, and place.2 The first war breaks man’s connection with the natural order and turns nature into an enemy that must be conquered. As Francis Bacon put it, nature must be forced to reveal her secrets “as torture may compel an unwilling witness to reveal what he has been concealing.”3 The second war traps man in an “eternal present.” And released from time, from connection with past and future, he is also released, by the third war, from place and community.

Every culture is carried, inter alia, by its art and literature, which conveys its stories and values and which connects each person with nature and with their moment in time and with their community. But anticulture also has a literature, a literature which is more extensive, by sheer volume, than all the literature which has preceded it, and which carries the values of secular Liberalism. Although we can all point to various books, plays, movies, and poems which exemplify the war on man and nature, the most ubiquitous form of this literature is the anti-literature of advertising. And it is important that we recognize it as a literature, and apply the techniques of literary critique and analysis that we apply to other literary productions. And just as important is an understanding of its history and necessity, and the role it plays in shaping the world we live in.

The Engineering of Desire

In examining the history and techniques of advertising, we can do no better than to examine the figure generally regarded as the “Father of Public Relations,” Edward Bernays. Bernays styled himself a “counsel on public relations,” but he titled his 1928 book on the topic Propaganda: The Making of the Public Mind. And “propaganda” gives us a better understanding of what, exactly, is happening to us. Now, Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and a student of his Uncle’s work. It was Bernays who sponsored the translation of Freud’s work into English. But more importantly, he realized that Freudian psychology could be used to sell products and political platforms to the public. Bernays noted that,

It is chiefly the psychologists of the school of Freud who have pointed out that many of man’s thoughts and actions are compensatory substitutes for desires which has [sic] been obliged to suppress. A thing may be desired not for its intrinsic worth or usefulness, but because he has unconsciously come to see in it a symbol of something else, the desire for which he is ashamed to admit to himself.4

It’s a powerful technique; if you can associate the product with some unconscious or barely conscious desire, the product will sell itself. It matters little whether there is any natural or logical connection between the product and the desire, because the connection could be “engineered.” In salesmen’s parlance, “you sell the sizzle, not the steak.” This is what Bernays called “the engineering of desire” (in the commercial world) or “the engineering of consent” in the political realm.

Torches of Freedom

The power of this technique was amply demonstrated in the campaign to get women to smoke. George Washington Hill, the Chairman of the American Tobacco Company, complained that the bias against women smoking was depriving him of half his market. In 1928 he hired Bernays to “solve” this problem. Bernays knew that he couldn’t possibly sell cigarettes to women based on the virtues of tobacco, and he didn’t try to; he did not try to persuade them that they would get used to the smell and get over the cough. Rather, he consulted with A. A. Brill, the most famous American psychiatrist of his day to find out what cigarettes could mean to women. Brill told him that cigarettes represented the penis, and therefore power, and that women could be induced to smoke because then they would have their own penises and be more powerful.

This tapped into sociological changes in America, which was just completing a transition, begun in the late 19th century, from a largely rural to a largely urban society. In a rural setting, the position of women arises somewhat naturally, but in an urban setting, and particularly in an industrialized urbanity, the role of women is more ambiguous and the assignment of tasks seems arbitrary. The “women’s question” was as urgent then as it is today.

Bernays made good use of Brill’s insight to stage a publicity stunt that would forever change the sexual and social meanings of cigarettes. He got a group of debutantes together to march in New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a major event in the cultural life of that city. At a signal from him, they would all light up a cigarette that had been hidden in their clothes. Bernays prepared by alerting the press that a group of suffragettes would be marching and lighting up “torches of freedom.” The press went wild and the story was heard around the world. Sales of cigarettes to women sky-rocketed from that day. They went from 5% of all cigarettes sold, and quickly doubled, doubled again and peaked in 1965 at 33% of sales.5

One can, of course, debate the validity of social conventions, especially in regard to gender. Still, it ought to give one pause to reflect how social attitudes can be so easily manipulated to serve purely commercial and political interests.

“I Do What the ____ I Like!”

We might also think that we ourselves are immune from such crude manipulation. It is a big mistake to think this way, for every ad, or nearly, carries with it a social and philosophical message, messages that largely shape the attitudes and politics of society, and particularly those of our students. This was amply demonstrated during the recent Winter Olympics, where the advertising was particularly toxic. And the best example of this were the ads for Subway sandwiches, which had little to do with selling sandwiches and everything to do with selling hedonism.

Against a background of blaring “music” (I use the word advisedly) and quick cuts, it proclaimed a message, delivered by young and attractive persons, that there are “no limits” and we should “reach for the sky,” culminating in the proclamation, “I do what the ____ I like!” In the broadcast version, the missing word was not “bleeped-out,” but there was a momentary pause in the noise, inviting the hearer to fill in the appropriate inappropriate word. This is a powerful psychological technique, since the word is more powerful when we supply it than when it is simply given to us, where it might actually cause offense.

The object is to associate the sandwich with “freedom.” The technique is always the same: associate some salable commodity with some ineffable quality, preferably something deeply felt and visceral: love, peace, attractiveness, status. We cannot purchase freedom by the pound, but we can purchase sandwiches and cigarettes, and if the one can be associated with the other in our minds, it is not necessary to discuss the advantages of the product. After all, you can choose your own vegetables and select one of a dozen pre-packaged dressings. What more could freedom want? This process of subconscious association works just as Freud said it did. One might debate the effectiveness of Freudian psychology on the therapist’s couch, but no one can doubt the effectiveness of the mass therapy of Madison Avenue.

The Buy-ological Imperative

But why should a corporation spend its money selling a philosophy rather than a product? The truth is that it arises as a necessity from the very nature of industrial capitalism itself, particularly from the logic of mass production and the changing nature of competition. In the era of craft production, no one supplier can hope to saturate the market. In that context, increased competition tended to widen and deepen the market, and was not, by itself, a threat to any given supplier and tended to be a boon to all.

The situation is otherwise with mass production. When one factory can, in theory, saturate the entire market, then competition becomes a struggle to the death, a means of picking one, or at most a few, winners, with bankruptcy for all the rest. The losers get absorbed by the winners, until all production is gathered into vast corporate collectives. Indeed, capitalism has collectivized production in a way that would astound a Stalinist bureaucrat.

But there is another and more pernicious effect of mass production. It involves very high capital costs but very low unit costs. And the machinery is product-specific, which means it cannot be easily re-tooled to make other products when demand shifts. For example, machinery used to produce cars cannot easily be re-tooled to produce washing machines. And when markets are saturated, when “everybody has one,” the capital costs cannot be met from replacement sales or population growth alone. Bernays recognized this as the central problem of the industrial system:

Mass production is profitable only if its rhythm can be maintained—that is, if it can continue to sell its product in steady or increasing quantity. The result is that while, under the handicraft of small-unit system of production that was typical a century ago, demand created supply, today supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand. A single factory, potentially capable of supplying a whole continent … cannot afford to wait until the public asks for the product.6

Supply must create its own demand; this is the key point. In order for this to happen, the economy must be shifted to one that meets needs to one that meets—or rather creates—desires. Needs tend to be durable and finite, and limits and duration are mortal enemies of the Buy-ological Imperative. But desires are shifting and infinite; they can be one thing today and (with a little help) quite another thing tomorrow. In this climate of infinitely changing desires, no one can saturate the market so long as they can create new desires.7 But this constant creation of new desires is also the creation of a “new man,” and one who is, by design, less than a man. As the Romanian philosopher Sorin Cucerai notes,

By contrast, “the man of desires”, who inhabits the new world of consumer capitalism, is radically withdrawn in the solitude of his wishes. Classical man was a unit of the species “man” who could perfect himself through a uniqueness that gave him a specific shape. … but the man of desires is a uniqueness without a shape, a polymorphic singularity, a solipsistic nothingness.

It is only the man of desires, the pure consumer, who can meet the demands of the Buy-ological Imperative and so keep the production system humming along. Thus the creation of the pure consumer is more important than the creation of specific products. Indeed, the consumer must be constantly remade in the image and likeness of the product, and products constantly revised to create new desires. This imperative was recognized by Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers when he said,

We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.8

This “new man” created by consumer culture can have anything he wants, except happiness; he must always be wanting and never be content, because contentment would be the death of consumerism. He must always seek his happiness in things rather than in persons, and then seek it again in some other thing; but he must never be allowed to become content; contentment would destroy the consumer culture:

In today’s world, happiness means the ability to satisfy as many of one’s desires in as short a period of time as possible. And, as desires are by their very nature purely subjective and short, they cannot represent a bridge between human individuals. The man of desires is necessarily solipsistic and anomic, both in relation to others and in relation to himself, which leads to the inability to build any social fabric, no matter how rough or thin. In addition, since desires are endless, happiness is in turn impossible: anyone can satisfy only a tiny number of desires (tiny compared to the infinite number of them). The man of desires is fundamentally unhappy.9

Literature, Anti-Literature, and Meaning

Art in general and literature in particular have always endeavored to help us discover the meaning in things and our place in the world. In this, anti-literature is not new and not threatening. Literature connects us with our time and place, interprets our past, and looks forward to our futures. But there is this great difference between literature and anti-literature: the writers and artists of the past believed that their task was to discover the meaning inherent in things and in events; anti-literature seeks to invent meanings. For the artist, time, space, place, and things were brimming over with meaning, and it is the task of the intellect and the spirit to discover this meaning and render an account of it to their fellow men. Artists frequently get it wrong, and the account is always incomplete, because meaning has no bottom; there is always more to be discovered. But while the artist may get it wrong, he always believes that there is meaning to be revealed, because creation and time are themselves revelations that we must interpret according to the mind of the Author.

But with anti-literature, meaning does not inhere in things; it is a creation of the artist who arbitrarily assigns meanings to things. There is no “meaning” to be discovered; rather, it must be imposed on things and events. This is the post-modern world, where “reality” is a suspicious category that must be constantly deconstructed to create a “hyper-reality” that is shifting and unstable and is itself always subject to deconstruction. At its base, it is radical nihilism, the denial of meaning to existence.

This is not to say that the postmodernists have nothing useful or interesting to say; they most certainly do. But at the same time, they have handed a set of weapons to our enemies, to the enemies of mankind itself, to destroy our hearts and minds, to break the connection with our time and place, with our fellow men and women, and to turn us into “a uniqueness without a shape, a polymorphic singularity, a solipsistic nothingness.”

And they must be opposed, and opposed with our full hearts and minds, with work and prayer.

Fighting the Literature of Distraction

There is another great difference between literature and anti-literature. The artist demands our full attention: Homer or Shakespeare wants us to engage with the work with our full hearts and minds; Dante demands that we listen with soul and body. But anti-literature is the Literature of Distraction; it demands that we turn off our minds, abandon our intellects, and harden our hearts. We must remove every toll-gate, every defense, between us and our subconscious minds; we are supposed to say, “It’s just an ad,” and let all our guards down.

But in fact, these are highly-polished works of art, or anti-art, and of science to boot. Each day, our capitalist masters summon forth an army of the best psychologists, sociologists, statisticians, artists, writers, and engineers, all using technologies of such power as was unimaginable in the past, and all enlisted in a war against the soul. We must match their artistry with the best of our critical faculties.

Since many of the readers of this website are teachers, I here address you specifically. We teach students how to read Homer and Shakespeare, but we leave them on their own when it comes to reading Coca-Cola and Subway Sandwiches. We train our ire on some article or tweet from some political hack or tenured senility. But the hack and the senility have very little influence on the shape of the world, and in critiquing them we ignore the forces that actually shape it. It often seems that we train our students to live in a world that no longer exists, while ignoring the world that does. But we cannot equip students to deal with the modern world by ignoring its most ubiquitous features.

Teachers of literature must train their students to apply the same techniques of literary criticism they learn in reading literature to their reading of anti-literature.10 Teachers of psychology and sociology must point out how these techniques are used to manipulate us. Teachers of history must show their students how we got to this point. Teachers of the arts must show their students how these arts are misused and perverted when applied to these commercial persuasions. Teachers of philosophy and theology must expose the anthropological and ontological premises upon which this craft is based. Teachers of the sciences must show how science can be terribly misused to subvert the human person. And in all things, we must show our students how they may deprogram themselves.

And above all, we must deprogram ourselves; we must not fall victim to the fallacy that we are above such things; the technologies are more powerful than we are, if we do not pay attention to them. But once we understand what is actually happening to us, we can free ourselves, and our students, and ourselves become Torches of Freedom.

  1. Edward Bernays, Propaganda (Brooklyn: IG Publishing, 2005), 37.
  2. Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, Kindle (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2018), 64ff.
  3. Quoted in Deneen, 72.
  4. Bernays, Propaganda, 75.
  5. For an in-depth look at the effect of Freud’s influence on 20th century propaganda, politics, and culture, see the Adam Curtis documentary series, The Century of the Self.
  6. Bernays, 84.
  7. Sorin Cucerai, “Repeatable present – Reflections on the American Crises,” trans. Radu Seserman (Bucharest, October 28, 2009).
  8. Quoted in Gus Lubin, “There’s A Staggering Conspiracy Behind The Rise Of Consumer Culture,” Business Insider, February 23, 2013, http://www.businessinsider.com/birth-of-consumer-culture-2013-2.
  9. Cucerai, “Repeatable Present.”
  10. For what it’s worth, here are my slides from the lecture I give my students on this topic: https://prezi.com/mnzkh1key3tf/i-shop-therefore-i-am/. They are available to all under the Creative Commons license; they may be used, with attribution, for any non-commercial purpose. And they may be freely modified in any way, so long as the resulting product is also available under the same terms.

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