In this essay I will attempt to explain how the study of psychoanalysis influenced the development of the consumer society and how we can resist its persuasions. During the Industrial Revolution manufacturers produced more goods than were needed and people had to be persuaded to become consumers to absorb them. The studies of Sigmund Freud were used to develop methods of manipulative persuasion by the advertising industry so that they could promote growth of such consumers. Because advertising is so reliant on images and words, the study of semiotics was also used to help trigger emotional responses in consumers. The main emotional targets are consumers’ anxieties and insecurities. The consumer is told that through buying commodities, they will be able to satisfy their desires. It is necessary to become a skilled reader of advertisements and to know what devices are used because they pervade modern society. Finally, Freud said that it was necessary for people’s psychic wellbeing to resist large-scale coercive powers. Advertising and the consumer culture has become that power.

The consumer society emerged from the surplus of goods manufactured during the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of machines, goods could be manufactured more than one item at a time. There was an increase in the world’s population and an expansion of prosperity among the middle classes. Mass advertising was used to appeal to the growth of these potential markets (Jawitz ,W., 1996, pp.460). The economies of modern societies came to be dominated by large scale commerce (Deborg, G., 1983, pp.40). A constant flow of new products meant that people needed to be convinced to throw away old items to keep ‘in fashion’.

Once manufacturers had convinced people to buy products or commodities that they did not need, consumer culture became intense. During the early twentieth century Euro-American societies changed from valuing work and civic responsibility to valuing leisure and self-fulfilment. The increased acquisition of goods was considered to make life better rather than security and savings. Feelings of inadequacy were enforced to make the intended consumer feel in need of improvement from the various commodities put forward. Advertising used staged imagery rather than reality to reinforce these feelings and so gave form to changing social desires (Jawitz, W. 1996, pp.227).

Before the nineteenth century most advertising was merely informative. It consisted of price lists, signs on walls, printed announcements, and even the calls of the town crier. Supply and demand were in balance and there was no need to produce new products. People bought what they needed and needed what they bought. There was limited competition among merchants (Jawitz, W.,1996, pp.463) . The late nineteenth century saw the emergence of the commodity culture in which the distinctions between objects and images eroded. The image became what people live through and consume (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001, pp.227). The huge growth in advertising showed how persuasion works when used by manufacturers. The advertising industry needed to know how people think and react and what motivates them. Therefore, they turned to the study of psychoanalysis for help.

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who founded of the theory of psychoanalysis. Freud said that the human ego is at the beck and call of three masters: the superego, the id or seat of instinctual desire, and to the external world. Human mental life, Freud states, is the conflict between those contending authorities (Derbyshire, J., 2007, pp.36). The real source of human motivation is our unconscious desires and needs. In the United States Freud’s theories were recognised by advertising agencies and they used this research to sell the manufacturers’ products. Before the use of psychoanalysis advertisers assumed that a product was bought because it was best among its competitors or cost less. From Freud’s work it was realised that a brand may be bought because the buyers felt that it made them more powerful, more loved or more acceptable. It was shown through motivational research that women would pay many dollars for a ‘cream’ that promised to make them more ‘beautiful’. Therefore, advertisers realised, don’t sell soap- sell dreams. Don’t sell oranges- sell health and vitality. Don’t sell cars- sell power and prestige (Jawitz, W. 1996, pp.466)

Psychographics and demographics are two crucial fields of research in which advertisers invest large sums of money. Whereas demographics are the statistical study of a large group of people, psychographics gives a more specific profile of the target audience. Through marketing surveys this research reveals information on target audience’ values, lifestyles, emotional triggers, fears and dreams or aspirations. Advertisers use this information to create the language and images people in modern societies receive everyday.

Advertising is full of symbolic images and unconscious associations. Direct messages are avoided because this may contradict what the potential consumer already believes. A hidden message is given by means of a device, the signifier or word, and the signified or object (Inglis, F. 1990, pp.97). This is translated into ‘meaning’ and ‘form’. The study of semiotics involves describing how culture and language work together to produce systematic meaning. All meaning producing activities are gathered under the one conceptual framework: that of ‘signification’ or the making of meaning. Semiotics analyses signification by reducing all communication practices to their most basic unit, ‘the sign’. A sign can be a sound- any physical form which refers to something else. The practices of advertising provide a clear demonstration of the processes of signification by deploying a signifier and attaching it to a mental concept they wish to put with their product. This provides the product with that meaning (Inglis, F. 1990, pp.221) .

An example of this is an ad for health insurance found in a newspaper. The ad shows a couple, relaxing in an environment which is both a type of resort (looking at the cushions and the simple building construction, also the couple’s clothes are not of intrepid explorers) and a rainforest setting. The image has nothing to do with what the reader would normally associate with health insurance, hospitals, doctors, nurses, ambulances etc… However the appeal of this advertisement is in the picture which suggests love, beautiful people, freedom, the beauty of nature, and even a certain naturalness and youth. The emotional appeal of the advertisement is that, by having this health insurance, the reader will somehow be associated with the feeling the picture suggests. At the very least, the picture creates a good mood, so the reader will experience a pleasant feeling when seeing the product’s name (Jawitz, W. 1996,, pp. 487).

Another type of appeal is the celebrity. In this advertisement a bank is selling the image of a winning racing car driver. It does not sell any facts about whether the racing car driver’s investments have increased by using this bank, but the image suggests that the bank is a winner along with the reader. Advertisers pay enormous amounts of money to famous people to endorse their products. They select according to the feeling the person communicates- a feeling the advertiser wants associated with the product; in this case, winning. The idea behind celebrity endorsements is that some of the heroics and fame of the celebrity ‘rub off’ on the product and on the users of that product (Jawitz, W. 1996, pp.487).

Nearly every advertisement attempts to give the impression that the product advertised will make the person more successful, popular, powerful, safer etc… Although this is obviously untrue, the advertiser tries to say that the user will feel loved or popular etc. if they use the product. Ads have always appealed to emotions, but researchers find that even practical, everyday products are purchased more on emotion than practical qualities (Jawitz, W. 1996, pp. 483). Advertisements increasingly speak to problems of anxiety and identity crisis, and offer harmony, vitality, and the prospect of self-realisation. Today, consumption is looked at as both a form of leisure and pleasure and as a form of therapy. It is commonly understood that commodities fulfil emotional needs. The paradox is that those needs are never truly fulfilled as the market lures people into wanting different and more commodities- the newest, the latest, and the best. This is a fundamental aspect of contemporary consumer culture- that it gives us pleasure and reassurance while tapping into our anxieties and insecurities (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001,pp. 197).


To policy-makers, people are consumers, voters, producers or unemployed, taxpayers, clients, crowds, and not much else. We are rarely citizens, users, actors, participants, democrats. To cast a society as consumers is to see its members as creatures to be fed, housed and kept quiet. It shows contempt and arrogance by the powerful to set up the politics of bribery whereby consumers are bribed with extra fat helpings of consumer goods often enough to ensure the docile stability of their vote (Inglis, F. 1990, pp.134). The shopping mall is now the consumer’s cathedral. It serves to give people a sense of place in the world, homogenised as it may be, in part through their purchase and use of commodities which seem to give meaning to their lives in the absence of meaning derived from a close-knit community. This is why, perhaps, people jokingly refer to shopping as a form of ‘retail therapy’ (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001, pp.193). But when we buy a commodity that has meaning attached to it, we are not buying to satisfy need but to satisfy desire. This is why people continue to buy, because desire can never be satisfied.

By the time we are sixty years of age we would have seen over 50 million advertising messages (Jawitz, W. 1996, pp.468). Most of these will be ignored, some will help, but others will mislead. Advertising can help to discover new products or show where to buy goods at the lowest price. However, it can also mislead by convincing people to buy what we do not want or thinking a particular brand is better than what it is. To be able to counteract these persuasions, we need to be skilled readers of advertisements. People must learn to determine facts and then recognise how an advertisement tries to make the product appealing. This may seem simple but advertising agencies spend millions to make the job difficult. Almost every advertisement makes what is called a product claim. This is simply what the advertisement says about the product. There are two basic kinds of claims- one provides useful information for making a purchase decision and the other tells little or nothing factual (Jawitz, W. 1996,pp.468).

One of the basic rules in analysing advertisements is that if any product is truly superior the advertisement will say so clearly  and will offer some kind of convincing evidence of superiority, one can suspect that it is not really superior (Jawitz, W. 1996, pp.476). Once advertisements have been evaluated so that they do not mislead there is a second important skill needed to deal with advertising. People need to understand how advertisements appeal to them through involving their feelings, wishes and dreams. Advertisements attempt to make products look luxurious, sexy, sophisticated, modern, happy, patriotic, or any of dozens of other so-called desirable qualities.

Many advertisements appeal to feelings and emotions. Studies have shown that a person’s choice of a specific product and brand is more based on feelings than a specific product’s claims. Most advertisements have both a reasonable-sounding claim and an appeal to feelings. The careful consumer should be able to see in any ad not only what claim is being made but also what emotional appeal is being used. Different types of appeal are in different advertisements, although some use a combination of appeals. In looking for the emotional appeal, always notice the setting in which the product is placed. Placing a car by a mansion with a chauffeur and people in expensive-looking clothes says that this is a car for wealthy people. (Jawitz, W. 1996, pp. 487)

In a consumer culture where personal debt is towering over an economy so reliant on the results of consumer confidence figures, it is interesting to note how Freud’s studies into the human psyche have been hijacked. In 1914 Sigmund Freud published a short essay extolling the virtues of renouncing pleasure and desire in the name of something greater. In Moses and Monotheism, which was published just before Freud’s death in 1939, he used Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses as an example of the sublimation of flesh. It is argued by the writer Edmundsen (Derbyshire J. 2007, pp.36) that Freud’s greatness lies in his recognition that psychic wellbeing consists of tolerating this conflict between desire and sublimation. Freud recognized that charismatic leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini etc.. promise eternal peace in place of conflict, plentitude in place of lack. Such a promise is illusory but is no less powerful or alluring. Freud says that fascism and fundamentalism are where ‘humanity will go without potent efforts of resistance’. He asked humanity to ‘turn away from all large-scale coercive powers’ (Derbyshire, J. 2007, pp.36)

The production of commodities has seized total domination over the world’s economy. The consumer frenzy spoken of by environmentalist George Monbiot (Monbiot, G. 2007, pp.18), threatens the world’s ecological environment and therefore human life. It needs to be controlled and the best way of controlling it is by understanding how it works. People must resist the ‘large scale coercive power’ of advertising and ask themselves, “Do I really need this?”


Jawitz, William, 1996, Understanding Mass Media 5th Edition, National TextbookCountry,US

Debord, G.,1983, The Commodity as Spectacle, Society of the Spectacle,Michigan: Black and Red

Sturken, M. Cartwright, L., 2001, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture,OxfordUniversityPress

Inglis, F., Media Theory: An Introduction., 1990, Basil BlackwellOxford&Cambridge

Guardian Weekly October 5-11 2007, Vol 177 No 16

Guardian Weekly October 12- 18 2007, Vol 177 No 17

Derbyshire, J. 2007, The Death of Sigmund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism  Edmundsen, M., Guardian Weekly, September 14-20, Vol 177 No 12 pp.36

Monbiot, G. 2007, ‘We should welcome a recession now’ Guardian Weekly October 12- 18 2007, Vol 177 No 17 pp. 18


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