Cultural historian Anat Rosenberg on the history of mind control in advertising and its links to current discussions of social media.
While the world was deep in pandemic mode, Netflix released the social dilemma, a docudrama about the algorithmic control of social media over their users. Of course, Netflix too has an algorithm working to keep viewers hooked. On one level, the film was a comparative advert that implicitly recommended its own brand (streaming) over alternative brands (social media) at a moment when everyone perforce lived in technology’s universe more than they wanted. But the film’s popularity indicated that it tapped into something deeper. Partly, it was about the disappearance of privacy, but its more alarming element concerned what Netflix described as the hidden reprogramming of civilisation. The film in fact partook in the most recent wave of anxiety about mind control by hidden persuaders, in which the attention economy and surveillance capitalism are a source of concern. Such waves of anxiety have been appearing since the closing decades of the nineteenth century. They focus on capitalist technologies of enchantment, that it, structured ways of using technology, from lithographic print through media to algorithms, in order affect people beyond reason and below consciousness.
Many of us understand technologies of enchantment as attempts to play with our minds, to shape and control our desires. The consequence is widespread anxieties about these technologies. However, historically this understanding of capitalist methods was intended by promoters of business as a pacifying cultural story, rather than the alarming one as it so often appears today. That is because in the story of capitalist mind control, the nonrational was placed in the mind but not outside it – in the world. One could believe, alternatively and more alarmingly, that inexplicable powers and magical efficacy actually operated outside the mind, in the natural and social environment, including, in particular, the economy. Max Weber famously called these powers ‘incalculable forces,’ and associated their disappearance from popular beliefs with the process of disenchantment. In addition, in the capitalist story we find the assumption that the nonrational mind is directed by rational commercial calculation, where alternatively it might spin totally out of control. By confining mysteries to the mind and showing the mind to be controllable, the story of capitalist mind control was pacifying for those who subscribed to the view – or hope – that the world was becoming progressively disenchanted. The capitalist story was simply less enchanted than the alternative of incalculable forces, and made sense of perspectives that seemed incompatible with a disenchanted world. A major and influential version of this story was developed in the late nineteenth century by professional advertisers. I have been examining it as part of a study of the first era of mass advertising in Britain, roughly from the 1840s to 1914. This history reveals the role of enchantment in advertising, the fears that it fuelled, and the efforts of advertisers – which seem so counterintuitive today – to alleviate rather than rouse those fears by claiming to direct the nonrational mind.
The nineteenth century was immersed in an advertising extravaganza; a variety of print forms were carried by novel distribution channels. Newspapers and magazines multiplied and spread, containing thousands of adverts; outdoor posters mushroomed in and beyond urban centers; and handbills and leaflets were distributed on streets, in shops, and to homes. Consumers, in turn, found themselves in new enchanted worlds. Adverts offered imaginative contact with unknown persons, things, activities, logics, and lives that exceeded readers’ own sensual surroundings, invited renewed engagements with hidden potentialities of familiar environments, and enlivened daily realties.
To understand these experiences, I have been examining reception evidence – the records left behind by readers and viewers of adverts of the second half of the long nineteenth century. This was an era before motivation research or, indeed, before anything other than the most basic consumer inquiries were pursued. For this reason, most studies of nineteenth-century advertising, even where scholars were interested in the nonrational appeals of the material, have focused on interpreting the adverts themselves, or the business methods and records of producers. However, we can learn a great deal directly from consumers themselves. The diaries, autobiographies, court-room testimonies, scrapbooks, paintings, fiction, and press reports from that period reveal how people experienced this new mass culture that surrounded them.
In 1904, for example, the Weekly Dispatch newspaper, recently acquired by Alfred and Harold Harmsworth, decided to turn around its dwindling circulation and increase sales with a treasure hunt advertising campaign. Medallions of £10 to £50 were hidden across Britain, and the clues were printed in the newspaper’s weekly issues. Hundreds of people joined the hunt every week, revealing the appeal of treasure fantasies activated by the adverts. The publishing office in London was ‘besieged’; its fourteen windows were broken, and its side door burst open as people struggled to get first copies. Lines stretched down surrounding streets. Distribution to newsagents, wholesalers, and railway stations was blocked, amidst all this clamour. A secondary market in papers developed; i.e. those who obtained copies directly often sold them on. Hunters spared no effort in their search for treasures: they removed paving stones, examined chinks of walls, fell into rivers, trampled flower beds, raided a hospital, and clamoured near a prison where ten constables were called to clear the road. A host of things were enlisted in aid of the human will: spades, pickaxes, knives, screwdrivers, shovels, sticks, brooms, candles, lanterns, iron bars, even an invention of an electric fork to pull medallions – a modernised version of occult paraphernalia for treasure hunting found in older traditions.
It was not just the promise of financial rewards that fired up the imaginations of those hunting for the treasures; it was also the play, the adventure, and the mysterious light that these campaigns threw on familiar things. In 1911, Oliver Onions fictionalised these events in Good Boy Seldom: A Romance of Advertisement, where he explored the enchanting power of assemblages of people, technologies, and the natural and artificial surroundings brought together by adverts. A fictional hunter who was a ‘virgin to Romance’ was shown in ecstasy as ‘the limpid blue pools of [his] eyes danced with the glamour of it, and, equipping himself with dark lantern and scarp knife…went forth…into fields and lanes, there to scrabble in the mire with a hundred others…’ The logic of treasure hunting appeared in contexts that might seem remote, for instance in home employment adverts that promised easy money for home-based work. They too pointed to the exciting possibilities that existed right where people already were; as though to say exciting unforeseen treasures were already at the tips of one’s fingers, waiting to be tapped, there to help and transfigure the finders. People just had to choose the right key to miraculously transform their lives.
The treasure hunt was part of a wider cultural phenomenon of enchantment by advertising. Reception evidence reveals that it was the accumulation of adverts – more than specific ones – which created the sense of enchantment. Readers experienced advertising accumulation as a revelation of invisible planes of existence. En masse, adverts had that seemingly magical power to transport readers to worlds otherwise unknown, and brimmed with promises of action and opportunity. Religiously-tuned commentators, from Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s to Onions in the early twentieth century, saw that traditional forms of transcendence were giving way to advertising, which gave daily life qualities that in earlier times were associated with supernatural powers. Mundane communication and purchasing decisions were at the same time haphazard ventures into fantasised life stories and mysterious worlds; leaps of faith into journeys that might break with any sense of incrementalism or the drudgery of labor and of competition, and with expectations of the ordinary difficulty of action. Searches for unexpected revelations, for affective immersion in one’s surroundings, and for new sensations and feelings, multiplied.
Individual advertisers were not the ultimate authors of consumer enchantment. They produced the adverts, of course. But the imaginary worlds and the magical thinking that flourished around them were a function of the advertising environment as a whole, and no less critically, of consumers’ own desire to be enchanted. Consumers were seeking the incalculable. They were collaborating in pursuit of ‘nymphs through everlasting forests’ as H.G. Wells described responses to advertising in Tono-Bungay, a critical novel about a quack brand published in 1909. The image captured the dreamworlds and desires for metamorphosis that underlay the success of advertising. Consumers’ collaboration in this process meant that they often evaded rational knowledge that would undermine their ability to dream and believe. We therefore often find advertisers embarrassed by the unruliness of consumer enchantment. The results of their work were unpredictable to them, and at times, undesirable. The Weekly Dispatch’s treasure hunt, for example, ended when it spun out of control. Religious organisations complained that excited Sunday school children could not settle down to bible reading. Hunters meanwhile caused damage to fences, grounds, and parks, and began to be prosecuted by authorities. When the Harmsworth brothers too were targeted, they stopped the campaign.
Consumer enchantment was thus also a source of considerable cultural anxiety. Prosecutions were one of many legal responses that revealed how deeply British culture was becoming troubled by this kind of vertiginous enchantment. Such phenomena seemed to suggest that capitalism was not a rationalising force, and that the world was not becoming progressively disenchanted, as Weber would soon pronounce it to be. In his influential 1917 lecture in Munich, Weber described the modern ontological outlook of his time as one that rejected notions of incalculable forces that operate in daily life, and assumed the rule of reason and a rational knowability of the conditions under which one lived. Unlike the savage, he argued, the modern did not need recourse to magical means. Mysterious powers had been replaced by technical means and calculations.
Yet, the rise of mass advertising revealed that faith in the magical power of things, in the animism of brand characters, in the ability to effect change from afar by small actions, remained, and was even becoming ever more significant for economic life. By the late nineteenth century, advertisers faced serious attacks on their field and its failures to observe and promote rationalist values. They were in a double bind. From one end, every attempt to associate their work with rational progress, for example with aesthetic education or the dissemination of information, met with a backlash. It became standard to view advertising in terms of rationalist shortfalls: it was associated with exaggeration, vulgarity, and bias. From the other end, an open endorsement of enchantment was risky within a cultural atmosphere that viewed it as regressive, and that was in denial about the fact that enchantment was fundamental to not only private mystique and leisure, but also the economy.
Professional advertisers, who wanted to reach a new clientele and expand their services from media placement to full campaign planning, were looking for a way out of the bind. They found it in the late nineteenth century, with the rise of psychology as a distinct academic discipline. The modern science of mind gave professional advertisers a language with which to explain themselves as market enchanters. Advertising no longer appeared like an imitation of news, science, or art, but as a unique field involving knowledge of the nonrational mind. At this juncture we find professionals endorsing enchantment in the contained form we still know today. They located it in the nonrational mind, while dissociating themselves from the unruly idea of advertising magic. While doing so, they tried to reconcile the nonrational with consumer reason and show how they worked in tandem. And they also represented themselves as expert pullers-of-strings who could direct the nonrational mind for the purpose of rational commercial profit. In this way, the messy picture of consumer enchantment was being reframed as a matter of professionalism. It was explained in ways slightly more digestible to a culture wary of enchantment, and it was clearly attractive to clients. In essence, this was a process of branding advertising expertise. The new brand was disseminated in advertising literature, a peculiar genre spanning books, essays, pamphlets, course offerings, and periodical publications dedicated to advertising. This development could be witnessed in the mid-1880s and it became increasingly significant toward the twentieth century.
To this day, commentators are still divided as to the ability of advertisers to control the nonrational mind. In a fantastic documentary created for this project, the film maker Bartek Dziadosz reminds us that the efficacy of advertising and the idea of subliminal control remain contested. Nonetheless, Dziadosz also shows that the image of advertisers as market enchanters – as advertising professionals self-branded in the late nineteenth century, gained a hold on the cultural imagination. Vance Packard’s influential bestseller The Hidden Persuaders (1957) itself unwittingly confirmed the brand’s success. The current wave of anxiety about the algorithmic control of minds shows the brand lingering on, indeed expanding. It is no longer a pacifying cultural story. The alarm surrounding it merits our scrutiny. It reveals how even in contained form, the idea of nonrationalism in contemporary economic life, so powerfully illustrated by advertising culture, destabilises other assumptions about the system of which it is part. Those insights into the nonrational and enchanting aspects of advertising may contribute to undermining wider acceptance, or rather ‘faith’ in capitalism, chipping away at a system that in many ways historically has thrived by denying enchantment, even as it also depends upon it. Capitalist ventures, including Netflix, do their best to turn the nonrational to economic use, but it still pays them to show that they do so less than competitors.
Dr. Anat Rosenberg is a cultural legal historian, and author of a book in progress, Dis/Enchanted: Mass Advertising, Law, and British Modernity, which examines the history of advertising in Britain circa 1840-1914. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
 A similar point has been made about the rise of modern psychology in this period. Historians often explain it as an effort to rationalise transcendence. For example, Ian Hacking, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998).