The Unexpected Demise of the Constantly Moving Happiness Machine.

Posted on 20. jul, 2010 by in Strategy & Innovation


(Versión en español más abajo)

united-kingdom-over13We take our world of brands and consumers for granted. It is as if it could not be different. So, it is worth us taking a few minutes to consider the origins of our consumerist society and then to discuss the ways in which it might be changing. The changes have many potential implications for business and supply chain strategy.

The 2002 documentary ‘The Century of the Self’ was created by Adam Curtis and distributed by the BBC. It is a sometimes controversial telling of the growth of the mass-consumer society in Britain and the United States. Using the terrors of two world wars as its backdrop, the documentary tells how government and corporations both came to focus upon the ideas of psychoanalysis as a means of encouraging a different kind of society. The documentary asks how the all-consuming self was created, by whom, and in whose interests?

The Freud dynasty is at the heart of Curtis’s social history. Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis; his nephew Edward Bernays, who invented public relations; Anna Freud, Sigmund’s youngest daughter; and present-day PR guru and Sigmund’s great grandson, Matthew Freud. Although Sigmund’s great reputation towers over this tale, arguably the most instrumental character is Bernays. His work on taking the techniques of propaganda into peacetime and corporate society, arguably gave us one of the key characteristics of the 20th Century.

Let’s take a look inside the creation of this movement with a 1933 quote from Paul Mazer, a Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in the 1930s: “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 have been entirely consumed. [...] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
Perhaps, a still more eloquent expose of the thinking that came from the Freud dynasty is revealed here by Herbert Hoover. Writing to Bernays in 1928 he said: “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines, machines which have become the key to economic progress.” Hoover, of course, went on to be President of the USA between 1929 and 1933.

Of course, the growth of mass media accompanies the rise of consumerism throughout the 20th Century. Marketing and PR becomes increasingly adept at using mass media to pass ideas and aspirations to consumers. Newspapers, magazines, journals, cinema, radio and tv were all tools and means of the new societal norm. Now, in the 21st Century, we have the internet. And arguably the internet is different.

This needs some discussion. In some ways, because of its ubiquity and availability through mobiles and at the office desk, the internet seems to present an opportunity for the further development of consumerism, for the greater enhancement of a society that is controlled by desire. This is certainly one of its faces; in some ways, maybe, the internet reinforces and extends desire. It makes more desires acceptable. It perfectly accompanies and complements what Ernest Dichter called “the strategy of desire.”

However, there is another side to the internet that contests this status-quo. With mass-media, elites controlled access and publishing. With the internet, the masses share access to the levers of publishing. This changes things. It means that there is an increase in random or non-conformist messaging. It means that the unconscious mind is increasingly approached, not just by messages from governments and corporates, but also from other organizations and individuals. We have spoken about some of this before, with the challenge of transparency threatening companies and supply-chains.

This opening up of access can be put together with two other factors to construct a thesis that argues that the consumer as we have known him, or her, is now dying. We are witnessing the demise of the constantly moving happiness machine. The first of these factors is a kind of longeivity function of media. People have grown up with consumerism. Their parents and grand-parents grew up with it. It has been around long enough for them to realize that it does not make them happy. Now he has the iPhone4, but last year he boasted about iPhone 3G. Is he any happier? Two years ago, he bought a car with six airbags to protect his family. Now, he has a new car with six airbags and electronic stability control (ESC). He does not understand ESC, but he considers himself a better father for having bought it. Is he any happier? The consumer in the internet age still buys, but he no longer expects happiness as his reward. He knows his Dad struggled under debt to buy things. He knows he is doing the same. And soon there will iPhone5 and ESC2.

The second factor is profusion. Looking back at Curtis’s documentary, the billboards overhanging city corners, and the schedules of the tv advertisements and news programmes, all look elegantly choreographed. The messages retained their punch because they were expensive and relatively rare. Now everything is cheap and as a consequence, a great profusion follows. Media is everywhere. Media is everywhere. The consequence is that any individual message has to fight harder for attention. As Herbert Simon wrote in 1971: “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”.

Is the consumer dead? He is still buying, but he is more erratic now. He is increasingly sceptical, and he does not anticipate any lasting happiness to follow from all his purchases. He is tired of debt and grown suspicious of banks. Moreover, he is less conscious now. He is less conscious of any given corporation’s major PR initiative. There’s a profusion in his head, but it is coming from all sources now; sources that are heterogeneous and juxtapositioned. His auntie’s blog, his boss’s Facebook page and the latest Coca-cola campaign; they all compete for attention on the same screen. Our consumer is less predictable now and less easily controlled. There is sometimes the feeling that he has early-stage dementia.


El fracaso inesperado del constante movimiento en la máquina de la felicidad.

espana-over14Damos por sentado la existencia de nuestro mundo de consumidores y marcas como si no pudiera ser diferente. Por lo tanto, vale la pena que nos tomemos unos minutos para considerar los orígenes de nuestra sociedad consumista y debatir las formas en la que ésta podría estar cambiando. Muchos de estos cambios potenciales tienen implicaciones para las empresas y sus estrategias de cadena de suministros.

En 2002, Adam Curtis creo el documental “El siglo del Yo”, el cual fue distribuido por la BBC. Se trata de un relato algunas veces polémico del crecimiento de la sociedad del consumo en el Reino Unido y Estados Unidos. Usando el terror de la I y II guerra mundial como fondo, el documental cuenta cómo gobiernos y corporaciones llegaron a concentrarse en la idea del psicoanálisis como un medio para fomentar un tipo diferente de sociedad. El documental se pregunta cómo el Yo que todo lo consume fue creado, por quién y en interés de quién.

La dinastía de los Freud formada por Sigmund Freud, fundador del psicoanálisis, su sobrino Edward Bernays, inventor de las relaciones públicas, Anna Freud, hija menor de Sigmund, y Matthew Freud, nieto de Sigmund y actual gurú de relaciones públicas, esta en el corazón de la historia social de Curtis. A pesar de la gran reputación de Sigmund, probablemente el personaje más importante de la dinastía es Bernyas. Su trabajo que considera las técnicas de propaganda en tiempos de paz y la sociedad corporativa, probablemente nos dio una de las características más importantes del siglo XX.

Echemos un vistazo dentro de la creación de este movimiento citando a Paul Mazer, un banquero de Wall Street que trabajaba para Lehman Brothers en los años 30: “Debemos cambiar América, pasar de una cultura de necesidad a una cultura de deseo. Las personas deben estar capacitadas para desear nuevas cosas, incluso antes de que las viejas hayan sido totalmente consumidas. [...] Los deseos del hombre deben eclipsar sus necesidades.” Probablemente una exposición más elocuente del pensamiento de la dinastía Freud es revelado por Herber Hoover, quien escribiendo a Bernays en 1928 dijo: “Te has tomado la tarea de crear deseos y has transformado las personas en maquinas de felicidad en constante movimiento”. Esas maquinas que se han convertido en la clave del progreso económico. Hoover, por cierto, pasó a ser Presidente de los Estados Unidos de América entre 1929 y 1933.

El crecimiento de los medios de comunicación acompaña el crecimiento del consumo durante el siglo XX. El marketing y las Relaciones Públicas fueron cada vez más hábiles usando los medios de comunicación para transmitir ideas y aspiraciones a los consumidores. Prensa, revistas, diarios, cine, televisión y radio, fueron las herramientas y medios de la nueva sociedad. Ahora, en el siglo XXI, tenemos internet y podría decirse que con internet todo es diferente.

Este tema necesita un poco de debate. De alguna manera, debido a su ubicuidad y disponibilidad a través de los móviles y los ordenadores de oficina, internet parece representar una oportunidad para el desarrollo futuro del consumismo, para un mayor incremento del consumismo de una sociedad que es controlada por el deseo. Esta sin duda, es una de sus caras. En algunos aspectos internet tal vez refuerza y amplia los deseos, haciéndolos más aceptables. Esto acompaña y complementa perfectamente lo que Ernest Dichter llamo: “La estrategia del deseo”

Sin embargo, existe otra cara de internet que contradice este status-quo. Con los medios de comunicación masivos las elites controlaban el acceso y la publicación, mientras que con internet las masas comparten el acceso a los mandos de las publicaciones. Esto cambia las cosas, significa que hay un incremento en el número de mensajes y que el inconsciente mental esta cada vez más cerca no solo de los mensajes de los gobiernos y empresas, sino también de otras organizaciones e individuos. Hemos hablado algo sobre esto antes cuando tratábamos el reto de la transparencia que tienen las empresas y sus cadenas de suministro.

Esta apertura del acceso a las publicaciones se puede juntar con otros dos factores que construyen una tesis que sostiene que el consumidor, tal como lo hemos conocido, está muriendo. Estamos siendo testigos del fracaso del constante movimiento de la máquina de la felicidad. El primero de estos factores es una especie de longevidad funcional de los medios. La gente ha crecido con el consumismo, sus padres y abuelos crecieron con él, ha sido tiempo suficiente para que se den cuenta que el consumismo no los hace felices. Ahora el consumidor tiene el iPhone4, pero el año pasado se jacto de tener el iPhone 3G. ¿Es más feliz? Hace dos años el consumidor se compró un coche con seis airbags para proteger su familia, ahora tiene un nuevo coche con seis airbags y control electrónico de estabilidad (ESC). El no entiende lo del ESC, pero se considera mejor padre por haberlo comprado. ¿Es más feliz? El consumidor en la era de internet todavía compra, pero ya no espera la felicidad como recompensa, él sabe que su padre luchó endeudándose para comprar cosas y sabe que él está haciendo lo mismo. Pronto habrá iPhone5 y ESC2.

El Segundo factor es la abundancia. Mirando hacia atrás, en el documental de Curtis, vemos que los carteles colgantes en las esquinas de la ciudad, los horarios de los anuncios de televisión, y los programas de noticias, lucían una elegante coreografía. Los mensajes se repetían porque eran caros y relativamente raros. Ahora todo es barato y como consecuencia se transmite una gran abundancia de mensajes. Como existen medios de comunicación en todas partes cualquier mensaje individual tiene que luchar por captar la mayor atención. Como Herbert Simon escribió en 1971 “..en un mundo rico en información, la riqueza de la información significa la falta de algo más: la escasez de lo que sea es lo que consume la información. Lo que la información consume es bastante obvio: consume la atención de sus destinatarios. Por lo tanto, la riqueza de la información crea una deficiencia de atención y una necesidad de fijarla eficientemente entre las abundantes fuentes de información que pueden consumirse.

¿Ha muerto el consumidor? No, todavía está comprando, pero ahora es más irregular. El consumidor es cada vez más escéptico y no tiene previsto que la felicidad duradera provenga de sus compras, está cansado de las deudas y del crecimiento sospechoso de los bancos. Más que eso, está menos alerta ahora, menos alerta a cualquier iniciativa de las empresa de marketing y relaciones públicas. Hay una abundancia en su cabeza que proviene del exceso de fuentes que ahora son heterogéneas y yuxtapuestas. El blog de su tía, la página de facebook de su jefe y la última campaña de Coca Cola; todas ellas compiten por su atención en la misma pantalla. Ahora, nuestro consumidor es menos predecible y menos fácil de controlar, a veces produce la sensación de que está en las primeras etapas de demencia.



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One Response to “The Unexpected Demise of the Constantly Moving Happiness Machine.”

  1. Rajat

    02. ago, 2010

    Oh no! Is it not apparent that the consumer is in new systemic state which is difficult to understand, but wrongly blamed as happiness machine? If consumers are machines then let’s not forget that their variety is infinite. I wish everything was mathematics, but nature and its beauty…chaos and patterns.

    I recall our meeting with John Beckford, when he asserted that if system has energy, it can be channelised. How and when completely depend on the sensors we’ve built to predict the answers for future (recalling our old conversation over coffee). In my mind, I also bear words of Jay Forrster as he said that “people know intuitively where the leverage points are” and I also recall Donella Meads who elaborated,”though points are known, people easily end up pushing in the wrong direction”. If things like these are confusing the sensors then wasted efforts have price as well- loss of attention, living with the noise, etc. are few of them.

    I would appreciate the idea of ‘consumers’ and not ‘consumer’- recalling the video ( where Mr. Gladwell speaks about Mr. Howard who discovered that there’s no one thing called best sauce, but many good sauces matching the taste of people. Toughest bit is- ask people what they want and they will not be able to ‘express’ it clearly, but that does not mean that the happiness machines are dead.

    ‘Unexpected’ against ‘constant happiness machines’ and Herbert Simon’s theory sounded quite interesting. But practically that should come with a context as his mission of ‘obvious’ sounded misleading to me. Though I understand the ‘image of ‘the consumer’, I still deny that the consumer was ever treated as ‘happiness machines’. I still pity the idea of them being falsely charged as Pac-Man and reaching the level- next.

    Information consumes attention, but it leads to something new…Let me elaborate. I’ll discuss an industry I know inside out- traditional garments for women in India. We’ve been in business since 1970s and after 4 decades the answer to the consumers has remained the same from sales perspective- ‘CREATIVITY’. Good designs and seasons have meant more sales, and though the information sources have increased manifold, the market has expanded. What really changed is the taste of the consumer as they saw more in different places (information played a vital role- the role of a CATALYST). From simple designs to more elegant ones, from simple shades to metallic glazy combinations, from single style to multi fabric controls- almost everything changed, but for good (entire industry grew; recalling systemic disruption by Clayton). Evolution happened with needs of the times. Interesting times when consumers saw more and learnt faster and the rate of adoption was also fast as the industry had to perspire to live with the changing minds.

    I believe that the mind, which is not a Blank Slate, is evolving at an enormous pace and this challenge has to be learnt by the people who understand what change is. I wrote about ‘Change’ long ago ( and I still stand to the point that we need to ‘learn’ how to understand change.

    Media channels are definitely increasing the information sources, but complexities do self-organise and channels enabling strong and stable set of ideas in ‘meme pools’ are bound to settle down. How- can be explained by the minds which will perceive it first…