The psychology of advertising in the Mad Men era

Film-maker Adam Curtis has just posted a fascinating look into how the Madison Avenue advertising agencies of the 1960s first understood and applied psychology to marketing.

As well as his account of these early forays into the consumerist mind he also posts some wonderful archive footage of the ad agencies’ training and discussions and some never before broadcast interview footage he recorded himself.

You may know Curtis from his numerous sociological documentaries, most notably The Century of the Self, which is a brilliantly made four-part series which puts forward a distinct and defendable argument about how our understanding of the mind changed through the 20th Century.

Part of this covered how advertisers began to take advantage and promote the increased focus on unconscious motivations and individuality to take advantage and promote the idea of the ‘self’ as consumer, and he expands on that in his BBC article:

The story begins at the end of the 1950s. There were two distinct camps on Madison Avenue. And they loathed each other.

One group was led by Rosser Reeves who ran the Ted Bates agency. Reeves had invented the idea of the USP – the unique selling point. You found a phrase that summed up your product and you repeated it millions and millions of times on all media so it “penetrated” the minds of the consumers.

His favourite was Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted”

He laid this all out, with diagrams, in his “bible” – called Reality in Advertising.

The other camp were known as “the depth boys”. They believed the opposite. That you penetrated the consumer’s mind by using all sorts of subtle psychological techniques to find out what they really wanted. These were feelings the consumer often didn’t even consciously realise themselves.

Both the video and the writing are really worth checking out for a revealing insight into how different ideas about the mind played out in the post-war consumerist dream.

Link to ‘Experiments in the Laboratory of Consumerism’ (via MeFi).

One thought on “The psychology of advertising in the Mad Men era”

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