Pavlovian Hygiene

In comedy, so they say, timing is everything.  It can be that way in life, too.  Born in one time, you can become an eponym.  Born in another, you will have people trampling the begonias, carrying impolite signs, and saying even more impolite things about you.

Case in point is Ivan Petrovich Pavlov.  He had the good fortune to be born in 1849.  Ergo, there was no one around to protest about the rights of animals when he did lots of nasty things to dogs in the name of medical research.

What he did was to surgically create tubes (fistulae) from the animals’ organs to the outside world.  Normally, doctors of the day could see the inside of an organ only in corpses or during operations.  In neither case was the organ functioning.  Pavlov created a method where he could monitor the actions of organs in real, live, more or less normal animals.

This led to a whole series of discoveries about digestion which led, in turn, to a Nobel prize in 1904.  But as I said, timing is everything.  Today, he would probably be picketed for torturing dogs and, I suspect, be too politically incorrect to win anything.

In the process of studying digestion, Pavlov also discovered that if he rang a bell and then fed a dog, over and over again, the dog would come to associate the bell with food.  In time, just the sound of the bell would be enough to stimulate saliva.  He called it a “conditioned response.” We call it Pavlovian.

This discovery had impacts all over the place.  It has even been suggested that it makes Pavlov the father of modern Behavioral Psychology (a dubious compliment, in my opinion).  But it lives on in others fields as well.  Take, for example,  Advertising.

It is obvious that Conditioned Response lies at the heart of advertising today.  After all, advertising’s whole goal is for us to make a specific response (e.g. buy the product, vote for the candidate, etc.) to a specific stimuli.  Two men were primarily responsible for exploiting this idea in our century:  Edward Bernays (“Father of Public Relations”) and Albert Lasker (“Father of Modern Advertising”).  There isn’t room to go into much about them, but they have arguably had more influence shaping the daily life of the 20th century than any pair of scientists you would care to name.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of this field is how its reach has grown with the years.  And that is primarily due to the vision and ambition of these two men.  For what happened is that through their ideas advertising people came to see that their discipline could control more and more of the human dynamics of their stock and trade.

Like this:  In the 19th century, advertisers were concerned largely with having everyone know that Bailey made the best patent planes or that Henry Disston made reliable saws.  Since it was obvious that everyone in America (well, everyone who didn’t live in the city, but that was most of the people anyway) needed planes and saws and axes and plows, the only problem was to convince people that your product was the best choice.

Alternatively, if the product was Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound or Dr. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, well, presumably people had brains enough to know they were sick and needed a tonic. (Of course the fact that these two were 20% and 44% alcohol respectively just might have salved another need, but…)

Both the basic need and the purchaser’s recognition of that need were assumed.  The customer was presumed to be already shopping for a solution before the advertiser began to work.  The only element that advertising offered was the idea that a given product could fill the need.

But after the First World War, all of that changed.  First the penny paper (well before the war) and then the radio vastly increased the audience who could be effectively reached.  This implied that the potential market was also vastly increased.  And with that increase came a new line of thought.  Out there were millions of potential customers.  Problem was, those potential customers didn’t yet know that they needed what you had to sell.

Here is where Lasker and Bernays came in:  People had to be told what their needs were.

So the advertisers of the day went from being people who satisfied a need to people who stimulated a need…and then satisfied it.  Advertisements changed.  Suddenly you saw ads begin to appear that didn’t seem to be about the product.  A famous pioneering series of ads for luxury cars didn’t talk about their cars or the joys of driving or anything like that.  Instead, it pictured well-dressed, graceful people just having fun and looking drop-dead gorgeous.  You don’t look like this?  You aren’t carefree like this?  Well!  Clearly you are driving the wrong car.

These ads didn’t sell cars.  They sold envy….and the means to satisfy it.

You don’t look like this girl, with her handsome beau waiting in the doorway?  You don’t have that perfect complexion?  Well!  Clearly you need to be using our face cream.

You can have a lot of fun looking at the progression of change in ads through this period.  It is obvious that the advertisers were just about dazzled by their new power.   Why, everyone has some things about their life or their appearance or their possessions that dissatisfies them.  If they could only be made to a) notice a particular dissatisfaction, and, b) become convinced you could satisfy it, why, there was no limit to what you could sell!

This inspired salesmanship produced the roaring twenties and time payment plans and eventually contributed substantially to the Great Depression.  The boosters of the day (mostly salesmen) extolled the first two and ignored the last.  In fact, they defied it.  The secret to getting out of the Depression, the newspapers quoted, was better salesmanship!

The inconvenience of the Second World War interfered with their proving that little theory.  However, by the time it ended, America was ready for some new prosperity and a whole new generation of advertising agents was ready to supply it.

Truthfully, there was so much pent up demand that you had to be a pretty poor salesman not to prosper in those years.  But you mustn’t think that all this free success stifled the admen’s creativity.  Far from it.  In fact, the hard years seem to have actually stimulated them and the post-war years saw a burst of inspiration that increased advertising’s scope a whole new, massive step.

The 19th century had been a time of satisfying needs.  Before the war there had been a time of first stimulating needs, then satisfying them.  Now the advertising professionals were entering their Golden Age, where they would go one step further and actually create new needs where none had been before.  (Truthfully, there had been glimmers of this before the war, but dividing it this way makes for a tidier story.)

Their new strategy went like this:  Human animals are always worried about being in the wrong somehow.  They worry about metaphorically putting their feet in their mouths or not so metaphorically falling all over those feet.  Why, look at the success of Arthur Murray and his dance studios!  So here’s what we are going to do:  We are going to issue a new notice for the American People saying, “You Stink!”

You sweat and so you smell.  You used to think that odor was normal, but you were wrong.  Your smell is offensive to others and makes them think you are, well, dirty.  It is a problem that must be fixed.  And, by the way, I just happen to have…

Thus was the deodorant craze started in the United States, much to the amusement of the rest of the world.

But that was just the beginning.  A mighty new industry, that of personal hygiene, was born.  Okay, so you used a deodorant.  Well, you need more.  Here,  you’d better use some antiseptic soap.  Now, how about your breath?  (Even your best friends won’t tell you, whispered the ad, as direct an appeal to paranoia as I’ve ever encountered.)  Next, how about a little perfume?  Well, you can’t sell he-men on perfume, so let’s call it aftershave.  What’s next?  Ah, yes, your hair’s a mess.  How about some Brylcream (a little dab’ll do ya)?  and by the way, did you know you have…ring around the collar (Gasp!)?

This formula, to first create dissatisfaction, then stimulate it, then offer a solution, has become universal.  Look around you.  Politics, clothing, video games, just about anything you can name, are all sold using the same formula.  I can’t say their ambitions are truly insatiable, but those advertising execs do seem to keep finding new fields of angst to plow.

To my mind, they achieved their greatest triumph of the sheer power of advertising when they got ordinary, common-sense Americans to buy pastel-colored scented paper whose sole purpose was to wipe their butts and then be flushed down the toilet.

I admire that power and their skill at using it, but I also find it more than a bit scary.  Is there truly no limit to the artificial desires they can create and therefore no limit over what they can make us do?

In search of some slight reassurance, I used to tell myself that with ladies’ intimate deodorants being touted on television, we have gone about as far as we could go in the matter of personal hygiene.  But I just ran into a factoid recently that destroyed any comfort I had achieved.

Imagine you are standing in your bedroom, looking at yourself in a full length mirror.  You are looking at a human being, that is to say a rather oddly arranged pile of cells.  Well,  just 10% of the cells you are looking at are human.  The rest belong to the 90 trillion or so bacteria that live on or in each of us.  Many are beneficial and some are absolutely necessary for human life.  But they are there, just waiting to attract attention.

I hasten to say that I am wholly opposed to censorship in just about any form.  But I also have to say that we absolutely must keep the advertising agencies from finding about all those bacteria.  Most of them live inside us.  Just think of what those advertising people could do with that!  What new products could they create and convince us to use?  My God!

Okay, so it might be the end of the world.  But friends, if we are not careful, the time may come when we look back on such experiences as high colonics with heartfelt nostalgia.

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