Movie Night Fall 2011
Philosophy 100 Danielson
Century of the Self
Here are several questions to keep in mind while watching the film. These can be used for discussion the night of the film, or to
answer for those who watch on their own. If you are writing answers because you did not attend the film, or because you are writing
for more extra credit, please answer one or more of the questions, but no more than 3, with a two-page response. You have until the
date of the next film to submit your responses.
Century of the Self: Part 1 Here is a link to be able to watch the film on your own. (Use the Red button which reads “watch film now”
to see the whole film. There are three other parts which you can find on the same page (on the left hand side) by scrolling down to the list of all the
1. Freud believed that we were driven by our unconscious desires. We repress our animal feelings, which are powerful, sexual
and aggressive forces, because they are too dangerous. There is a hidden part of the mind of which the conscious is
unaware. The First World War convinced Freud that governments unleashed our primitive forces and could not control
them. But it’s what we should have expected. Once released, no one knew how to control them. Do you agree with Freud’s
fundamental assessment of humans? Why or why not?
2. What do you think of Edward Bernays and his use of Freud’s ideas to manipulate the masses: his belief we could get people
to buy objects by linking them to our hidden unconscious desires? He showed American Businesses how they could sell
things to people they don’t need by connecting the goods to our inner desires. By satisfying the inner selfish desires one
made them happy and thus docile. Out of this came the political idea of the all consuming self which Adam Curtis, the
documentary filmmaker, argues has come to dominate the world today. Do you agree with Curtis’s conclusion? Why?
3. President Woodrow Wilson argued that the U.S. would fight to bring Democracy to Europe and not fight to re-establish the
old empires. Bernays was skilled at using propaganda to push these ideas in the U.S. After the war Wilson was greeted as a
hero, a liberator in Europe. The individual would now be free. Bernays thought the same type of mass persuasion could be
used in the service of peace-time aims like selling products. Bernays replaced the term “Council on Public Relations” for
the word “Propaganda” because of the negative associations with Propaganda. Post War America had become a mass
industrial nation. Bernays wanted to find ways to control the masses. He turned to the work of his Uncle Sigmund Freud.
He published and publicized Freud’s ideas. He made the ideas controversial and then well known. He created a “Freud”
brand and then capitalized on the fame. Do you see modern parallels with how companies, or individuals, are “branded” to
make their appeal greater? Give some examples.
4. Freud’s ideas of hidden irrational forces intrigued Bernays. Perhaps he could make money by manipulating groups through
their unconscious desires rather than through rational information. He looked at things and how they related to people’s
irrational emotions. He experimented with controlling mass consciousness. He was hired to sell smoking to women. He
found that smoking, from a psychoanalytic perspective, was related to power since the cigarette represented the penis.
Thus smoking led women to believe they had power and independence. It also meant that you could control how others see
you. Cigarettes became “Torches of Freedom.” How are other Freudian interpretations used in modern advertising? Give
5. How do Bernays’ techniques further alienate people (in the Marxian sense)? Is it more of an example of alienation from
self? Nature? Species-Being? And/ or other people? Why?
6. A new way to sell products emerged: it is not through the rational approaches but because the “consumer” will feel better by
owning the product. The end result is that people bind themselves emotionally or personally to a product or service. This
was done because the corporations were worried that they would over produce after ramping up production during the war.
They feared that people would stop buying. They needed to get people to buy more. Bernays had a tool to get people to
buy more by appealing to their unconscious desires. He worked to change how people think about buying. Paul Maser of
Lehmann Brothers was clear. We must shift America from “a needs - to a desires” culture. People need to be trained to
desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. He thought that we must shape a new
mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs. At this time there were no “Consumers” there were
“Workers.” The rich bought luxury items but the workers did not. Maser saw he could convince people to buy not what
they needed, but what they wanted. Do you think this was, overall, a good thing or a bad thing for America? Why?
7. Bernays brings psychological theory to merchandising and sales to sell products to the masses. The banks, who were his
clients, funded chains of department stores. These became outlets for mass produced goods. Bernays’ job was to produce
the new type of customer. He created techniques of mass consumer persuasion. His women’s magazine clients linked
famous movie stars to products of his other clients. He created product placement in movies, and also got car companies to
associate automobiles with male power. He hired psychologists to issue reports concluding that products were good for us
and then pretended the reports were independently generated. He hired celebrities to hype products. They would say things
like “You buy products to express your inner sense of self.” How convincing is that type of advertising to you today?
8. “Consumptionism” was a term coined to name the idea that the American citizen’s importance to his country is no longer
that of citizen but that of consumer. Consumerism also lead to a stock market boom. Ordinary people were convinced that
they ought to buy shares by using bank loans who were Bernays’ clients. President Coolidge asked Bernays to help him
shape his image. Politics became involved with Public Relations. How important do you think that link between politics
and advertising is today?
9. Freud wrote about group behavior: how people’s unconscious aggressive behavior could be triggered when in crowds. He
underestimated people and thought they could be far more dangerous in crowds. He thought that humans are dangerous
and a bad species. Men could not be improved; they are the most ferocious creature on the planet: they have submerged
forces broiling under the surface. These forces create the mobs which over turn governments like in Russia. It undercut
the belief that people could be rational in their group behavior. Walter Lippman argued that if humans are driven by
unconscious irrational forces we needed to rethink democracy. We need a new elite group to manage the “bewildered
herd.” This management would be achieved through psychological techniques to control the unconscious feelings of the
masses. The basic mechanism of the mass mind is unreason driven by their spinal cords not their minds. Psychologists
asked, how do we apply these mechanisms for social control? Do you think that this assessment of humanity is accurate?
Why? Why not?
10. Bernays argued he could stimulate people’s inner desires and then sate them with consumer products. He found a way to
manage their behavior – to “engineer their consent.” Bernays thought that the public doesn’t have reliable judgment.
People are stupid. They want the wrong things, and the wrong politicians. What we need is an enlightened despot (like
Plato’s Philosopher Kings?). We need to appeal to people’s desires and longings and fears for our own, elite purposes.
President Hoover said that consumerism is the central motor of American life. PR people have taken over the job of
creating desires and have made people into constantly moving “happiness machines.” These new “machines” are the key
to economic progress: it was a new idea of how to run mass democracy - the consuming self. Controlling these machines
makes the economy work and makes happy docile people which allow for a stable society. Bernays’ democracy is one
which maintains the relations of power not changing them. Keep people stimulated by things so leadership can just do
what it wants to do. How does this represent the world that Paolo Freire argued against?
11. Bernays became a key figure in the new ruling elite: throwing parties for the power players. He thought everyone around
him was stupid. Anyone who disagreed with him was stupid – the masses were stupid. But the wall-street crash had a huge
impact. (Do you see parallels to our current economic crisis?) The smart people started panicking like the irrational
masses. The crash caused people to stop buying goods they didn’t need. How do you think these beliefs play a role in
12. In Europe the economic crisis led to armed confrontations between members of different political parties. Freud wrote
Civilization and its Discontents which is an argument against the idea of civilization as an expression of human progress.
Freud believed that civilization was constructed to control the wild unconscious urges people have. The idea of individual
freedom at the heart of Democracy was impossible according to Freud. Ultimately, humans can’t be allowed to fully
express themselves because it’s too dangerous. They must always be controlled and thus always discontent. Do you agree
with this assessment of civilization? Why?
13. Man doesn’t want to be civilized. It’s necessary to his survival so he must be forever discontented. Freud didn’t believe in
the equality of man. Hitler saw this and used it. Too many political parties in Germany would lead to destruction. But one
person would fix things. Hitler emerged and thought democracy unleashed a dangerous selfish-ism since it doesn’t have
the means to control what is unleashed. Democracy, he thought, leads to chaos and unemployment. National Socialism, the
name of the Nazi party, would control people in a new way. The state would control business since the free market is
unstable. Workers’ leisure time would also be controlled by the state. Their motto was “Service not self.” It would be a
new alternative to democracy channeled into ways to bind the society together. Huge rallies forged the mind of the nation
by unifying thinking, feeling and desire. Hitler’s inspiration was Bernays. He wanted the deep libidinal forces to be given
up to the leader of a group: love the Fuhrer. The aggressive forces are unleashed on those outside the group. Freud wrote
this as a warning; the Nazis thought they could master and control these forces. How do politicians use these same
14. Alastair Cooke saw that the people at the Nazi rallies were releasing irrational force. The people were deeply moved. It
brought them together. At the same time in America, Democracy was under threat. The angry mobs attacked the
corporations. Then Roosevelt was elected. He wanted to strengthen democracy by using the power of the state to control
the free market by using a new way to deal with the masses. Roosevelt took broad executive power: the New Deal. The
Government would plan and run new industrial projects for the good of the nation. Capitalism couldn’t run the economy.
The Government needed to do it instead. The Nazis agreed. They saw Roosevelt’s ideas as better than allowing private
interests to control the society. Roosevelt believed that people were rational and can be trusted. In order to explain his
policies to the people he needed a way to understand the mass mind. He turned to social scientists George Gallop and
Elmo Roper who created polling as a science. It helped Roosevelt see the people’s views. It was based on the idea that
people can be trusted to know what they wanted. We can predict the behavior of the public if one asked factual questions
and avoided manipulating their emotions. How important are polls today as a tool to understand the public mind?
15. Scientific polling assumes people are rational and allows democracies to know what the people want. It gives everyone a
voice in the way the country should be run. It forged a connection between the politicians and the masses. They are
sensible citizens who inform the leaders. Business leaders hated it since they were not in charge. Business fought back
after Roosevelt’s re-election. Bernays was at the heart of the business response. Business people got together and talked
about the need to carry on ideological warfare against the New Deal. The desired to reassert the connectedness between the
idea of democracy and the idea of privately owned business. The “National Association of Manufacturers” created a
campaign to created emotional attachments between the people and business. It’s Bernays’ techniques used on a grand
scale. Films were made to show the value of business and its importance to people’s lives. Business not politics made
modern America. They used advertisements and billboards as well as getting their ideas into the editorial pages of the
newspapers. How are these same techniques used today?
16. The Government responded by making films showing the unscrupulous manipulation of the press by big business. The
central villain was public relations men and their methods: they were shown as a grave danger to democratic institutions.
The responsible citizens should monitor papers for hidden bias. Bernays also created a vision of a utopia that free market
capitalism could create in America if it was unleashed. The World’s Fair of 1939 was centered on the connection between
Democracy and American Business. At the heart of the Fair was “Democracity” a working model of America’s future
constructed by General Motors. It was used an opportunity to keep the status quo Democracy and Capitalism – Bernays
manipulated people to think that you couldn’t have democracy in anything but a capitalist society: Creating anything,
moving pictures, cars, etc. was a consumerist ideal that showed that production and Democracy go together. It captured the
imagination of the country, a vision of a new democracy that had business responding to people’s inner most desires in
away politicians couldn’t do. (It was the same year “The Wizard of Oz” and its theme song “Somewhere Over the
Rainbow” was released – 71 years ago this year. Think of the line: “A place that I have heard of once in a lullaby.”) But it
treated people as passive consumers, not active citizens. This was the key to control mass democracy. The people are not
in control, they make no decisions; their desires are in control. Democracy is reduced from assuming an active citizenry to
people driven by instinctual unconscious desires. If you can trigger those desires, then you can get what you want from
them. To what degree do popular films represent deep, hidden messages about society?
17. The view of people’s role in society is also challenged by the rise of Nazi behavior which whipped up the anger of the
crowd against the enemies of the new Germany: the Anschluss. The crowds were unleashed to cause violence. Freud left
for London from Vienna where the Anschluss occurred. The Second World War changed the way governments saw the
people. The death camps meant that the irrational forces were very powerful. American Politicians believed that under the
surface of the people were the same forces at work. They would turn to the Freud family to help control the people. (Watch
the other episodes.)
18. Do you think the elite who saw that the problem of capitalism as one of consumption use these techniques to make our lives
ultimately better, the same or worse? Why do you think that? Do you think that people will reach a state of being where
they do not want more material goods?
19. How do Propaganda and the Public Relations industry control the masses? Are we a dangerous crowd?
20. Do you think that you are being used by the business interests to merely foster their aims? Have the companies been able to
link your/our unconscious desires to the products they sell? Do you think the political idea of how to control the masses is
accurate? Do you think Plato would have used these techniques to keep the cave dwellers happy? Does this sound like the
kind of situation portrayed in “The Matrix” when Neo wakes up to see he is a battery which fuels the artificial intelligence
programs? What would Marx have to say about how people are considered by Bernays et.al?
21. What strategies do we have to resist the techniques described in the film? How would critical analysis of how business and
politicians appeal to us help maintain a vibrant democracy?
22. Is the all-consuming-self dominating our world today? Why? Why not?