In the last post, we opened a discussion on the exacerbation among low-income households and those in poverty of debt levels as a result of public relations manipulation techniques developed by Edward Bernays, the father of modern consumerism. Specifically, it was posited that Bernays’ manipulation techniques which created a desire to own things or to follow certain issues were blind to an individual’s ability to afford those things. As a result, there are equal levels of desire to spend among a heterogeneous population, some of whom have far fewer resources than others.

Let’s consider further what Bernays wrote, “Mass production is only profitable if its rhythm can be maintained – that is, if it can continue to sell its product in steady or increasing quantity... [T]oday, supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand. A single factory, potentially capable of supplying a whole continent with its particular product, cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product... As big business becomes bigger the need for expert manipulation of its innumerable contacts with the public will become greater.” (Propaganda, Horace Liveright, 1928)

Queue instant replay. Earlier, Bernays wrote, “Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

We should stop here and ask exactly what it means for human beings to cooperate and live together in a smoothly functioning society? In Bernays’ mind, “smoothly functioning” meant exploiting the people who trusted that business and government would not do anything to harm them or put our nation in jeopardy. Bernays believed our democratic society could only function if there was a massive transfer of wealth by which the working class willingly handed over their wallets to major corporations without holding anyone accountable.

It equates to a warped reality that is imposed on the population at large.

So, do we stand a chance at combating this manipulation? I turn to an unlikely place for the solution.

When my son was in kindergarten, he was bullied by a group of classmates. His classmates would bait him into a devious act, like unrolling the toilet paper, by asking him a question, “Are you going to unroll the toilet paper or are you stupid?” My son knew he was not stupid, so to prove it he unrolled the toilet paper. Of course, he got in trouble for it because his class mates tattled on him, and that’s when my phone would ring.

Like Bernays and those who actively engage in manipulative and deceptive marketing practices, the classmates who bullied my son lived in a warped reality where exploiting my son was their idea of a smoothly functioning school environment.

To make matters worse, no one in school administration was informing me about what actually happened. As a result, my son was labeled a trouble maker, which was completely against his nature. Once I finally uncovered the bullying, the first task was giving my son the skills he needed to respond. More importantly, he had to believe that these new tools would actually work. Although it was a long time ago, I can still recall his reaction when I said, “Next time that happens, turn around and walk away.” My son thought it was crazy because he saw walking away as admitting to them that he was stupid.

However, after some explanation, he came to understand that by responding to the classmates he was surrendering power to them. Walking away left these classmates hanging in their own mischief. He was affirming the true reality that he did not need their approval to be a healthy boy. By acting from a position of strength, he had power over the situation and developed great courage. The approach absolutely worked to reduce the bullying.

Big businesses want you to believe that you need the products they manufacture and sell to be happy, well-rounded and fashionable. That is only a reality they fabricate. It says nothing about the reality in which you actually live.

It turned out that the school administration was complicit in the bullying, and we ultimately had to remove my son from the school. I share this story because of the resemblance it bears to where many people are in our economic and political system today. Many people are being baited into buying things they don’t need to solve problems they don’t have and willingly do so to conform to society’s ideals. The majority of the big businesses regularly use deception in their campaigns, making it nearly impossible to decipher between legitimate business practices and manipulation. While all this goes on, regulators are often complicit in the deception and manipulation rather than protect people.

Imagine this question playing out in low-income homes and most definitely in middle-income homes across the country. “Are you going to buy this fashionable product or are you poor?”

Of course, people do not want to feel or look poor, so to be fashionable and accepted they will try everything to make the purchase. Because they do not have the means to make the purchase, it goes on a credit card. People wind up silently carrying a load of debt and pay a high emotional price in the process, but on the outside they measure up to a standard they think is worth following. Or their homes will be dilapidated while there is a new car in the driveway or furniture that does not fit the decor.

I know this happens because I counsel clients in this position. In the marketing war for control over our mind, these people have lost a sense of their own identity and their own needs and unwittingly surrendered control over to big business.

The only way to combat the manipulation and deception in marketing practices is to start with a healthy sense of your own financial situation and your own personal needs, goals and desires.

Next time we will look at some specific ways to put this into practice.


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    Climbing the Money Tree


    R. Joseph Ritter, Jr. CFP® is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(TM) and founder of Zacchaeus Financial Counseling, Inc., a non-profit organization providing financial planning services to low-income households and households experiencing financial strain.

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