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Spring Edition
Volume 100, Number 4

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Donovan Roberts Witmer '97

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The power of persuasion, circa 1960

A forerunner of pop sociology remains relevant today

The American Dream has been regrettably deferred by many as, over the past year, the stock market and retail sales have declined drastically. Historians are looking to past decades for the causes of our current economic crisis. However, in many respects, the beginning of our consumer-driven society can be traced back to the end of World War II—a time of economic recovery.


With a boom in new products, Americans in the late 1940s spent their war-time savings on whatever was being sold. Motivational research blossomed, spurred on by new techniques for persuading consumers. As a college student in the 1960s, I picked up a copy of The Hidden Persuaders, because I had heard so many people discussing it. Written by Vance Packard, the book foretells the consumer revolution that continues to this day.


I was fascinated by the techniques advertisers used then—and continue to use now—to entice consumers into choosing one brand over the competition. Perhaps this fascination with advertising was a factor that increased my interest in mass media and motivated me to pursue a degree in this area. Our involuntary responses to packaging, product placement, our uncritical acceptance of promises, our response to appeals toward security, conformity, and dozens of other psychological needs: all of these contributed to the burgeoning field of motivational research.


Much has changed in our society in subsequent decades. Computers enable the advertiser to crunch statistics and categorize us as consumers more effectively. At the same time, we are more aware of advertising, and many of us have become more skeptical—if not cynical—about product appeals. Yet, our drive to acquire material goods reached new heights the past few decades. Have we been blinded in our quest toward social mobility so much so that we forget to be good stewards of all God has blessed us with?


Rereading The Hidden Persuaders has led me to reflect on our society’s materialism from a different perspective. Having moved way beyond my student days, I now view this dilemma as one who tries to obey the biblical mandate to advance the well-being of others. This book has helped me realize that I want to build God’s kingdom—instead of my own mini-kingdom.

Lois Beck

Lois Beck is an associate professor of French and communication in her 41st year of teaching at Messiah.

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