Corporate America, and its self-described "conservative"
apologists, maintain two contradictory theories of human behavior. The
first, "the operative theory," is presupposed in marketing strategies
and advertising campaigns. The other, "the public theory," is
encountered in political rhetoric and corporate public relations
The two theories are profoundly contradictory, one to the other.
And yet, it is quite possible (however implausible) that most
successful corporate executives are quite unaware of and unconcerned
about this contradiction. After all, acute philosophical analyses of
corporate policy and an articulated sense of social responsibility
can be seriously prejudicial to one's career prospects. In such
contexts (e.g., the tobacco industry), conscience may, as
Garrett Hardin puts it, be "self-eliminating."
The Operative Theory.
By this account, human
motives can be identified, mapped, and measured, and when applied to
a marketing campaign, this knowledge can be put to profitable use.
And if public tastes do not incline toward the company's product (or
the party's candidate), then these tastes can be "manufactured" to
Evidence? Just consider the advertising budgets more than
$30 billion total just for television ads. Business enterprises will
not casually throw that kind of cash at the TV industry without a
firm and proven expectation that such investments will produce the
intended results; namely sales. As Vance Packard pointed out a
generation ago ("The Hidden Persuaders"), and Bill Moyers more
recently (on PBS's "The Public Mind"), all the accumulated skills and
knowledge of behavioral science are put to use to the task of
utilizing, and perchance creating, public motives and tastes to
profitable ends. There is no laboratory of applied psychology more
lavishly funded than that of market research. From Dr. Ernst
Dichter's application of Freudian "depth psychology" in the twenties,
to today's "focus group" microanalyses of positive and negative
stimulus-responses, "the consumer-mind" is examined, cross-examined,
and meticulously inventoried, and this information is then applied to
the greater benefit of the bottom line.
In the jargon of philosophy, "the operative theory" of marketing
is "deterministic:" that is, it holds that human behavior
("output") is the result of prior experiences ("input"), and that if
the "inputs" are carefully designed and skillfully manipulated, then
public motives, tastes and behavior can be "usefully directed" and
even manufactured. Of course, marketing is not an exact science;
however, it is a highly empirical and experimental science. Numerous
strategies and devices are tried until the public "hot button" is
located, whereupon it is "pushed" as long as it "works out." ("Let's
run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes.") But while there
is much trial and error in marketing strategies, implicit in all
marketing is the assumption that consumer behavior is the result of
external causes. What then remains is the task of finding the most
(Interestingly, "bleeding-heart liberalism" is also grounded in at
least a "weak" determinism. It is no accident, say the liberals,
that criminals are more likely to have been born into broken homes in
impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Nor should we be
surprised that violent criminal behavior and sexual promiscuity
should correlate with the exploitation of sex and violence in the
popular media. True, outstanding and productive citizens
occasionally emerge from the slums, and "bad seeds" can come from
affluent and loving homes. But, as we noted earlier, psychology is
not an exact science. Incidentally, some philosophers, including
this one, believe that a "qualified determinism" is compatible with
moral responsibility. But that is a very complicated issue that we
can not pursue here).
The Public Theory. Corporate spokesmen and their
political fellow-travelers (the "conservatives") have prepared a
contrary theory for public consumption. According to this account,
each human personality appears ex nihilo, independent, autonomous,
and undetermined. Being "unformed" from any outside causes, each
individual is fully and completely responsible for his or her
behavior. "But why does poverty correlate with crime?" No
explanation is offered, or felt to be necessary. To cite a typical
example, when a conservative lawyer was recently asked on a TV talk
show, why the Columbine High School killers did what they did, her reply was "those boys were just evil, that's all."
were "evil" was regarded as a pointless question. Behavior isn't
"caused," this theory asserts, it is simply freely "chosen," and
that is all there is to it. "Don't ask me, or society,' or
(heaven forbid!) government to do anything about it. It's
just not my concern."
As with behavior, so too with public taste and preferences.
Tobacco companies tell us that "we are only giving the public what it
wants." Likewise with the media. "Don't complain to us about the
sex, violence and vulgarity in the movies, on TV, or in rock lyrics.
We're only giving the public what it wants." Those "wants," we are
told, which free enterprising entrepreneurs are so generously
satisfying, also appear ex nihilo uncaused and freely
chosen by each consumer-citizen. "What the public wants" is thus
unexplained and unexplainable, and thus out of reach of
"cultivation." No need, therefore, to squander tax money on art and
music education, or on non-commercial public broadcasting.
According to the "public theory," marketing has no side-effects or
unintended consequences. Sex saturated ads and media are totally
disconnected from the rise in teen pregnancy and single-parent
families. "Just do it!," say the ads. "Just say no!" reply the
"Christian conservatives." But if the teens "do it" anyway, don't
blame the promoters. The kids are "just sinful." A child's
encounter with tens of thousands of depictions of violent murders on
TV, we are expected to believe, has nothing to do with whatever
violent behavior he might exhibit. "Guns (and the gun culture) don't
kill people, (autonomous) people kill people."
In sum, "the public theory" insists that "private enterprise"
bears no responsibility whatever for social problems. "The social
responsibility of business," writes Milton Friedman in a notorious
essay, "is to increase its profits." All social problems, according
to this theory, issues from the uncaused and freely chosen behavior
of "simply evil" individuals.
And don't look to government for solutions. For, as Friedman
states elsewhere, "there is nothing wrong with the United States that
a dose of smaller and less intrusive government would not cure."
Here is an absolutist maxim with a clarity and simplicity rarely
found outside of evangelical pulpits, and previously unheard of from
It is abundantly clear
that these two "theories" are radically contradictory. If business
executives genuinely believed the indeterminist theory that they
present to the public, they would not invest a thin dime on
advertising campaigns. On the other hand, if they were to extend the
determinist "operative theory" beyond their corporate conduct, they
would be burdened with a responsibility for the harmful
"side-effects" of their marketing schemes effects upon public
health, taste and morality.
Instead, they move back and forth between these contradictory
determinist and indeterminist theories, as the requirements of public
relations and the bottom line demand all with the ease with
which one sheds his raincoat and puts on his sun glasses as the
The paradigm example of this two-faced psychology is the tobacco
industry. Throughout this century, billions of dollars have been
successfully invested in the promotion of smoking. Early in the
century, cigarette smoking was largely confined to upscale males.
Then the marketing turned in the twenties to women (Lucky Strike:
"blow some smoke my way") and later to the children until, at
last, the government intervened. Ad campaigns have associated
cigarette smoking with vigor ("Come to Marlboro country!"),
with liberation ("You've come a long way baby!"), and even
with health ("What cigarette do you smoke, Doctor?") and
intelligence ("A thinking man's filter"). This successful
promotion of cigarette smoking has also been accomplished through
deception ("no direct causal link has been demonstrated between
smoking and lung cancer"), and outright perjurious lies ("No,
Congressman, I do not believe that nicotine is addictive"). The
rebuttal to this propaganda onslaught has, until recently, been
insignificant. The only conspicuous public warning of the
considerable and proven health risks of smoking has been that which
has been mandated by law (the despised "big government"), and even
that "warning label" has been successfully used by the industry to
defeat law suits. After all, they argue, the poor suckers have been
given "fair warning."
And so, having successfully manufactured a public demand for this
dangerous and addictive substance, the tobacco industry innocently
claims that it is "simply giving the public what it demands," and
furthermore that smokers are "free to quit" any time they choose to
do so. In the ad agencies, the customer is regarded as a
programmable Skinnerian lab animal. When the consequences of this
programming are brought before the courts, the unfortunate victims of
the ad campaigns are miraculously transformed by the industry lawyers
into informed, free, rational, and thus fully responsible agents.
This two-faced psychology is replicated in the corporate-sponsored
political ideology, "conservatism." When the conservatives claim
(contra the evidence) that capital punishment deters murder, they are
determinist. But when they refuse to attempt to rehabilitate
incarcerated prisoners, preferring "retribution" and "punishment,"
they are indeterminists again. Increasing top executive salaries
from forty to four-hundred times that of the average workers, is
presumably necessary to "motivate" these CEOs to give their best
effort. However, we are told, increasing teacher salaries will have
no comparable effect. It is just "throwing money at a problem."
Determinism, it seems, applies to CEOs, but not to teachers.
There is a third alternative to these contradictory theories -- what
philosophers call "compatibilism." By this account, human beings
are significantly influenced by the circumstances of their birth and upbringing,
and thus criminals are more likely to emerge from conditions of poverty and
abuse. However, unless severely traumatized by such misfortunes, most
individuals can be educated to a condition of moral responsibility -- informed
as to the consequences of their acts, recognizing the humanity and dignity of
others, and capable of acting according o moral principles -- whereupon each
attains the freedom to conduct his or her own life.
What is to be done? As for remedies, I have
little more to offer that I have not already suggested at length at
this website. (Follow the links below). Briefly, I would suggest:
We must resist a system which, while it flatters us with
rhetoric about our "freedom" and "dignity," treats us as nothing
more than bundles of "consumer preferences" and conduits of
"cash-flow." (See "Consumer vs.
We must steadfastly reject homo economicus as the
model of human nature, and "the perfect market" as the
model of the human community. (See "20th
We must reclaim our government by driving the money-changers
from the temple of our politics, and we must repudiate the "one
dollar, one vote" rule, endorsed by the Supreme Court in the
Buckley decision. If this requires a constitutional
amendment, then so be it. (See "A
We must reverse the erosion of support for popular government
the only effective defense by the multitude of weak
individuals against the privileged few. Ronald Reagan's inaugural
maxim, "government is not the solution, government is the
problem," is a Nietzschean "master morality," for, rather than
abolishing control, it transfers control into the hands of
powerful private interests. The public at large gains no advantage from unregulated corporate license. (See
the Umpire" and "With
Liberty for Some").
We must establish and support alternative and dissenting
media. Sadly, Liebling's rule now applies: "Freedom of the press
belongs to those who own the presses." The current trends,
typified by the merger of AOL and Time-Warner, are not encouraging
to those who prefer to live in an open society. Public
broadcasting must be taken back from the corporate "donors" (read
"sponsors"), and given back to the public. (See
Press and Party Symbiosis" and
We must teach critical thinking in the schools. This
can only be accomplished through public demand, since "corporate
America" has no stake whatever in a public composed of
intellectually discerning voters and consumers. Unfortunately, it
will not suffice simply to add "critical thinking" classes to the
curriculum of prospective teachers, though that would be a
significant reform. In addition, we must overhaul our faculties
of Education, where, we have found to our sorrow, there is
no fad so weird that it might not be embraced (however briefly) by
some factions in the School of Education. (See
"No Mo Po
In short, the "teachers of the teachers" must themselves be
taught, and must exhibit, what Bertrand Russell called
Make no mistake, an intelligent, informed and outraged public is
the best, and perhaps the only, instrument of reform. The two-faced
"junk psychology" the determinist "operative theory" combined
with the indeterminist "public theory" is a flat-out
contradiction, and contradiction is, to the analytically astute mind,
the most recognizable and least tolerable of fallacies.
It is past time that we, the public, demand that those in command
of corporate wealth and political power (all too often the same
individuals), impose consistency upon their private and public
postures, and thus treat us, their customers and constituents, with
the respect that they publicly profess.
Copyright 2000 by Ernest Partridge