William A. Durbin, Max Lerner, Nicholas Samstag

Persuasion for Profit, Part I

VTR Date: January 18, 1959


January 19, 1959
NBC Television

Moderator: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Nicholas Samstag, William A. Durbin, Max Lerner

ANNOUNCER: The Open Mind, free to examine, to question, to disagree. Our subject today: “Persuasion for Profit”, Part I. Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, historian, teacher and author of “A Documentary History of the United States.”

HEFFNER: Sometimes we have a difficult time thinking up appropriate titles for programs here on the Open Mind. Today this wasn’t the case. As a matter of fact today we have too many titles from which to choose. We could have referred to the title “Induced Thinking” or “Assault on the Mind” or “Rape of Mind” or ”Seduction of the Mind” or “The Engineering of Consent.” I think as a matter or fact, the reason we decided upon the title “Persuasion for Profit” was not only because one of our guests has written a book by that title but because it’s probably the title that has the smallest connotation of something evil.

We don’t want to talk about the overtones in our title; we want to talk about them on the program and I think my guests are particularly well qualified to do just that. Let me introduce you to them right now. My first guest is the author of the book, “Persuasion for Profit,” Mr. Nicholas Samstag, Director of Promotion at Time, the weekly news magazine. My second guest is Mr. Max Lerner, columnist for the New York Post, Professor of American Civilization at Brandeis University and author of “America as a Civilization.” And my third guest is Mr. William A. Durbin, Director of Public Relations for American Cyanamid Corporation. I think I’d start the program by putting the burden on you, Mr. Samstag, you wrote the book, “Persuasion for Profit”, and maybe you ought to address yourself to the question of why so many people think of persuasion whether in its public relations branch or in its promotion branch as something inherently evil.

SAMSTAG: Well, it’s an interesting question and I think it may have its roots in the fact that most people when they are persuading are in a subsidiary position. They are in a secondary position asking a favor.
They’ve asked favors in their lives, I’m talking now about the…of the mill person, and they’ve had favors granted to them. They’ve talked people into doing things that they were sorry they talked them into doing, they have a sense of remorse, maybe, about some of the things that they’ve persuaded others to do and they feel a little sneaky about their own persuasions.

HEFFNER: You mean it’s all guilt?

SAMSTAG: Well, it might be. I don’t believe there’s anything intrinsically wrong about persuasion because, obviously, everything is based upon it.

HEFFNER: Mr. Lerner?

LERNER: Mr. Samstag is talking about the persuaders and their sense of guilt but the people who have a negative attitude towards persuasion for profit are more likely to be the persuadees or at least the potential persuadees. That is, the consumers of this stuff, people who feel that they’re targets. And I must say I share this to a very considerable extent because I don’t like target activity except where you have to in war or where the target is the moon. But not where the target is the human being.

HEFFNER: Mr. Durbin?

DURBIN: Mr. Samstag, I can understand how that reaction is fairly popular. It seems to me that there is another consideration here and that is the fact that these forces of mass persuasion, which I think is probably what we’re discussing today rather than personal persuasion, are important influences. They do, they have in the course of history, exerted important influences on society, and therefore, because they’re so important I think it’s understandable that thinking people take a critical look at them. I think this is a good thing really.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m interested particularly in what you said about what they’ve achieved and what they’ve done because it seemed to me that our discussion in a very real sense breaks itself down into two parts, one concerning the effects or the achievements of group persuasion and the other having to do with ethics. And maybe if we stick with the ethics for a moment we’ll be able to talk ourselves out of that even though, Mr. Durbin, you say that it’s been the effect of group persuasion that leads us to the question of ethics. You think that group persuasion has been particularly effective.

DURBIN: Well, I think that people generally feel that the sum total of the advertising and promotional effort in this country that is being exercised through all kinds of media and for example, the efforts of Hitler to use persuasion techniques to achieve his ends, these things have brought about tremendous results and so therefore, I think people are naturally included to take rather a critical look at them.

LERNER: Especially if products are sold to them which they find afterward that they didn’t really want.

SAMSTAG: Well, this is Christianity and Buddhism.

LERNER: Well, I think the notion that Jesus was primarily a salesman is not one which exactly gives dignity to the history of Christianity.

SAMSTAG: Well, the word “primarily” is yours, it wasn’t mine.

LERNER: Well, associating Christianity with salesmanship, if you want to take on that burden, Mr. Samstag, it’s all right. I’m suggesting now that if you’re dealing with intellectual movements, large-scale intellectual movements in history, what is involved there, obviously, is some kind of relationship between a symbol such as Jesus and a group of believers. You’re dealing there also, remember, with belief. Now, a while ago Mr. Durbin spoke of thinking people and what my suggestion is that where you’re dealing with thinking you’re talking of rational calculated processes but where you’re dealing with promotion and publicity and advertising and all the rest, you are using people, you are using them. And using them as you yourself suggest in your book, for your own profit.

SAMSTAG: Of course, but when you try to teach your son that he should not get up in the middle of a cocktail party and scream, you are also persuading him for your profit because your friends won’t come back. But I want to get back to my original point, which is that everybody is a persuader. Not just the persuaders but the persuadees are also persuaders. All their lives in all their relationships with everyone they meet.

HEFFNER: Yes, but Mr. Samstag, we agreed before that we really wanted to talk about group persuasion and I think that if you were to insert into the discussion of the ethics of group persuasion, the notion that we’re all persuaders because this is the way we deal with each other; this is the nature of human society, I think this might take us a bit afield. Mr. Lerner commented on something just a moment ago that reminded me of a point that you make in the introduction to your book1 you say you have two convictions that are basic to this book, one, men exist only by the consent of other men, well, all right. You are constantly persuading other people. But, two, although men conspire to pretend that they choose one alternative over another for logical reasons it is rarely true that they do.

And that’s why I come back to your comment about thinking people, Mr. Durbin, and your content on that, Mr. Lerner, as to how you react to this notion that although we pretend or we conspire to pretend that we choose one alternative over another for logical reasons, it is rarely true that we do so. You think this is the case?

DURBIN: Well, I think there’s a great deal of rationalization in all of us. If we decided to buy a new Cadillac and if our real reason was to keep up with the Jonses, we try awfully hard to convince ourselves that wasn’t the reason at all and that we bought it because we thought it was a superior automobile. I think that’s the kind of thing you mean, Mr. Samstag, I think that is going on in all of us, a good deal of the time. I’d like to get back though, to a point that Mr. Lerner made a minute ago. Isn’t the fundamental question whether all of this persuasion is good or evil, whether or not it is honest? Whether or not it is being done for a laudable purpose. I can think of a great many efforts for example, the efforts of the Advertising Council to try to fight forest fires, the efforts to improve the political activity of individual citizens to get out the vote. These things are involved mass persuasion techniques. Are they wrong because they involve the persuasion techniques, per se, or is it because — is the test whether or not they are actually…

LERNER: I have two tests myself. One is what you’re driving at. Are you driving at the discovery of the truth or are you driving at trying to get somebody to do something? And then the second test is, do you conceal anything? Or do you manipulate something? For example, propaganda for me involves always some strategic concealment or distortion. Now, many of these activities involve for me the manipulation of the mind. When people say everything is persuasion or everything is propaganda, I must say I can’t go along. I’ve been a teacher for many years and I have many colleagues and I know that what we are at least trying to do is rather different from salesmanship or from promotion. Our objective is to get at the truth: get at the authentic in some way. And if we feel that we have to reveal something which destroys our own previous notions, we do it; becau.se this is a common search. Now, another thing, when you arc· dealing with a student or when you’re dealing with another human using in rational processes) you’re on a plane of equality. When you’re dealing with these activities we’re talking about, you’re using someone as a target, and Mr. Samstag’s example a while ago was very interesting when he spoke of what you do to your own son. It’s interesting that you should have chosen a child; because fundamentally the attitude of many of the practitioners of these particular things we’re talking about is to treat human beings as children.

SAMSTAG: May I answer that? I’d like to answer it on several levels. First of all, I have been a promotion man and a student for many years. You haven’t been a promotion man.

LERNER: Well, I haven’t. I have a misspent life, but this is not one of the ways in which I’ve misspent it.

SAMSTAG: Oh, I’m sorry, I’m one up on you. So I’m one up on you and I do not agree. I’m sorry but I don’t agree that teachers are interested in this high and lofty thing that you just described. I would that it were so. I think some teachers are. I think that they are extremely rare. I have met teachers and so have you who would do almost anything to prove the thesis that they became famous for 15 years ago when they
wrote their PhD., whatever it may be. Who will cover up all sorts of things. There are narrow-minded pedagogues as well as broad minded and statesmanlike pedagogues but they’re all pedagogues, which is their professional or vocational trouble. Just as it is the vocational trouble of a promotion man to think of people as the raw material be manipulated. Now we must prevent ourselves from doing that just as you teachers must prevent yourselves from doing what you do, and the degree of success to which we aspire is a matter of human success, it’s a balance, it’s the balance between what we ought to be and what we are, and that, again, is also true in your profession.

LERNER: I’m impressed by that if you’re dealing with particular individuals. But if you get away from particular individuals, all of us are frail, both promotion people, teachers and the rest, but if you get away from particular individuals and ask what is the essence of the particular activity, then you’ve got something else. Because the essence or the ideal of teaching is one thing but the essence or the ideal of promotion or propaganda or of salesmanship, whatever it is, is another thing. And it’s the deviation from the norm that you are measuring. But I am talking about the difference between the two norms.

SAMSTAG: That’s a very good point.

HEFFNER: Mr. Durbin?

DURBIN: Mr. Lerner, I think your point is very well taken, but I’d like to approach this subject — we use these terms “persuasion” and “engineering of consent” and “manipulation” as though there was some sort of sinister method of maneuvering the minds of’ people and forcing them into courses of action that they really don’t want to take. I don’t know any really competent; public relations people that believe that that’s what they’re doing. A phrase that an old mentor of’ mine used to use to describe the efforts of a corporation to interpret itself to the public was “letting the public know.” Now that illicit a process of manipulation. I don’t think that any of us in the business at least the people that I know, really feel that we’re able to do it. And my own conviction is that you, and Mr. Samstag and Mr. Heffner…all know individually in our hearts that we are not maneuvered a d manipulated into courses of action. We make free choices. Now surely, we may be influenced. If I go through an issue of The Saturday Evening Post, that plus a great many prior experiences might induce me to change my brand of cigarettes, that final experience. Or it might induce me to buy a Cadillac rather than a Lincoln. It might have helped to do it; that last little bit of influence is added. But I don’t feel that I have been victimized in the process. The business of selling products and using techniques which is really Mr. Samstag’s special area of interest rather than mine, is one aspect of this problem. Another aspect of it is the problem of interpreting the institutions in this society – take the business corporation. If it’s going to exist and prosper, it must do so in a climate of understanding.

LERNER: I’m afraid, Mr. Durbin, you’re putting things into my mind perhaps that I hadn’t meant to be there. I’m not blaming anyone, I’m not saying you fellows are immoral and we’re moral or high-minded or anything like that, and all that I’m really trying to say is that this is a particular kind of activity. Now, you can do it in a very high-minded way and try to professionalize it. You can say, let us be honest, as honest as possible but the basic nature of the activity is the thing I’m interested in trying to get at and it really is — what shall we say — the deployment of true vulnerabilities of people for the profit of some particular corporation or whatever it is.

HEFFNER: Let’s let Mr. Durbin finish the point.

DURBIN: Well. The only thing I did want to clarify was that I didn’t mean to suggest that you were saying that these activities were immoral, but I was trying to suggest that the words “manipulate,” “engineering” sort of suggest something sinister. Therefore, I think if we thought of it in terms of communication or interpretation, at least insofar as the broad public relations activities of the corporation are concerned, that we get a little bit further away from this notion of manipulation.

LERNER: All right. I’ll take that too. Engineering — actually the term engineering; to a sense engineering was created I think by Mr. Berneys, who is himself a public relations man and he certainly didn’t mean it in a sinister way. He meant it in a thoroughly objective, neutral way, and that’s how I am using it also…

HEFFNER: But you don’t like it.

LERNER: I don’t like the activity involved. When I say I don’t like it I mean it is a different kind of activity from those with which it is sometimes associated. And, ultimately I don’t think it’s healthy for human society to have as much stress laid on this as we lay on it. I want to be very clear about this. I know that it’s a necessary activity in society…some form of mass persuasion, group persuasion is necessary. But what I’m suggesting is that ever since the 1920s when the press agent and the public relations man first came into being and when the big corporations, Mr. Durbin, first began to hire them in the 1920s ever since that time we have put a degree of stress on this in our society which I do not believe is healthy.

SAMSTAG: Well, that may well be but I want to hark back to one thing you said before, Mr. Lerner, which I think is the essence, the crux of the whole thing. You talked about the purposes of promotion, if you will, or persuasion for profit, as opposed to the purposes of education. Thus, implying that the purposes of education are enlightment and the purposes of promotion is profit. Which indeed is true. Now if you arc saying that there is not enough effort in our society for purposes of enlightenment and too much effort for purposes of profit, I could not agree with you more. However, it is my profession to further the first names of those two things and I further it as well as I can. It is your profession to forward the second-names.

LERNER: Yes, but may I ask this question. By your talking about this maybe you’re conceding a little too much.

HEFFNER: I shouldn’t think he was the kind of man that would concede too much. Well, anything can happen on television, and the Open Mind. Mr. Lerner, I remember discussing with you once the emergence of De Gaulle. And I remember talking about the question of leadership. And I remember often reading your columns about the need for leadership for group persuasion on a certain level. Now how are you going to stay up this attitude of yours towards the process – and I think it is the process that disturbs you — in the one instance where in the other you’re calling very definitely again and again for group persuasion.

LERNER: I think that’s a good question, Mr. Heffner, and I think I can at least grapple with it in answering it. I think political activity obviously is activity toward persuasion. Political leaders try to get people’s votes and their suffrage, their beliefs. But when you have a man…De Gaulle, what he has been going – and he has by the way) a political leader at its best, without much doubt in my own mind· what he has been doing has been trying to get people to vote for him, to think along the lines that he’s suggesting. In the process you get a relationship between leader and people. It’s a two-way relationship and I would say that at it’s best; either with De Gaulle or with Franklin Roosevelt, what you get is something creative for both of them. The end product in the case of both of them is some process of growth on the part of the people and on the part of the leader. If I felt this about your corporate promotion or your mass persuasion, that the end product was growth for both I would be very, very happy. But I don’t think so. I think the end product is profit power, whatever”‘ it may be. But that’s my distinction.

HEFFNER: Mr. Durbin?

DURBIN: That is a very interesting observation, Mr. Lerner, and I think that it deserves a little examination. If you think back, for example, to the middle of the recession of a few months ago and the impact on the economy and on the lives of people of the dropping off of the sale of automobiles and other products, it seems to me that you would have to argue then that it was good for society for the automobile companies to do what they could to stimulate again an interest in and a demand for their product. Even more broadly than that, in a free society such as we live in, if a corporation is going to continue to be profitable and, incidentally; it’s interesting that the profits should have a sort of bad reputation and I’m not speaking merely of your views but generally I think it’s true; when it’s really at the basis, at the foundation of our whole enterprise system. And if a corporation is going to succeed and succeed without crippling public policy that is or legislation — that is designed to restrict its activities unreasonably, then in a democracy it’s necessary that that corporation make itself understood. And how that can happen without employing the techniques of mass communication and mass persuasion, if you will. I don’t know.

LERNER: Well, you get back to the question of whether the corporation needs to do it, and I say sure you need to do it. But when you argue Mr. Durbin, as you did a while ago, that the case of the automobile and the shakiness of the economy that was evident when auto sales fell off, that somehow has a bearing on this subject, I’m afraid I don’t go with you.

SAMSTAG: I’d like to hit that automobile from a different point of view. It seems to me that when you sell a man an automobile, you enrich his life. When you sell a man an electric refrigerator, or his wife an electric refrigerator, you enrich their lives.

LERNER: Well, you mean—

SAMSTAG: All these products that are sold for profit certainly have enriched the lives of Americans. They travel more than they ever did; they have more time to listen to programs like this, and thus become

HEFFNER: That’s profitable.

LERNER: Forgive me if I differ somewhat. You say that if you sell a man something that he wants and if it’s good stuff; you enrich his life. But a good deal of our business activity as you well know has consisted in creating demands and then filling them. The whole process of advertising and salesmanship has been the creation of demands and often by the way, those demands are based upon prestige, status or sense of shame or a feeling or rivalry or whatever else it may be.

HEFFNER: Well, doesn’t it come down then to what people are being persuaded about not the process of persuasion?

LERNER: I would say its both. What they’re being persuaded about and in what ways they are being persuaded.

SAMSTAG: Mr. Heffner, I’ve written down here the words “political,” “religious” and “educational,” all of which I think are connected here. The political, religious and educational worlds, all of them have manifestations which are of no use to men whatsoever. There are college courses that have been maintained for years after they should have been dropped, as we discussed a minute ago.

LERNER: You’re coming very close to home, now.

SAMSTAG: That’s right.

LERNER: Mine probably should have been dropped long ago.

SAMSTAG: I’m sorry, I wasn’t speaking of you. Our religious doctrines which impoverish the people – there are religious ideas which hold them back in progress. Business and the profit enterprise system — the enterprise system, rather, are not perfect either but I don’t think they’re any more imperfect than any of these other fields which happen to have a higher status at this moment than business.

LERNER: Mr. Samstag, we’re treading ground a bit because we’re getting back to where we were a while ago and you said this a while ago and I tried to answer it but it’s not a question of whether you deviate from an ideal but the nature of the ideal. And you said a while ago that you agreed that there was a different nature of’ the ideal in teaching or in religion as compared with business. Now I think that’s where we are.

HEFFNER: Now wait a minute. I was under the impression that Mr. Samstag was saying that there are those in the teaching profession who persuade for profit for personal profit of one kind, psychic profit let’s call it that, and whose teaching consists of mass persuasion.

LERNER: They’re bad teachers.

HEFFNER: Right, but I also gather that these gentlemen were saying that those who persuade in the same direction in enterprise, in business are bad persuaders.

LERNER: Well, but I would say that even your good persuaders, Mr. Heffner, even your good persuaders, are doing something, which basically is different from what the good teachers are doing. And not only different but again I say unnecessary to the extent that we’re doing it. We have to do it to some extent.

HEFFNER: Well may I ask this question: Do you think that persuasion, group persuasion of the kind you’re talking about now, is, in a sense, a denial of the freedom of man? I mean, is it an implication that men are not free and that you just manipulate them?

LERNER: I think that where you’re trying to manipulate, or as I said a while ago, deploy them, you are using them as objects rather than as subjects. I’m a teacher and I go back to Emanuel Kant, who made this basic distinction. Do you approach another human being as a subject, that is like your self, or do you approach him as if he were a child or an animal or some force in nature? And I’m sorry to say that this has become almost an inevitable part of our society because for centuries we have been engaged in this scientific and technological effort of using the natural forces around us and what has happened is that we have come to think of human beings in the same terms that we have come to think of natural forces. It’s got to be used.

DURBIN: I don’t think, Mr. Samstag, that people in the business that I happen to be in think of people in that way. I don’t want to speak for the promotional side of the subject but – in my experience I have the conviction that competent) good, sound public relations people succeed by reason of their ability to think of people as individuals.

HEFFNER: Let me ask a simple question? When do you think you’ve succeeded? Have you succeeded when people have grown, people that you’re aiming to get at? Have you succeeded when people have deepened their thinking? Or have you succeeded when your product is better thought of and when your sales charts go up and when your profits increase? What is your test of success?

DURBIN: Let me say, that I think we all agreed, a few moments ago, that there is a difference between the educator’s purpose and the persuader’s purpose if we want to use that term. And, therefore, part of the answer to your question is that the purpose of this activity probably is not educational in the sense of the educators purpose. But, on the other hand, perhaps if through the efforts of business public relations activities the citizen understands the economic system in which he lives a little better and is able to take more intelligent action politically with regard to those institutions, perhaps even there is in a sense an educational…

LERNER: Mr. Durbin understands the economic situation in the way in which you would like him to understand it. There’s been an awful lot of institutional advertising which has tried to sell to the people a particular view of the economic system, and it’s a view…which is only a very partial and partisan view of the economic system.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by that?

LERNER: I’m talking now of the way in which a free economy has been spoken of in the institutional advertising so as to indicate that welfare state for example, or that social services are the very devil. And I’m suggesting now that that’s a partial and partisan view and that people need education in understanding the economic system but not only in that direction.

DURBIN: Well, that isn’t the only force at work, the only voice to which they can listen, obviously.

LERNER: But it happens to be the side which has the money to sell.

DURBIN: Well, even if we grant that — and I think probably that we have to grant this…

HEFFNER: Excuse me, I’m sorry. But since we are going to be able to come back for another program next week, let me just say that our time is up now and continue this next time. Thank you Mr. Durbin, Mr. Lerner, Mr. Samstag. We’ll be back next week on the Open Mind with a continuation of this discussion of “Persuasion for Profit” and we’ve interpreted profit in many different ways. Next week, then, we’ll be back on the Open Mind with Nicholas Samstag, Max Lerner, and William Durbin. See you then.

ANNOUNCER: WRCA has just presented The Open Mind. Your host on the Open Hind is Richard D. Heffner. Mr. Heffner’s guests today were Mr. Nicholas Samstag, Mr. Max Lerner and Mr. William A. Durbin.