William A. Durbin, Max Lerner, Nicholas Samstag

Persuasion for Profit, Part II

VTR Date: January 23, 1959


January 23, 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 II. Your host on The Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner, historian, teacher and author of “A Documentary History of the Unites States.”

HEFFNER: We never really have enough time on the Open Mind to finish our discussion and sometimes it seems to me we don’t even really begin them. Well, this time we’re going on with a program that we began not so long ago but that you saw last week, “Persuasion for Profit.” Before I even raise any of the questions that we began last time and will continue this time, let me introduce my guests once again. My first guest is Mr. Nicholas Samstag, Director of Promotion at Time, The Weekly News Magazine and author of “Persuasion for Profit,” the book from which we take the title of this show. My second guest is Mr. Max Lerner, author and columnist for the New York Post, professor of American Civilization at Brandeis University and author among other books of “America as a Civilization.” And my third guest is Mr. William A. Durbin, who is the Director of Public Relations for American…Corporation. Mr. Durbin, last time we were involved and I had to stop you right in the midst of a discussion of the relationship of persuasion for profit and the whole American enterprise system and wonder if you want to make the point that you were making then?

DURBIN: Yes, I think the point that I was trying to make was assuming that the word profit was taken to mean dollars and cents profit. That a certain amount of persuasion and it is probably true that it is becoming an increasing amount of persuasion seems to be necessary in this economic system of ours. I really rather prefer to use the term communication both to support the sale of the products of the enterprise system and also increasingly to create the kind of climate of opinion which permits the system to operate effectively and profitably. I think that really was what I was trying to say. It is essential, I think, that it be done well in the interest of the continuing developing of this economic system.

HEFFNER: Well, I think that’s the point that I tried to make after we went off the air and that’s usually when you have the most telling discussion, not with this program of course, was that I hoped we’d broaden the range of persuasion for profit. I think, because in a very real sense, Mr. Samstag, you and Mr. Durbin and Mr. Lerner were discussing this matter of techniques and passing judgment on them. We were talking about (a) the achievements of persuasion, of mass persuasion, and (b) the ethics, and really to get at the question of ethics I think maybe we ought to broaden profit to any kind of profit because I’d asked Mr. Lerner last time if he were concerned with this manipulation of the mind or with mass persuasion when it came to dollars and cents profit, how could he make this stand up with his frequent concern, written concern, about leadership and his demand that certain political leaders take the reigns and persuade people to follow them in one direction or another. But I put the question to you again, Mr. Lerner, in terms of this matter of ethics, why is it ethical politically and not economically in terms of business?

LERNER: Well politically, there is a necessity among people if they are going to govern themselves and be governed, both, necessity to have leadership, and to select the leadership. They often select them, by the way, by methods which are those of manipulation. Some of the recent political campaigns, incidentally, have been conducted by public relations people, Whittaker and Baxter in California, for example, or the campaign which has become a classic down in Maryland where Senator Butler was elected over Millard Tydings in one of the dirtiest campaigns, probably, in history. Now, actually politics has taken over some of these techniques of persuasion by manipulating the mind but the difference for me lies in the relation between people and their leaders. At best, ideally, this relationship is one where both of them grow and it’s one in which in a democracy particularly the whole process of trying to govern ourselves is a process which we think leads to the development of the individual as a judging person. Now, I make a distinction between this and the manipulation of the mind for profit, for power, for whatever it may be. At its worst in politics as in dictatorships, you get some of the worst manipulation of the mind that there is. Far worse than anything involved in American Business or in American salesmanship.

SAMSTAG: Well, I just wanted to say that au contraire on one point here that I think that the techniques of business in using persuasion were borrowed from politics and not the other way around. That from the very beginning there has been the persuasion of the masses by first the tyrants and the chieftains and then by developing leaders, so business has merely picked up what has always been the rule of the leader who was trying to get people to do what he wanted them to do…

LERNER: It’s a two-way process isn’t it? Because to go back to Whittaker and Baxter, when they started putting on those California campaigns, one of the things that they said quite articulately was for the first time in American political history we are going to build a political campaign in the same way in which a firm builds a salesmanship campaign.

SAMSTAG: And so the wheels came full circle because it started with copying the political campaign.

HEFFNER: Well, talking about wheels coming full circle, I know that Mr. Samstag will accuse me again of having read no further than the first page of the book but I’d go back to “Persuasion for Profit” and have a feeling that maybe we’ve come back to the point that he made at the very beginning of his book. Again, although men conspired to pretend that they choose one alternative over another for logical reasons, it is rarely true that they do and again in terms of all groups and Mr. Samstag talked last time about ministers and religious movements and teachers and academic movements as well as public relations men or promotion men in business movements, isn’t this prime fact that if we are not moved for logical reasons then we are manipulated. We are — our beliefs are engineered, our consent is engineered as Mr. Bernet said some time ago. Isn’t this basic to the whole matter that we have at hand here?

DURBIN: Except that I’d like to dissent, Mr. Heffner, a little bit. I agree with Mr. Samstag as I said last time, that very often the reasons we give for taking an action are not the real reasons behind our having acted as we did, but I still have the fundamental belief that…is a rational animal. Now, he may not always act logically in the sense that he always chooses the alternative that on a logical basis appears to be the better one, because he is in¬fluenced by other factors including his emotions, I suppose, in many cases. But I would like to think that he is thinking and that in thinking about the choices he makes, that the rational being does have something to do with it.

HEFFNER: Well, then we have to distinguish between that group persuasion that uses the rational part of man, so that enlightenment as you would consider it, bringing the facts before the public comes into play here, this part of persuasion and the part that I think Mr. Lerner’ would refer to as manipulation.

LERNER: Yes, I would amend what Mr. Durbin said. I don’t think man is a rational animal, but I think he’s capable of reason. I think that’s rather a different thing. That is, we are a mixture of rationals and irrationals, of conscious thought processes and all kinds of unconscious desires, yearnings, fears, frustrations, aggressions, and all the rest. And the problem of education and the problem of human learning and human growth is to become more and more capable of reasoning. To bring as much as possible into the area of the conscious and where you are dealing with the unconscious, which we often do to try to release the creative forces in the unconscious rather than to try to manipulate those creative forces of the unconscious. Now, this for me again is the basic distinction between education and the whole process of seeking truth and clarifying some problem and the manipulation and persuasion, and while Mr. Heffner insists, you insist that all of these have a common element and I agree that there is this common element, may I say that one of the problems resolved in all thinking is not only to find common elements but to find differentials, things that differentiate various component parts. And I still believe very strongly that there is a very great difference between the process of growth and learning in education on the one hand and the process of manipulation of the unconscious on the other. Let me give just one instance. When I or someone else faces a class, we don’t do it in terms in which for example a psychologist doing market research thinks of motivational research. We have a very different problem. In motivational research what you say is how about that lady that’s going to buy this product? What are her envies, what are her fears, what are her guilts, what are her frustrations? When I face a class I don’t think of that. I say, here are a group of students. They have potentials within them. What can we in common do to stretch our minds? What can I do to help the student stretch his mind and develop the capacities within him?

HEFFNER: Yes, but you do try to find out who he is and what he is before you try to…

LERNER: Oh yes, you…

HEFFNER: Motivational research.

LERNER: No, no, well, not in terms of deploying his vulnerabilities in order to create habit patterns to profit me.

HEFFNER: You call them something else?

LERNER: No, it isn’t a matter of just what I call them. The fact is that I am not concerned with using him. I am concerned with helping him to develop himself; that’s a crucial difference.

SAMSTAG: Well, that’s what we feel in advertising and public re¬lations that we are doing. We are trying to help people develop their lives by showing them the way toward products that will help them do so. Now if they like them and buy them then in most cases they develop their lives.

LERNER: You develop an atmosphere, Mr. Samstag, in which they learn to ask for these products, very much like Pavlov’s dog got conditioned by Pavlov to particular things that Pavlov wanted him to do and I suggest that while this might be wonderful for a dog, it’s not very good for a human being.

DURBIN: But you believe that we can really do that to people? You haven’t got much faith in people.

LERNER: Oh, it isn’t a question of faith… Now, look…don’t do that. My faith in people does not depend upon my thinking of a man as a noble human being with no weaknesses. I know in my own case that I have many weaknesses and while it’s less true of you, I suspect that even you have some.

DURBIN: Yours are more winsome.

LERNER: But I try to look directly at what human beings are like and I know that they have these vulnerabilities and I look around me and I see myself in a civilization in which these vulnerabilities are being manipulated more and more all the time, and when you people say to me, “But it’s necessary for a corporation to do this in order to sell it’s products, I say “yes”, but this is spreading all through the civilization.

HEFFNER: Mr. Durbin?

DURBIN: May I go back for a minute. I have never said on this program or elsewhere that is necessary for the corporation to manipulate people. Last time I tried to make it clear that I didn’t think that public relations people, and I won’t attempt to speak for advertising people. Mr. Samstag, I feel that they are like the picture you paint of the public relations office, with the members of the staff sitting around and saying, “now let’s see if we can’t identify the fears, identify the weaknesses in our audience and exploit them to our advantage,” is simply not an accurate picture.

LERNER: I was talking of the motivational research people; what we call the depth boys, you know.

DURBIN: Well, even, — let’s take that for a moment. I know you call them that in your column. Let’s assume the case of the cake-mix people who began to worry about the fact, I guess, that housewives weren’t buying their cake-mix. And I think that the depth boys, as you call them, suggested that one of the reasons per¬haps was the way they were presenting the mix to their audience. It suggested to them that if they bought them they weren’t really as good housewives as they would be if they did it the old fashioned way and really used the energy and the time required. So they changed their technique. It doesn’t seem to me that that is an evil thing to do. The fact is the housewife did have more leisure and made apparently, reasonably good cakes by buying the product, and I fail to see how she was used in that process.

LERNER: Yes, but there are many other instances where the things that you study are not that but let’s say snobbisms, which I do not believe are basically healthy in a society. We have become to a very great extent a society in which people are continually looking at themselves in the mirror image of others. Asking, “how do I look to others? How do I look?” And this is one of the things — of course, I can well understand, if I were involved in the process of selling products I suppose if I wanted to sell more products than someone else, I would try to make use of these snobbisms and these fears and these — this search for status and the status panic and all the rest, but I’m suggesting that this is an outgrowth of the kind of business society we have.

SAMSTAG: But Mr. Lerner, if this is true, then isn’t it partly or largely the fault of our educators? Who certainly have more influence upon us than our advertisers? We brought the children up and we send our children to school and they go to college and they come out and they are this way, this way that you don’t like. Maybe it ought to be changed.

LERNER: I wish it were true that the educators had more impact than the advertisers and the rest.

HEFFNER: Mr. Lerner, I’d go back to one of the columns you wrote on this very subject and you’re sort of believing this now, in which you said, “Can’t get into a lather of indignation because the depth boys, as they are now called, are catching up with Freud’s depth psychology and Jung’s theory of images and symbols and applying them to the making of money.” You say you can’t get into a lather. I can’t even get worked up at the unlovely picture that is offered to us of ourselves as suckers, if that’s the way we are, then we’d better not shrink from confronting this mirror image of ourselves.

LERNER: Yes, and what I said a while ago, Mr. Heffner, was exactly that. I rejected the picture of man as a noble human being or as a rational human being. I said he is capable of reason but I said the way in which he actually operates is a rather unlovely thing and I hope you don’t think that I’ve gotten into a lather of indignation today.

HEFFNER: I should see you when you do.

LERNER: Yes. No, I am simply saying let us look at the Medusa head for what it is. Let’s not shrink from it because it might turn us to stone.

SAMSTAG: Yes, but you want to protect them from advertising it seems to me.

LERNER: I don’t want to protect anybody. I would like, if possible, to do whatever little bit I can to shift the direction of American society, American living, in what seems to me a healthier direction than the one in which it is going and I would go along with you, Mr. Samstag, in saying that part of the problem lies in education, which has not really confronted the tasks that it ought to confront. But I would go on to suggest that in education as indeed in a good deal of our literature and our art and certainly in our big media and our popular culture, the influence of these patterns of product selling and of manipulating people for product selling has penetrated.

SAMSTAG: Well, let me ask you a key question, I think: what do you want the advertisers of America to do about this?

LERNER: Well, let me start by saying that first of all I would like to see in the economy itself a change of direction. I go along with Professor Galbraith here who suggests that our economy is geared to selling particular products to particular people. It is not geared to providing people with public services, which no corporation can sell and no individual can buy. And I would suggest that our economy is very defective in that respect, terribly defective. And I would like to see it go in the direction in which it becomes really more socially minded and socially conscious in economic terms. This means, of course, moving farther, I suppose, toward a welfare state, but that doesn’t bother me. Now, within that, I would suggest that advertising obviously has a purpose and at its healthiest it’s a very good purpose. But I would suggest that more and more, as indicated by motivational research, it is going over in the direction of real manipulation of the mind.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask this question, this has become simply an interrogation of Mr. Lerner. Let me ask Mr. Durbin and then you Mr. Samstag, how satisfied you are with the use of public persuasion, persuasion for profit in our society at this moment.

DURBIN: Well, I certainly am not satisfied with it and I think that that view is held by a number of people in the public relations business. Certainly there are aberrations; certainly they are minuses of this important and influential technology. And I think all of us deplore the extent to which they are misused. The thing that I am most disturbed about is that the attention of the public, generally, and I think Mr. Lerner’s attention, if I may say so, is focused primarily on the instances of abuse or the instances where these techniques are not primarily used. Whereas the great bulk of the people working in public relations and I think also in advertising are trying honestly to do a sincere job with communication not manipulation. But to get back to your question, no, I’m not satisfied with it and I think that we have an obligation, those of us who are in the business to work constantly toward a higher standard of performance.

HEFFNER: Well, then, this is why I have a feeling there’s a direct connection between these programs that were doing now and the programs The Open Mind did some time ago on the impact of television on American life. Because once again Mr. Samstag refers in “Persuasion for Profit,” and we began this series by talking about guilt, it seems to me that the public relations people have not done a very good job of public relations for their own profession. Persuaders have not persuaded people about the persuaders and I wonder
whether this isn’t the product of what Mr. Samstag has called guilt. Where does the guilt come from? Why this public image of promotion and of persuasion and why do the persuaders themselves feel this way?

DURBIN: Well, I didn’t mean to suggest guilt when I said I wasn’t satisfied, I don’t know that most public relations people feel really guilty about it.

HEFFNER: Excuse me, I didn’t mean that you did. I mean it seems to me that the reason for the public image that you mentioned a moment ago, an image that Mr. Lerner shares –this is the way he looks
at them — the persuaders, that possibly this stems from the persuader’s own inability to interpret.

DURBIN: Well, at least it stems from the fact that they have not succeeded in interpreting. There is one other aspect I heard of a member of the fourth estate recently who was doing some research for a series of rather· thoughtful articles on public relations and in the course of discussing the whole problem with one practitioner he said, “Well, the trouble with the story you1ve just told me is that it’s virtuous and virtue is dull and that isn’t what I’m interested in.” And yet my point is that most of it is I think, fairly virtuous.

LERNER: Flat, stale, and unprofitable.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, I would suggest that when the fourth estate comments on television, it finds the same thing. Well, Mr. Lerner, let me turn to Mr. Samstag and ask him the same question because he’s the one who’s so involved in the guilt.

SAMSTAG: Well, I seem to be. Everybody tells me I’m guilty. But I don’t feel very guilty. The fact that I want to put on the table is that the educators of America have been terribly unsuccessful on selling America on educators. Because they’ve gotten themselves called longhairs and double domes and become extremely unpopular on various occasions and come back, and the cleric has been extremely unsuccessful in almost every area in the job of selling America on themselves.

HEFFNER: But of course; they don’t maintain that they are persuaders.

SAMSTAG: Oh, but they are of course. They’re always being criticized from one sect to the other or between sects. I don’t believe that anyone whose basic job it is to persuade and that’s why I name educators and the cleric and the persuaders the same way, is ever going to persuade the persuaded that they are doing a job purely for angelic reasons. And I don’t think that this is a job that will ever be accomplished.

HEFFNER: And you don’t think that’s the case anyway?

SAMSTAG: I don’t think it’s the case anyway.

HEFFNER: Let me put my question a little more directly. Do you think that people who are involved in the profession of persuading maybe because they all stem from the same American roots, that we all do feel guilt about — call it persuasion, call it manipulation call it engineering, call it seduction or rape of the mind or whatever you want.

SAMSTAG: Well, you call it that, I’m not. But I do say that all persuaders inasmuch as they are people fundamentally interested in exercising power over others, should feel remorse, if they don’t, because you cannot always exercise power over others and do it exactly the way you wish you could

HEFFNER: Well, you say exercising power over others. I think this comes to a considerable extent in contradiction to what Mr. Durbin was saying as what he sees to be the process of persuasion. Am I correct there, Mr. Durbin?

DURBIN: Well, I don’t. I think they’re compatible in the sense that I think that the tools of communication that are available to the persuaders are tremendously effective tools in the sense that they do present continuously and with considerable impact in a variety of media, ideas to people. And therefore, they are a force, a power.

SAMSTAG: This is a matter of responsibility, Mr. Heffner,

DURBIN: Well let me just add this, Mr. Samstag, if I may, just to clarify it. What I said was that I didn’t think that that influence was manipulation in the sense of being able to control and predict the actions of the people toward which the communication is directed. But I think that Mr. Samstag and I probably are not too
far apart.

SAMSTAG: I don’t think we disagree at all.

HEFFNER: Mr. Lerner, yes, go ahead.

LERNER: I think there is considerable guilt. There are two groups in our time and society that are suffering from a good deal of guilt and split. One are the public relations people, the advertising people and so on., and the other are the atomic scientists, the war technology scientists. Now, I would say that it’s a pretty good idea to have this feeling of guilt because what it means is that there is still something within them, which is trying to measure that they are being compelled by the nature of our society and making a living to do against other standards. You know, one of the most revealing things about this little discussion you just had, Mr. Heffner, with both my colleagues here, was the number of times in which sell was used. Selling religion, selling education, selling all kinds of things and I think that what these people are reacting against when they have a feeling of guilt is the notion that the whole of their personality is wrapped up in the sales process. I would react against that too, I must say. If you think that I am severe on this, I would suggest that you read the recent book by Aldous Huxley, called “Brave New World Revisited”, where Mr. Huxley comes back to the United States and takes a look at it in terms of the novel that he once wrote.

HEFFNER: Mr. Lerner, you sometimes say that you don’t like to be called an historian, but I wonder, as an historian and a darn good one, whether you might not feel that when we’ve talked about the protestant ethic and the decline of an old medieval ethic maybe what you’re saying now is that the notion of our older ideas about selling and about profit have never really gone out the window and we’re still fairly consumed with guilt about this whole business of making a profit, of selling something for profit.

LERNER: That’s right, but there was something else involved in the Protestant ethic along with simply showing yourself to be a success in the world, and that was the sense of self. And what we are beginning to lose, we are going a long way toward losing, is that sense of self, the sense of identity, and I think a good deal of the feeling of guilt that so many of these people that Mr. Samstag has been talking about in his book and the atomic scientists and the rest of them, a good deal of the guilt they feel has to do with the question that they put to themselves, “What am I doing with myself? With the totality of my potential?” And they are worried and I am very happy that they are worried.

SAMSTAG: Don’t you think that they ought to be worried, as should anybody who is responsible for leading others should be worried? Aren’t you worried some times about your classes?

LERNER: I’m very worried but I hope that the worry takes a different form. You say that the worry of those who feel that they are responsible for something. That kind of worry, I think, is a rather different kind. In general, for example, leading his men into battle, will be concerned about whether there will be unnecessary loss of life, the president of a country involved in the commission of the direction in which the country is going… those are the worries, those are the worries of leadership. Now, these however, are different. These are the worries of technicians who, I’m happy to say, have not succumbed to the notion of the neutral technician. One of the things that troubles me most again about our civilization is the extent to which our technicians become neutral in the sense that they say, “You tell me what to do and I’ll do it and I’m not going to worry about the qui bono, the what for.” And when people are guilty it means that they have not yet succumbed to being simply neutral technicians.

DURBIN: Yes, and I would like to go back to this word that you are using – guilt.

HEFFNER: Yes, in about 50 seconds.

DURBIN: And I’d like to distinguish between guilt, which implies a recognition that I’d done something wrong for which I should feel remorse and an honest continuing concern to do the best possible job and a concern for any failure of ethical standards and a deep desire to establishment. Now this, in my view is not guilt, necessarily, it’s simply a recognition of the importance of establish¬ing a standard of conduct in an area as Mr. Samstag mentions, that is so important.

LERNER: Guilt is an honest concern, which is awfully well based on a feeling you haven’t done it.

HEFFNER: Well, let’s let the program go at that for those who feel guilty. I think that the question of guilt leads me to the conclusion that we need another program, on the question of the effectiveness of this whole business of using public opinion. Thanks so much Mr. Durbin, Mr. Lerner, Mr. Samstag. This is the second and the last of the present series on “Public Relations or Persuasion for Profit or the Engineering of Consent,” call it what you will. We’ll see you next week on the Open Mind.

ANNOUNCER: WRCA has just presented the Open Mind. Your host on the Open Mind is Richard D. Heffner. Mr. Heffner’s guests today were Mr. Nicholas Samstag, Mr. Max Lerner and Mr. William A. Durbin.
If you have any comments or questions on today’s program, or if you have any suggestions for future programs, please send them to The Open Mind, WRCA, New York 20, N.Y.