Consumers Are Sleeping With the Enemy

"Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of… In almost every act of our lives whether in the sphere of politics or business in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind." -Edward Bernays

Anyone whose mission it is to ‘control the masses’ knows it all begins with good marketing.

Public relations aficionado Edward Bernays understood that.

One of the country’s original PR flacks, Bernays is perhaps best known for forging the decades-long marketing alliance between the AMA and the tobacco industry. The ‘Father of Spin,’ as he is known, also played a major role in the marketing and selling of the First World War to the American public with his now infamous slogan, "Making the World Safe for Democracy." Having mastered the art of seduction, Bernays understood that luring the public into purchasing products they didn’t need was a simple matter of connecting those products to their unconscious desires and (perceived) unmet needs. He called this scientific technique of opinion molding the “engineering of consent.”

Corporations have come a long way since Bernays first began coaching them in the stealthy art of consumer seduction. And we have been forever changed by their success. From credit cards to satellite television to fossil fuels, American consumers, having succumbed to corporate seduction, are today paying a very high price for their acquiescence.

Coal-fired Facebook Fires Up Activists – sort of

The series of events following Facebook’s recent announcement that their ‘energy efficient’ data center in Prineville Oregon would be powered by the dirtiest fossil fuel on earth (coal) is illustrative of the problem.  

When Facebook announced the opening of its new data center, its PR people made a point of emphasizing that the facility would be “among the greenest in the industry.” So, it was little wonder that clean energy activists were up in arms when it was revealed that the social networking site had contracted with mega-utility PacifiCorp for its power – since PacifiCorp’s primary power-generation fuel is coal.

What followed was a flurry of Facebook activity, mostly in the form of negative comments on the site itself, but also including at least two petitions – one initiated by and another by Greenpeace – demanding that FB’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg either clean up or abandon the company’s contract with PacifiCorp. At least so far, the contract is unaltered, although it remains to be seen whether Facebook will succumb to the pressure being applied by its more energy-conscious users.

The proverbial ‘rub,’ of course, lies in just how much pressure FB users will be willing to apply. It may be that the Internet, as Chris Hedges recently asserted, “has become one more tool hijacked by corporate interests to accelerate our cultural, political and economic decline.” Yet, the inevitability of such a prediction is far from certain. How social networking tools like Facebook ultimately impact our collective future and whether or not they actually live up to their promise to “promote democracy and unleash innovation and creativity” may well be up to those who use them.

Having become the most popular social networking site in the world (and the one most utilized by activists of all stripes), Facebook is clearly holding most of the cards. And this is where Bernays’ theory of ‘perceived need’ kicks in big time. After all, FB users need to communicate with one another. We have products to sell, thoughts to express, ideas to flesh out and events to publicize. And, let’s face it, social networking is the most effective and efficient means toward those ends. Given this (perceived) need, the threat of a boycott – likely the only truly effective tool activists have to make their point – seems all but out of the question. The irony of consumers feeling empowered by the same technology that captivates them is difficult to miss. 

One liberal-leaning blogger expressed the dilemma succinctly: “Do I want more ads and more privacy issues to deal with so Facebook can afford to buy more expensive but cleaner power? Definitely not. Would I use a greener Facebook competitor if it existed? Yes, but not if I had to sacrifice functionality.”

We consumers are not very good at sacrifice.

The Enemy is Here – and We’re Addicted to Their Products

In the same way consumers have become captive to the social networking industry, we have likewise become captive to the telecommunications, satellite television, pharmaceutical, fossil fuel, fast food and credit card industries (to name a few). We may not like the ways in which these corporate behemoths treat us, but we’re too addicted to their products to do much about it. Those addictions to everything corporate may offer the only cogent explanation of why we remain paralyzed in the face of apparently unlimited corporate power.

How much progressives will be willing to sacrifice in order to create the world we (say we) want is not yet clear. But one thing is certain: As long as we remain unwilling to stretch the boundaries of our comfort zones in the interest of the greater good, we will remain relatively powerless. We will, in the most perverse sense of the term, “get what we pay for.”

We are here now – at this point in history. The battle lines between ‘We the People’ and the Corporate State have never been more clearly drawn. At this moment, progressives still have the opportunity to determine the outcome of that battle. But it is only a moment, and we will never get it back. No less than the future of our culture and our species will depend upon what we choose to do next. If we let the moment pass, that non-decision will become our collective destiny.

It seems entirely possible that American consumers are already so damaged by our cultural addictions that we lack the ability to give them up. It is also possible that, like all addicts, Americans will continue consuming their preferred ‘poison’ until the supply is gone or until something equally untenable occurs. Yet, all addicts hit bottom sooner or later – however far down that might be.

We’d better hope that happens sooner than later.

Sandy Leon Vest is the editor and publisher of  SolarTimes, an independent quarterly energy newspaper with a progressive point of view. SolarTimes is available online at, and distributed in hardcopy throughout the Bay Area and beyond. Sandy LeonVest’s work has been published locally, as well as internationally, and includes 15 years in the news department at KPFA Radio in Berkeley, CA.