The Century of the Self is a thought provoking, four part documentary describing how Freudian and post-Freudian ideas about human nature were adopted by corporations and politicians to manipulate society and public values in the 20th Century. There is a particular focus on the influence of Edward Bernays, the inventor of public relations, on American culture, business, and politics. This is a well crafted, engagingly paced, and consistently interesting documentary, and has developed a bit of a cult following.
This documentary is a bit overly simplistic and tries to fit the messy reality of history into neat little boxes. It gives far too much credit to Freud and his followers, failing to acknowledge that Freud's ideas, even by the 1970s, had been largely discredited and dismissed by the psychological community. The idea of an individual was not new to the 20th Century (let alone Freud or his successors), nor was the idea that most human beings are irrational simpletons (or worse) who must be manipulated and led around by the nose through appeals to their basest emotions and desires, but The Century of the Self tells us that these were revolutionary new ideas and concepts. One didn't need to be a Freudian to come up with advertising that, for example, shows a pretty woman in a short skirt sucking on a tubular popsicle and saying, "Oooh what an exciting man you are!" to a man in a flashy new convertible, but the documentary implies that pretty much all of advertising and public relations until the 1960s was driven by Freudian theories about human nature and the unconscious mind.
An embarrassingly ironic note is struck throughout with the use of mood music prompts to indicate to viewers what values they should attribute to different organizations and ideas, such as by playing foreboding, negative music whenever corporations are mentioned by the narrator. This becomes quite absurd in the context of what is basically an extended criticism of attempts by advertisers and politicians in the 20th Century to influence public sentiment through manipulative emotional prompting rather than honest information and debate about ideas.
Those criticisms aside, The Century of the Self is a good watch and filled with interesting information and insights.
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