Brandpsycho: The Hidden Psychology of Brands, by Max Jakob Lusensky

Jung, Magic, and the Manipulation of Eros: How Capitalism Controls Us

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Bernay’s classic work, Propaganda (1928) explored the psychology behind manipulating masses and the ability to use symbolic action and propaganda to influence politics and effect social change. Bernays’ thesis is that “invisible” people who create knowledge and propaganda rule over the masses, with a monopoly on the power to shape thoughts, values, and citizen response. “Engineering consent” of the masses, he argued, would be vital for the survival of capitalism.

In this post we explore how the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung and Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis have been used by the marketplace to transform products into magical brands that we subconsciously connect with. 

What (Freud’s nephew) Edward Bernays and his fellow marketers did was to introduce eros to the marketplace and to explore a new technique to infuse products with its energy. Products started to transmute into pseudo-symbols when charged with psyche, libido, emotional appeal, and the promise to still the desires constantly stirring within the consumer’s unconscious. 

Influenced by the insights of psychoanalysis, a new method of marketing was born, one that would reshape the field of advertising and form a psychological framework for the industry that today is referred to as branding.

The word brand derives from Old Norse, a Viking language spoken in Scandinavia until the fifteenth century. Brandr meant ‘to burn’. Later in history, the word came to identify the process of marking cattle, criminals, and slaves using a hot iron, a precursor to the logo.

Brands today are more than mirrors for our unspoken, often unconscious, psychological wants and desires. 

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“What (Freud’s nephew) Edward Bernays and his fellow marketers did was to introduce eros to the marketplace and to explore a new technique to infuse products with its energy”

When successfully constructed, they activate what anthropologist Levy Bruhl in his studies of the psychology of ‘primitive’ people referred to as a ‘participation mystique’: a symbiotic and unconscious identification ‘where the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity … an identification with a thing or the idea of a thing’. A psychological symbiotic relationship is formed where part of the consumer’s identity is to be found in the brand and vice versa.

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Signs, Symbols, Logos

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In the Matrix films, the ‘Woman in Red’ is a deliberate distraction, a simulated character who is a part of the Agent training program. “While the woman appears harmless, she wears a vibrant shade of red in order to distract trainees, triggering what’s known as the “red dress effect” – a phenomenon where women wearing red are perceived to be more attractive and open to sexual advances than those in plain colours. Her character also alludes to the Scarlet Woman or the Whore of Babylon, references lifted directly from the Book of Revelations, and the mythic lore of the goddess Babalon in Thelema. The matrix is primarily a means to exert control and to keep its subjects docile” (‘The Matrix: What the Woman in the Red Dress Really Means‘)

Though not articulated as such, this has led to what I would describe as a renaissance of Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious and the archetypes within the world of popular culture.

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“a symbol and a brand is emotionally charged”. Image: The Woman in Red/ Coke Bottle.

Whereas a sign or a logotype is an entity that always signifies another entity, a symbol and a brand is emotionally charged; it leads you to something unknown, and it has the capacity to transform and direct libido.

Jung differentiated between the sign that he saw as “a commonly accepted indication of something known” and the symbol as “the best possible expression for something that cannot be expressed otherwise”. The symbol always points to something not fully knowable.

Jung’s view was that psychic energy cannot be destroyed and that the symbol is the transformer of psychic energy: “They are the manifestation and expression of excess libido. Symbols are the great organizers of Libido”. Today, when religions and traditions have lost much of their power and society is no longer “a carrier of religious content, but an economic-political organization”, brands in the marketplace seem to become important organizers of libido. The advertiser’s and marketer’s role is to transmute a client’s product and its logo from a sign to a symbol.

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“Consumption could be likened to a secular pseudo-religious ritual of sacrifice and gratification. The sacrifice being the psychic energy we invest in a purchase (money and attention)”. Image: ‘Behold Father, I Buy Therefore I Am’ by Amir Noor (2014)

Viewed from this energetic perspective, consumption could be likened to a secular pseudo-religious ritual of sacrifice and gratification. The sacrifice being the psychic energy we invest in a purchase (money and attention) and the gratification, the brand’s promise of fulfillment of an underlying psychological (emotional) desire—a ritual that Jung might have described as magical. “A ceremony is magical so long as it does not result in effective work but preserves the state of expectancy”. 

Rather than giving back energy to us as consumers, it creates a sort of addiction and desire for more. Performed globally, this ritual seems to function as a sort of underlying psychological engine to drive consumer demand and secure the constant growth that our consumer economy craves.”

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“In a 2001 Financial Times article, the global advertising firm Young & Rubicam declared that ‘Brands are the new religion. People turn to them for meaning.’ They went on to argue that the ad man is the equivalent of a modern missionary. Their pronouncement was not without foundation. Researchers have documented how Macintosh users bear an eerie resemblance to a religious cult: a tight-knit network of emotionally committed adherents, faith in a ‘savior’ figure (Steve Jobs), and a generalized hostility toward an external ‘evil’ (Microsoft, IBM, etc.)” – Professor of Psychology Matt J. Rossano, Sacred Brands: Consumerism as Modern Religion

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Starbucks and Apple

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“Starbucks promises to satisfy our oral desires and other needs for mothering”. Everything in the logo has been carefully designed by committees planned to make its control of your body and brain more precise and powerful – what colours to use to affect your nervous system and limbic responses, the precise shapes it uses (here to denote “flowing”), the archetypes in your brain it targets, amplifies, and exploits; what underlying ideology it seeks to convey. All of this is received on an “unconscious” level, which makes it even more potent and nefarious.

Brands today go well beyond their logotypes and have, in our postmodern era, transformed into psychic entities and powerful pseudo-symbols. Our most beloved brands are psychic forces sometimes as powerful and real as the gods we once believed in. Today’s visual culture can help us to understand how deeply psychic our so-called objective reality actually is.

The code of a brand, the stories it tells via mass and social media, can be said to follow certain archetypal structures or root metaphors. For example, Starbucks Coffee, when ‘de:branded’, can be said to embody the omnipresent, nourishing, but also potentially devouring Great Mother archetype, with its associated imagery and ideas. Starbucks promises to satisfy our oral desires and other needs for mothering – as long as we continue believing in its myth.

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In the ‘Apple’ brand, we notice at play contemporary culture’s search for magic and transcendence through technology. In the chapter ‘Did You Bite the Magic Apple?’ in my book Brandpsycho I explore the myth that radiates in the background story told by the world’s most admired brand. It finds the seeds of Apple Inc’s mythology and parts of its success inn the psychology of Steve Jobs, the messiah and ‘Magi’ of the millennium generation. It explores how a belief in magic is invoked in those of us who use the company’s products and continue to bite the magic Apple.

Apple Mac’s famous 1984 advert (directed by Ridley Scott) which tried to present a piece of home computing equipment as some sort of rebellious and heroic act of non-conformity, independence, freedom, and magical power. It was all a myth, in every sense. As one blogger succinctly put it in a post beneath the Youtube advert: “And now apple with scanning user files will be MUCH BETTER 1984 than anybody could imagine!”  Just as Coca Cola used “branding” to make us magically believe that brown sugar-based water is something either attractive or cool, so Apple Mac use compelling stories and archetypal imagery to conceal the reality of its product and company, its unethical business practices such as anti-competitive behaviour, rash litigation, dubious tax tactics, use of sweatshop labour, misleading warranties, insufficient data security, and collaboration with U.S. surveillance program PRISM. The fantasy of contemporary branding is far more surreal, manipulative, and magical than any stories of Virgin Births or Creation of the World in 7 Days, yet so powerful that few of its acolytes and worshippers ever even question their faith.

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Max Jakob Lusensky is a Swedish-born Jungian psychoanalyst and former brand director living in Berlin. He is the author of Sounds Like Branding (2011) and Brand Psycho: The Hidden Psychology of Brands (2015).


Adam Curtis’s celebrated documentary exploring Freud’s theory of controlling the drives and instincts through an examination of his nephew Edward Bernays’s work in controlling the masses, through advertising, consumerism and propaganda (which he re-named “public relations’ in an act of considerable propaganda itself). “Bernays was the first person to take Freud’s ideas about human beings and use them to manipulate the masses”, Curtis notes, adding that “his influence on the twentieth century was nearly as great as his uncle’s.” In particular, Bernays “showed American corporations for the first time how they could make people want things they didn’t need, by linking mass produced goods to their unconscious desires.”  Selves become “consuming selves”, docile, passive consumers who were deliberately and increasingly removed from decision-making and citizenship. What drove this project was the erroneous belief that the chief problem with civilisation and with humans was our emotions, our basic “drives” or instincts, which – as for the equally left-brain and authoritarian Plato some 2,000 years earlier –  were demonised as enemies of Reason and Logos.  In fact it was rationality itself, the conscious manipulating ever-wanting ego, which drove the violence and chaos: it was hyper-cultured Germany which calculated and constructed the concentration camps, the hyper-left brain scientists of Los Alamos who developed and dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and the hyper-intellectual Brits who ran the world’s largest imperial, colonial, slave-trading empire. The real problems in society, in other words, weren’t the masses but the hyper-rationalising, left brain leaders.


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