Best Marketing Documentary - the century of the self - marketing documentary by BBC

The Century of the Self – “The Engineering of Consent”

The Century of the Self – A BBC Marketing Documentary

The Century of the Self is a 2002 British television marketing documentary series by filmmaker Adam Curtis. It focuses on the work of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud, and PR consultant Edward Bernays. This series explains how people in power have used Freud’s theories for mass persuasion.

The central thesis is the tug of war between the idea that the great mass of citizenry
is an unstable swamp of barbaric instinctual drives and anxieties or is capable of using 
their better selves to dominate these drives. It is a competition between the views of
treating people as active citizens to be dealt with rationally or passive consumers to be 
pacified by catering to these underlying irrational drives.(source)

The Century of the Self – Episodes

  1. “Happiness Machines” (originally broadcast 17 March 2002)
  2. “The Engineering of Consent” (originally broadcast 24 March 2002)
  3. “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads; He Must Be Destroyed” (originally broadcast 31 March 2002)
  4. “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering” (originally broadcast 7 April 2002)


  1. Best Documentary Series, Broadcast Awards
  2. Historical Film Of The Year, Longman/History Today Award

Nominated For

  1. Best Documentary Blubb, Royal Television Society
  2. Best Documentary, Indie Awards
  3. Best Documentary Series, Grierson Documentary Awards

The Century of the Self – Episode 2 – “The Engineering of Consent”

It was originally broadcasted on 24th March 2002.

What to expect from episode 2 – The Engineering of Consent
  1.  How government and corporations in post-war America used Freud’s ideas about the unconscious mind to try and control the masses.
  2. Politicians understood Freud’s idea that deep within all human beings were dangerous and irrational desires and fears. That idea made them believe that it was these instincts that had led to the barbarism of Nazi Germany. To stop it to ever happen again, they started finding out new ideas.
  3. How Anna Freud and Edward Bernays’s philosophy helped government, corporates, and CIA to develop techniques to manage and control the Americans.

Freud’s theories led big businesses to use focus groups to understand people’s desires and fears that they are not even aware. That created demand to manufacture those products to satisfy their desires.

Ernest Dichter, Inventor of the focus group, realized that the origin of desires is often unconscious.

He started the focus groups to observe consumers.

He shared one of his memorable achievements.

An instant cake didn’t sell well, because housewives felt guilty for not having to work.  So they made the women add their own eggs to the mix, which changed the perceived ease of making the instant cake and now women felt like they deserved the credits for their work and sales soared.

Dichter trained corporations and by the early 50’s these ideas were widely accepted. They believed that regulating people’s wild desires and fears, they can build a better society. They believed that ordinary people were not capable of being democratic by themselves unless their emotions or unstable way of being was controlled.

They believed that they had the knowledge and means to enable masses to live in a democratic society and they did so by promoting the ideas of psychoanalysis.

Anna Freud, Daughter of Sigmund Freud was determined to spread Freud’s theories. In one of her experiments, she helped a troubled mother with 4 children with anxiety and aggression. It seemed to work out at that time but later few of

Freud’s daughter, Anna, was determined to spread his father’s theory as well as to take it a step further.

She took a troubled mother and her four children and moved them into a new environment, which, in combination with psychoanalysis, was supposed to cure them of anxiety and aggression. The experiment seemed to have worked, but decades later all the problems resurfaced and several of the then grown up children committed suicide.

Then it also explains how Edward made Guatemala look like a communist threat to the US.

In the 60’s the influence of psychoanalysis started to decline. Many people talked against psychoanalysis and said that this system has helped rich people controlled the mass and get richer.

Engineering of consent is one of the best episodes of this documentary. It helps to understand the marketing’s famous method of researching consumer using focus groups.

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Manoj Kumar

A thoughtful analytical marketer

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