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Defense Mechanisms

There are, according to Freud, a number of “defense mechanisms” that the ego uses to help people ward off anxieties and maintain some degree of psychological equilibrium. I list some of the more important defense mechanisms below.

Ambivalence: A simultaneous feeling we sometime have, at the same time, of opposing emotions such as love and hate toward the same person.

Avoidance: Our refusal to deal with subjects that distress or perturb us because they are connected to our unconscious aggressive or sexual impulses.

Denial: An unwillingness on our part to recognize the reality of subjects that are distressing to us and that generate anxiety in us by blocking them from consciousness.

Fixation: An obsessive attachment or preoccupation we have with something or someone, usually as the result of a traumatic experience. Identification: A strong attachment to someone or something that has a powerful impact on our thinking and behavior.

Projection: This involves our denying some negative or hostile feelings we have by attributing them to someone else.

Rationalization: Here we offer seemingly rational reasons or excuses for behavior generated by unconscious and irrational forces. (This term was introduced to psychoanalytic theory by Ernest Jones.)

Reaction Formation: In this behavior, we suppress one element of an ambivalent attitude (and keep it buried in our unconscious) and we maximize and overemphasize the other (its opposite).

Regression: Here we return to an earlier stage of our development (such as our childhood) when confronted by an anxiety-producing or stressful situation or event.

Repression: This involved unconsciously barring instinctual desires from our consciousness; repression is generally considered the most basic defense mechanism.

Suppression: Here we consciously decide to put something out of mind. This is the second most basic defense mechanism. Because suppression is voluntary, we can bring suppressed material back to consciousness without too much difficulty. That is not the case with repression, which unconsciously bars material from consciousness.

Marketers, in their search for ways to understand human behavior—and, in particular, the behavior of members of target audiences—must keep in mind the defense mechanisms people employ in their everyday lives to maintain a tolerable level of stability and ease. It is repression that fills up our unconscious with an enormous amount of material of which we are unaware—because we have repressed it.

Jean Baudrillard, an important French sociologist, explains that advertising works, in part, by generating a collective form of regression, an important and often used defense mechanism. He writes, in his book The System of Objects (1968: 167):

Neither its rhetoric nor even the information aspect of its discourse has a decisive effect on the buyer. What the individual does respond to, on the other hand, is advertising’s underlying leitmotiv of protection and gratification, the intimation that its solicitations and attempts to persuade are the sign, indecipherable at the conscious level, that somewhere is an agency... which has taken it upon itself to inform him of his own desires, and to foresee and rationalize these desires to his own satisfaction. He thus no more “believes” in advertising than the child believes in Father Christmas, but this is no way impedes his capacity to embrace an internalized infantile situation, and to act accordingly. Herein lies the very real effectiveness of advertising, founded on its obedience to a logic which, though not that of the conditioned reflex, is nonetheless very rigorous: a logic of belief and regression. (1968: 167)

This is an important insight for marketers because it suggests that one way that advertising works is to generate a communal or collective kind of regression—a stage in which we are more innocent and thus are more susceptible to persuasion.

To understand how phenomena such as regression or the role the unconscious plays in our lives, we have to consider Freud’s ideas about symbols and the psyche. Symbols are things that stand for other things, many of which are hidden or at least not obvious. Symbols should be recognized as keys that enable us to unlock the doors shielding our unconscious feelings and beliefs from our awareness; they are messages from our unconscious.

Hinsie and Campbell, in an encyclopedia of psychoanalysis they wrote (1970) define symbolism as follows (1970: 734):

The act or process of representing an order or idea by a substitute object, sign, or signal. In psychiatry, symbolism is of particular importance since it can serve as a defense mechanism of the ego, as where unconscious (and forbidden) aggressive or sexual impulses come to expression through symbolic representation and thus are able to avoid censorship.

For example, in dreams we mask our unconscious sexual and aggressive desires by using symbols which enables us to escape guilt from the superego and being wakened by our dream censors.

There are problems involved with interpreting symbols. First, symbols are often ambivalent and can be explained in varying ways depending on one’s orientation. Freud suggested that symbols may be classified in different ways. Conventional symbols are words that we learn that stand for things. Then there are accidental symbols, which are personal, private, and connected to an individual’s life history. For example, for someone who fell in love for the first time in Paris, Paris may become an accidental symbol for love. (These accidental symbols found in dreams are what make the interpretation of dreams so complicated, although dreams contain more than accidental symbols.) Finally, there are universal symbols are those that are rooted in the experience of all people. Many of these are connected to our bodies and to natural processes. Our attempts to understand how symbols work is often complicated by the fact that the logic behind symbolization is not the same logic that people use in their everyday reasoning processes.

There is a Fidji perfume advertisement of interest when it comes to the use of symbols. It shows a woman (we only see the bottom half of her face) holding a bottle of Fidji perfume on crossed fingertips. There is a snake wrapped around her neck, whose head points down toward the bottle of Fidji that she is holding. This advertisement for Fidji uses a snake, a phallic symbol, to sell its perfume. A snake communicates to us metaphorically, in that it is analogous in shape to a penis, and metonymically, in that it makes us recall the role of snakes in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Freud explained that in our dreams, our ids use symbols to trick our superegos and obtain desired gratifications, usually of a sexual nature. His ideas about symbols strike people who know nothing about psychoanalytic thought as fanciful or even absurd, but if you think a bit about his ideas, they make sense. He writes (1953: 161-162):

The male genital organ is symbolically represented in dreams in many different ways.... Its more conspicuous and, to both sexes, more interesting part, the penis, is symbolized primarily by objects which resemble it in form, being long and upstanding, such as sticks, umbrellas, poles, trees, and the like; also by objects which, like the thing symbolized, have the property of penetration, and consequently of injuring the body—that is to say pointed weapons of all sorts: knives, daggers, lances, sabres; firearms are similarly used: guns, pistols, and revolvers.

Freud adds other items that also function as phallic symbols—objects from which water flows and objects like snakes that can raise themselves up, mirroring erections in males.

All these symbols, Freud explained, are tied to wish fulfillment and the desire of men to be with women. If male symbols are penetrating objects that resemble the penis functionally, women are represented by incorporative objects. Freud (1953: 163-164) writes:

The female genitals are symbolically represented by all such objects as share with them the property of enclosing a space or are capable of acting as receptacles: such as pits, hollows, and caves, and also jars and bottles, and boxes of all sorts and sizes, chests, coffers, pockets, and so forth. Ships, too, come into this category. Many symbols refer rather to the uterus than to the other genital organs: thus cupboards, stoves, and above all, rooms. Room symbolism here links up with that of houses, whilst doors and gates represent the genital opening.

Freud adds other phenomena such as woods and thickets (symbols of pubic hair) and jewel cases to his list of symbols of females.

Freud is, from a semiotic perspective, talking about icons (which signify by resemblance) when he discusses phallic symbols being long and thin, like sticks, snakes, or cigars, which resemble the penis. He realized that it was possible to take his theory of symbols and push it to extremes and is reported to have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” This has been used by his some to attack his ideas about symbolization and psychoanalytic theory in general, but even Freud recognized that a cigar is not always a phallic symbol. But we must recall that if “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” it means that sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar!

In his book, The Voice of the Symbol, Martin Grotjahn, a psychiatrist, explains that symbols are connected to the unconscious. He writes (1971: 100):

To understand the symbol means to understand the unconscious. In order to understand the process of symbolization, we must consider the symbol like the dream which Freud separated into the manifest dream content and the latent dream content. The symbol too has a manifest content which is usually a visualization and latent content which may be a thought (or emotion, or possibly an event).

So symbols have two dimensions. They manifest content is the image and the latent content involves all the emotions and feelings connected to the image. Marketers want advertisements to generate powerful emotions in people—such as desire, which leads a person exposed to an advertisement to think about purchasing the product or service being advertised.

We must now ask, “What is a marketing researcher to do?” I have explained two theories that take different approaches to understanding consumer behavior: semiotic theory, which focuses upon how people find meaning in the world, and psychoanalytic theory, which argues that our behavior is shaped, primarily, by unconscious forces. Maybe a semiotic psychoanalysis or a psychoanalytic semiotics is the solution? Perhaps we can combine these two approaches or use them separately to gain the insights into the mind of the consumer that we are seeking. The situation becomes more complicated because there are other disciplines and theories that have important things to say about consumer cognition and behavior, such as sociological theory, to which we now turn.

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