Researchers Trenton G. Smith, senior lecturer in the Department of
Economics at New Zealand’s University of Otago and Corvinus University of Budapest professor of mathematics Attila Tasnádi begin their 2014 paper The Economics of Information, Deep Capture, and the Obesity Debate [PDF] with a quote from Edward L. Bernays’ [previously] 1928 book Propaganda:
In theory, everybody buys the best and cheapest commodities offered him on the market. In practice, if everyone went around pricing, and chemically testing before purchasing, the dozens of soaps or fabrics or brands of bread which are for sale, economic life would become hopelessly jammed. To avoid such confusion, society consents to have its choice narrowed to ideas and objects brought to its attention through propaganda of all kinds. There is consequently a vast and continuous effort going on to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea.
And to capture our minds, the surest route is through capture of the media largely responsible for shaping our choices, a process we’ve seen firsthand in the course of a half-century of journalism.
It is a process of excluding or deriding all options not beneficial to the economic interests of the thought-shaper — a thought-shaper legally bound as a fiduciary to act in the interests of maximizing investor profit.
And if those interest conflict with the best interests of consumers, environmental neighbors, and the health of democratic governance, well, then the hell with them.
The neoliberal nightmare
Let’s begin with the opening paragraphs of seminal book:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.
Note those words “smoothly functioning.” And where do you hear those same words so frequently applied? Well, how about when we employ them to discuss machines, those quintessentially precisely built and functioning devices for producing quantifiable outputs from quantifiable inputs.
In such a mechanistic vision of human society, any resistance or friction is to be either engineered out of the machine [tuned] or directly eliminated or replaced.
It is no wonder, then, that a group of Italian Futurists, so enamored of the machine, war and bloodshed were among the earliest followers of fascism.
And since nothing’s more machinelike — regimented — than a regiment, here’s how, once in power, Italy’s fascists greeted Germany’s fascist leader, via British Pathé:
Italians Goosestep For Hitler 
In a fascist society, mind-shaping is overt — as in the case of Hitler’s loyal acolyte Joseph Goebbels, Der Führer’s Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and relentless — and relentless.
But in 21st Century America, propaganda, which equally relentless, is more subtle.
Consider Bernays again, first a chief state propagandist for Woodrow Wilson in World Wat I, then a public relations [genteel-speak for propagandist] sought out by leading corporations.
Bernays knew well how to get people to kill and injure themselves in the interest of corporate profit. Consider this from the Museum of Public Relations:
George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company and an eccentric businessman, recognized that an important part of his market was not being tapped into. Hill believed that cigarette sales would soar if he could entice more women to smoke in public.
In 1928 Hill hired Bernays to expand the sales of his Lucky Strike cigarettes. Recognizing that women were still riding high on the suffrage movement, Bernays used this as the basis for his new campaign. He consulted Dr. A.A. Brill, a psychoanalyst, to find the psychological basis for womens smoking. Dr. Brill determined that cigarettes which were usually equated with men, represented torches of freedom for women. The event caused a national stir and stories appeared in newspapers throughout the country. Though not doing away with the taboo completely, Bernays’s efforts had a lasting effect on women smoking.
His hook? Cigarettes in his campaign were transformed from smelly, unhealthy fire hazards into “torches of freedom.” As another lung cancer-pusher later advertised, “You’ve come a long way baby.”
While pressure from public health officials, most notably several courageous Surgeons General eventually led to sharp curbs on cigarette advertising, intensified by those infamous kiddie-aimed Joe Camel cartoon ads.
As a Stanford University web site notes:
From the campaign’s inception, young people were primary targets. The first Joe Camel ad in the United States was released to celebrate Camel’s 75th “birthday” and was based on a French advertisement for Camel filters from 1974. The original French Joe Camel was reported to be a “smash” because “it’s about as young as you can get, and aims right at the young adult smoker Camel needs to attract”. (The term “young adult smoker” is industry jargon for the youngest spectrum of customers legally targeted through cigarette ads.)
Studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) confirmed that Joe Camel is attractive to children. Indeed, a 1991 article published in JAMA reveals that the Old Joe Camel advertisements “are far more successful at marketing Camel cigarettes to children than to adults” based on kids’ ability to recall the character and find him appealing. More shocking still is another JAMA publication from 1991 which revealed that 91.3% of 6-year-old children were able to correctly match Old Joe with a picture of a cigarette, nearly the same number of children as were able to match Mickey Mouse with the Disney Channel logo.
But cigarette packs didn’t start to carry warning labels until Baby Boomers’ parents began to died from lung cancer, emphysema, and a host of other afflictions clearly traceable to tobacco. It took that awareness, coupled with rising anger in the medical community, to overcome the endless flow of dollars into the pockets of politicians and the coffers of advertising agencies.
But another killer, obesity, can also be directly linked to corporate greed, and a relentless campaign by corporations and their investors has stalled or gutted serious efforts to meaningfully inform us about the dangers of what we take into our body, once again through our mouths.
While brings us back to Trenton Smith and his concepts of deep capture.
What follows, via Systemic Justice Videos, is a talk he delivered at Harvard Law School, and its well worth your attention:
Trent Smith on Deep Capture and Obesity
In the fall of 2014, Trent Smith delivered a talk titled “The Economics of Information, Deep Capture, and the Obesity Debate” at Harvard Law School.
Are consumers susceptible to manipulation by large corporations? Or are consumers basically rational, able to decide for themselves what to buy and how to live? This lecture will argue that these seemingly contradictory views of the American consumer are not mutually exclusive, and in fact follow directly from economic models of imperfect information. Examples of U.S. food industry practices, both historical and in the ongoing public debate over the causes of the obesity epidemic, serve to illustrate a broader phenomenon: when large industrial producers take steps to limit the information available to consumers, a market breakdown can occur in which low-quality products dominate the market. As a result, consumer welfare and–in the case of food–public health suffers. This would seem to represent a clear instance of the phenomenon known as “deep capture,” in which powerful commercial interests attempt to influence conventional wisdoms that might affect industry profits.