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Overcoming the 'Dazzling Disregard for the Soul'

08/05/2013 15:06 BST | Updated 07/07/2013 10:12 BST

The cover of the March edition of the Harvard Business Review confirms it all. An array of coloured fishing hooks dangle down to the caption: "Advertising that Works: How big data is transforming the art of persuasion."

Over thirty years ago I did an MBA to find out if it was true. I even wrote the first British book on marketing for charities out of the experience.

But "no", they told us. Marketing was "not, not, not" about motivational manipulation! Marketing was about giving people choice. Suspicious, I hired one of the marketing lectures to speak at a conference on what he said as a consultant to the tobacco industry.

The fee - over £200 back in 1981 - nearly broke the bank. But he spilled the beans. Edward Berneays and Ernest Dichter sort of stuff. "Smoking is fun. Smoking is a reward. With a cigarette I am not alone," said Dichter the so-called Father of Motivational Research (you're not allowed to say "manipulation". With a cigarette, "I blow my troubles away."

To me the classic book on marketing is not Philip Kotler - the weetabix and cardboard fed to every marketing student across the world. The classic is Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders.

Packard did his research in the aftermath of World War II when corporations, concerned at losing their grip in a peace time economy, were wide open to the message that where needs don't exist, create wants. He showed how the "depth men" of marketing - the ones who hi-jacked the therapeutic insights of Freud, Jung and Adler - baited motivational hooks to drop into the waters of the human unconscious and trigger emotions such as love, fear, guilt, anxiety and pride to hook into buying behaviour.

March's Harvard Business Review confirms the name of the game. Consumerism - which I define as consumption in excess of what is needed for dignified sufficiency - is driven by motivational manipulation. The real hookers in our society are not the prostitutes and the drug pushers, often driven by poverty. The real hookers display their wares in the HBR.

In his 1921 essay in the TLS on the metaphysical poets T.S. Eliot wrote of how a change came over English poetry in the 17th century. What he called "a dissociation of sensibility" set in - a break down in the ability to feel, to empathise - that in some cases exposed "a dazzling disregard for the soul."

Motivational manipulation is the end process of that disregard. It is the cutting edge driver behind climate change and results, ultimately, in death both physically and of the soul. When a cigarette becomes the means no longer to feel alone you know you're dealing with idolatry - the worship of a false god - at the highest level, and this is why the prophets warned that idolatry brings death.

Our task today, as African shamans would say, is to call back the sick soul; to restore the flow of spiritual life into the community. We must challenge ourselves with the ontological question: "What do we believe a human being is?"

Are we just egos on legs of meat, here today, gone tomorrow, with no real meaning in our lives?

Or are we spiritual beings having a material experience? Are we ultimately profoundly interconnected to one another, to the divine ground of being, with the chance to live our lives as love made manifest?

And if we feel nothing? If we feel only deadness inside? What do we do?

Reach for the fags or some other anaesthetic addiction? Or "knock, and the door shall open." Look, and maybe see. As a crazy Hebrew shaman once said, "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God."

Time to clean up the act?

Alastair McIntosh will be speaking at this year's HowTheLightGetsIn, the world's largest philosophy and music festival held in association with the Huff Post UK. For more information, see www.howthelightgetsin.org