How a Soap Sculpture Contest Can Teach Us to Avoid Cynicism

In the 1920s, Procter & Gamble had a soap problem. Consumer research indicated the public wanted plain, white, non-perfumed soap, which exactly described P&G’s Ivory brand at the time. The problem was that most children detested using it to wash themselves. The company realized that as these children aged into purchasers, the market for Ivory would soon slip away, and, seeing the writing on the wall, P&G hired P.R. man Edward Bernays.

Like Da Vinci, Bernays entered history before the world was ready. One of his most famous insights, documented in his memoir Propaganda, perfectly describes modern marketing sentiment: “Under the old salesmanship the manufacturer said to the prospective purchaser, ‘Please buy a piano.’ The new salesmanship has reversed the process and caused the prospective purchaser to say to the manufacturer, ‘Please sell me a piano.’” Throughout the 20th century, Bernays found phenomenal success by crafting advertising campaigns that appealed to America’s ideal version of itself, similar to the way in which Google doesn’t so much advertise its products as it does the interconnected, family-oriented lifestyle that these products supposedly produce.

Prior to the 1930s, women rarely smoked in public due to social taboo, and this posed a problem for the American Tobacco Company, another Bernays client. In the Easter Sunday Parade of 1929, Bernays paid a group of women to march down a New York City street and promote women’s liberation by proudly displaying cigarettes — indulgently termed “Torches of Freedom” — flaunting their defiance of society’s sexist norms. Liberals and the media rushed to extol the women’s seemingly valiant efforts. Within a decade, the taboo faded away, and the American Tobacco Company enjoyed a massive boost in sales.

Bernays employed a similar tactic with Procter & Gamble. Spotting a trend in which sculptors replaced wax with less-expensive soap, Bernays launched a national high school art contest. The medium? Ivory. For the next fifteen years, the best soapy sculptures and the students who created them were flown to New York, to be judged by famous art critics and awarded cash prizes. (These prizes were no small commitment; in the 1950 competition, the payouts equaled as much as $3,775, or more than $30,000 today.). P&G’s National Soap Sculpting Competition received 500 entries the first year, 2,500 the next, and more than 4,000 in the years following.

“School superintendents and teachers throughout the country were glad to encourage the movement as an educational aid for schools,” Bernays writes in Propaganda. “Practice among school children as part of their art courses was stimulated. Contests were held between schools, between school districts and cities.” The artistic community was invigorated, and parents were thrilled to find that a cost-effective household item stimulated their children’s creativity.

All the while, Procter & Gamble sold lots and lots of soap.

Reacting to Procter & Gamble’s soap campaign: The idealist vs. the cynic

There are two ways to view the soap saga. To the idealist, it’s a model partnership. Bernays didn’t force an unusable product onto an unsuspecting population, as mothers already wanted to purchase plain, white, non-perfumed Ivory soap — it was their children who put up the fight. Likewise, there was no lax complicity in the artistic community: “In the case of the soap sculpture competition, the distinguished artists and educators who sponsored the idea were glad to lend their services and their names because the competitions really promoted an interest which they had at heart — the cultivation of the aesthetic impulse among the younger generation,” Bernays writes in Propaganda.

In short, the mothers could now buy what they wanted without opposition; Procter & Gamble sold what it wanted without having to adapt its formula; and the artistic community saw what it wanted in the next generation: sparked creativity. A triple win.

To the cynic, however, the situation appears crooked. Teachers, parents, and art critics act as accessories to Big Business’ crimes of corporate greed. Procter & Gamble exhibits not altruism, but Freudian self-interest, happily committing the next generation to the throes of consumerism to satisfy a bottom line. It’s a sentiment found at the beginning of a New York Times article:

“The American people do not think much of the honesty, sense of social responsibility or products of big business in this country. When asked whether ethical standards are higher in the Federal Government or in big corporations, 35 percent sided with the often-maligned Federal Government, compared to 24 percent who chose big corporations. Only 33 percent said big business does an excellent or a pretty good job at seeing to it that its executives behave legally and ethically.’”

The article was written in 1986. Cynicism is not a modern predicament and, in fact, has much older roots than even the 20th century.

The danger of cynicism: From the physical to the emotional

“In the depths of my heart I can’t help being convinced that my dear fellow-men, with a few exceptions, are worthless,” writes a well-known psychologist in the late nineteenth century. The author, a European intellectual, will lay the foundations for some of the most well-known psychoanalytical theories in history. But he is deeply cynical, and most of his work involves the study of obsession, “death drives,” hatred and neurotic guilt. Despite being told tobacco is unhealthy, he is a routine smoker, claiming that addiction is merely a substitute for masturbation, “the one great habit.” After a life of uncooperative behavior and routine clashes with academia, he will learn his smoking has led to jaw cancer. To relieve his pain, he will commit suicide by asking his doctor to inject him with a lethal dose of morphine. This man is Sigmund Freud.

Freud lived unhappily, but he has nothing on the poet Oscar Wilde, who provided such tropisms as “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it” and “True friends stab you in the front.” Wilde spent two years in prison for committing adultery, but before his arrest, he penned some of history’s most biting criticisms of human nature. When he left prison, Wilde, despondent, did not return to a life of literary success and instead died a few years later, impoverished at age 46.

Cynicism has been linked to a plethora of physical detriments, including obesity and insulin resistance, coronary heart disease, dementia, and increased mortality. Cynics are less likely to report being in a positive mood and more likely to suffer from depression than optimists. They offer and receive less social support and report higher family conflict and lower marital satisfaction. Throughout their life, they’ll experience less economic success, lower organizational commitment, and lower levels of income. The phrase “It pays to be a cynic” is egregiously incorrect.

Why, then, is cynicism so prevalent? A few years ago the Pew Research Foundation released a poll that heralded Millennials as “The Most Cynical Generation Ever.” A year later, researchers at Stanford said “not so fast,” and released their own research that showed all generations, not just Generation Y, are becoming more cynical. Today, confidence in the media sits at a mere six percent. Congress is less popular than pond scum, and in the last 20 years, American views of religious institutions have soured by more than 10 percentage points.

For much of history, society assumed that youthful innocence guarded against fading optimism, but sadly, cynicism is not just an old man’s ailment. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.

The true source of youthful unrest: Comfort without power

Despite the societal ills of today, a much tougher life existed one hundred years ago in Eastern Europe. In the 1930s, the United States, England and France suffered from Wall Street’s crash; however, their fates paled in comparison to those of their Eastward neighbors, areas ransacked by the Great War and the ensuing disastrous attempts at centralized economies. In 1932, nearly half of the German population was unemployed. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1918-23 left more than nine million Russians dead. Widespread civil unrest resulted from attempts to adjust to the dramatic breakup of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Yet strangely, as philosopher Bertrand Russell noted in 1930, Eastern Europe’s lack of prosperity appeared to reduce its levels of cynicism: “[Youthful cynicism] is not true of Russia… I believe it is not the case in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Poland, nor by any means universally in Germany, but it certainly is a notable characteristic of intelligent youth in England, France and the United States.”

Russell argued that in the lesser economies, no one had time to be cynical. The Russian youth were too busy laying pipelines, building railways, and “teaching peasants to use Ford tractors simultaneously on a four-mile front.” In India, the population united around a universal hate for all things British, and Imperial oppression instilled nationalistic dreams for a free society. “You do not have to consider the ends of life when in the course of creating Utopia,” Russell wrote.

Conversely, the Western world, while safe from physical struggle, suffered from an epidemic of cynical beliefs, a result of intellectual frustration. Extraordinarily bright youth had extraordinary little ability to act. They merely existed, stuck in a situation of what Russell describes as “comfort without power.”

“Until the advent of education, democracy, and mass production, intellectuals had everywhere a considerable influence upon the march of affairs, which was by no means diminished if their heads were cut off. The modern intellectual finds himself in a quite different situation. It is by no means difficult for him to obtain a fat job and a good income provided he is willing to sell his services to the stupid rich either as propagandist or as Court jester. … The work of intellectuals is ordered and paid for by Governments or rich men, whose aims probably seem absurd, if not pernicious, to the intellectuals concerned. But a dash of cynicism enables them to adjust their consciences to the situation.”

This is stunningly descriptive of Millennials today, and it correctly identifies why a youthful attitude, still prone to boredom, frustration and aimlessness, is not the answer to fading idealism. In fact, “youth” is not only irrelevant, it may be antithetical: By studying the progression of medical students, Loma Linda University’s Kelly Morton and her colleagues theorize answer to budding cynicism is not naivete. Just the opposite: It’s experience.

Linking optimism to experience: The progression of medical students

In no occupation would one expect cynicism to be more prevalent than healthcare. Mired underneath crushing regulatory requirements, deep debts, and an ever-growing public skepticism thanks to websites such as WebMD, doctors’ jobs are high demand and low reward. It’s little surprise to find that medical students rapidly develop cynicism about the profession, a process, as defined in 1990s medical literature as “traumatic deidealization.” As detailed in their Academic Medicine article, Morton and her team found nearly 30 percent of medical students displayed the tell-tale signs of cynicism, agreeing with statements such as “Most of my classmates would cheat if they could get a better grade” or “The average faculty member is mostly concerned with his/her own problems.”

It’s easy to view these responses and become downtrodden at the fading optimism of tomorrow’s best and brightest; however, the second half of Morton’s survey data revealed an encouraging result. Medical residents, who exist midway on the career ladder between medical students and attendees, were significantly less likely to exhibit similar marks of cynicism. Moreover, medical faculty showed even fewer signs. In other words, as the medical professionals delved deeper into their careers, they didn’t grow jaded. They became optimists.

To explain their findings, the researchers argued that students initially develop cynicism to cope with the ambiguous, tough environment of healthcare. However, “as physicians-in-training develop greater confidence and skills and achieve greater status in the healthcare team, they become more adept at tolerating ambiguity, synthesising information, and analyzing ethical situations.” After a few small wins, things appear brighter, more hopeful. A few more small wins, and the students begin to think that just maybe, they can pull this off. A medium win occurs, and soon, the path to optimism begins to take shape.

This narrative is the exact opposite of how most young adults experience the world. In college, we can do or be whatever we want. If we are unhappy, we change majors. We reinvent ourselves at the drop of a hat. Change requires the buy-in of a single person: Ourselves.

Then we enter the adult world, in which everything is inverted. Ensuing phases of life have ambiguous start and end dates. Change requires the buy-in from a long list of gatekeepers — H.R., middle management, budget officers, lawyers. Things move at a glacial pace. We’re shocked to find a world utterly devoid of meritocracy, replaced by a system of Machiavellian hierarchies, and bit by bit, we take the easy way out. We begin to lament our situation at the water cooler, which as research has found, makes it even worse. Psychologists Chien-Chih Kuo, Kirk Chang, Sarah Quinton, Chiu-Yi Lu, and Iling Lee report in the International Journal of Human Resource Management that workplace gossip only heightens employee cynicism.

Five years into the adult world, Procter & Gamble’s successful soap campaign becomes one more item on the long list of sins committed by corporations. It becomes utterly impossible to read Bernays’ account with any sense of positivity. His point of view is biased, we argue. Of course he’s going to defend the campaign — it was his idea. The very memoir which chronicles this story is actually called Propaganda. It’s so easy to see that he, and others like him, are the source of all evil in the world. So easy to see it’s someone else’s fault.

That’s the most nefarious part of cynicism: Beyond the physical ailments and unhappiness, the cynic’s greatest punishment is that he is left in a world without challenge, that his life is relegated to the small boundaries containing that which is easy.

“Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it,” comic Stephen Colbert said in his 2006 Knox College commencement address. “Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.” Faced with the overwhelming prospect of failure, we cop out. The cynic’s escape is unsatisfying, but at least it’s safe, we tell ourselves. Idealism is too grand. It’s too unrealistic. Too impractical.

Except that it is none of these things.

Why focusing on the big wins is the wrong strategy

In their book Switch, authors Chip and Dan Heath describe two groups of car wash customers, each of which are given loyalty cards that promise a free service after eight uses. Group 1 gets a card with eight punch-out slots. Group 2’s card has ten punch-out slots with two already removed. Both groups have to purchase eight car washes. Both groups have to spend the same amount of money, and both groups will earn the same reward: A single, free car wash. What happened? Nearly twice as many people from Group 2 earned their car wash than Group 1.

“People find it more motivating to be partly finished with a longer journey than to be at the starting gate of a shorter one. That’s why the conventional wisdom in development circles is that you don’t publicly announce a fundraising campaign for a charity until you’ve already got 50 percent of the money in the bag.”

Can this process be engineered for ourselves? Researchers Stephen Kramer and Teresa Amabile argue in the Harvard Business Review that it can. Pointing to psychological research of office workers, Kramer and Amabile show that small wins are a dependable way to ensure meaningful work and high levels of motivation. “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work,” the authors write.

“When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great—but they are relatively rare. The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously. Many of the progress events our research participants reported represented only minor steps forward. Yet they often evoked outsize positive reactions.”

Surprisingly, small wins make more than an intrinsic difference. When an employee achieves progress on a project, he is more likely to report positive interactions between himself and his supervisors, and he will view his team as more supportive. In other words, he becomes way less cynical.

Idealism done right: The AIDS activist movement in the 1990s

One of the most effective grassroots campaigns in recent history was that of AIDS activism. In the course of less than a decade, groups like ACT UP were able to mobilize public support and completely reverse society’s viewpoint of the HIV community, from a population deserving of the death it faced to a population in dire need of attainable medical treatment. In 1987, nearly half the U.S. population (43 percent) saw AIDS as a punishment or believed (51 percent) it was the patient’s fault for contracting the disease. Today, those numbers are 16 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

Moreover, ACT UP’s success did more than change public opinion. The funding that resulted from their campaigns spawned drugs that today extend the lifespans of HIV patients nearly to that of the general population. In 2011, in the depths of the economic recession, more than half of Americans said they supported increased funding for HIV research, and fewer than one in ten said the government was spending too much. These are numbers most patient advocacy groups can only dream of.

Most people know Rachel Maddow as an MSNBC talk-show host, but before her days in the media, she worked as an AIDS activist through the 1990s. In a recent interview with journalist Ezra Klein, she describes her work as a dizzying array of solving one small problem after another:

“What I tried to do as an activist was to approach each thing I wanted to get as a math problem.

“So, here’s a thing that I think should be different in the world: I want people who are dying of AIDS in prisons to be allowed to die in secure hospices rather than dying in jail infirmaries. That’s what I want. Me just saying that and expressing the moral righteousness of that is not enough.

“Who is the person who can decide to make that happen? The hospices need to be good with it, so, okay, let’s go to the hospices. Who is the person who makes the decision about who goes to the hospices? Well, there’s a category of decision-making here that is for people who do not have life sentences; they’re susceptible to these kinds of decision-makers. And then there’s a whole another category of decision-makers who say as a matter of policy … so let’s change the local decision-makers; now let’s change the law.

“And just doing it piece by piece by piece, why won’t this law change? Because the committee chairman who is responsible for this as an issue doesn’t care about this. What does he care about? He cares about golf. Okay, let’s find whoever he golfs with’s wife, and find who his pastor is and talk to her about this.”

On the surface, it appears daunting, but during her activism days, Maddow was able to break down the complexity into one small win, after a small win, after a small win. The puzzle was unending, but then so was the progress. Politicizing a disease, while radical at the time, is now the standard playbook used by patient advocacy groups of all categories because it is one of the surest ways to achieve progress. Maddow and the other AIDS activists changed history.

Today Maddow’s talk show embodies a distinctly anti-cynical view of the world. “I loved being on the radio,” she is fond of saying, exuding enthusiasm for her job. “Being paid to talk? It’s like being paid to eat. My life is better with every year of living it.”

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