Man’s Desires Can Be Developed So That They Will Greatly Overshadow His Needs

Paul M. Mazur? Adam Curtis? Al Gore? Robert S. Lynd? Helen Merrell Lynd? Mark Frauenfelder? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Influential societal observers have long denounced cultures that emphasize consumption. The ever growing fabrication and usage of products forces individuals to scramble on a hedonic treadmill that is ultimately unsatisfying and pointless according to critics. The misguided pursuit of materialism has been highlighted by a supposed remark from a proponent of consumer culture:

We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to verify this quotation which is usually attributed to Paul M. Mazur who was a leading investment banker at the firm of Lehman Brothers in New York. I have become skeptical. Is this quotation genuine? Would you please explore this topic.

Quote Investigator: Paul M. Mazur wrote a thematically similar passage in the 1928 book “American Prosperity: Its Causes and Consequences”, but there was a crucial difference. The quotation above was formulated as advocacy. Yet, Mazur was describing changes that he thought had already occurred in the U.S. economy by 1914. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Any community that lives on staples has relatively few wants. The community that can be trained to desire change, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed, yields a market to be measured more by desires than by needs. And man’s desires can be developed so that they will greatly overshadow his needs.

Mazur believed that retailers had already moved away from simple low-cost units. Instead, companies employed novelty and changing fashion to make items appear obsolete and to encourage additional purchases:

Standardization became increasingly subordinate to style; uniformity of production was subordinated to style appeal. The factors necessary for sales began to impose themselves in this manner upon manufacturing.

This condition was fairly well developed by 1914. It prepared the stage upon which the war trod during those eventful years. And the effect upon the economic drama was stupendous.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Mazur’s 1928 book revealed that he was sympathetic to the use of advertising to stimulate demand. The historical backdrop was extraordinary. The following year the U.S. stock market collapsed and the Great Depression commenced: 2

Advertising is an educational force. If effective, desires increase, standards of living are raised, purchases are made; purchases create production, production creates purchasing power, and the circle can be made complete if desire is at this point strong enough to convert that power into actual purchases.

Of course there exists theoretically that danger point when consumption has reached its limit. Such a breaking point is probably non-existent.

In 1937 the words of Mazur caught the attention of sociologists Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd who reprinted them in “Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts”: 3

Paul Mazur, himself a businessman, describes in his American Prosperity the sharp, self-interested tactics of merchandising that have dominated the “progress” of the American people in recent years: “The community that can be trained to desire change, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed, yields a market to be measured more by desires than by needs.”

In 1993 “Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture” by William Leach referred to Mazur’s book and reprinted some remarks: 4

In it he described a new American mentality, accustomed to change and to the “satisfaction of desires.” America, he wrote confidently, had shifted from a “needs” to a “desires” culture. People were now “trained to desire change, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed,” “Man’s desires can [now] be developed so that they will greatly overshadow his needs.” Mazur saw nothing whatever wrong with this . . .

The earliest match for the modern quotation known to QI occurred in a 2002 BBC documentary series called “The Century of the Self” written by Adam Curtis. The first episode titled “Happiness Machines” included the following: 5

One leading Wall Street banker, Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers, was clear about what was necessary, “We must shift America” he wrote “from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

QI conjectures that the modern quotation was derived from the passages in Mazur’s 1928 book and Leach’s 1993 book. The rephrasing heightened the forcefulness of the remarks. QI does not know how or when the rephrasing occurred.

Some authors have asserted that the modern quotation appeared in an article by Mazur published in “The Harvard Business Review” sometime in 1927. The title of the article and the date of the issue have not been specified. QI and other researchers have searched for the quotation in 1927 issues of “The Harvard Business Review” and have not found it. Perhaps Mazur employed the modern version somewhere, but currently QI has found no substantive supporting evidence.

In March 2002 a reviewer of the BBC documentary writing in “The Times” of London found one of the remarks attributed to Mazur fascinating enough to share with his readers: 6

“We must shift America,” wrote a Wall Street banker, “from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire.”

Also, in March 2002 a reviewer in “The Guardian” found one of the BBC documentary remarks intriguing enough to share: 7

People were buying all sorts of things not because they needed them but because they wanted them. “People must be trained to desire, to want the new even before the old is worn out,” observed one like-minded soul.

In 2010 editor and journalist Mark Frauenfelder included a modern instance in his book “Made By Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World: 8

Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers emphasized the need to “shift America from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires’ culture. People must be trained to desire; to want new things even before the old could be entirely consumed.”

In 2012 “Economists and the Powerful: Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts, Ample Rewards” by Norbert Häring and Niall Douglas included a modern instance: 9

Paul Mazur . . . famously wrote in the Harvard Business Review of 1927, “We must shift America, from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed.”

In 2013 “The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change” by Al Gore included an instance of the quotation that was very similar to the BBC documentary version: 10

Bernays’s business partner, Paul Mazur, said, “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. . . . People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

In conclusion, Paul M. Mazur deserves credit for the words he wrote in the 1928 book “American Prosperity”. A rephrased version of Mazur’s remarks appeared in a 2002 BBC documentary. Since QI has been unable to find support for the latter version he recommends avoiding its use.

Image Notes: The two images depicting a figure with shopping bags and with money. Thanks to Peggy_Marco on Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Antonio E. Alonso and Michael Harris whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Both provided helpful information about the appearance of modern instances of the quotation.)

Notes:

  1. 1928, American Prosperity: Its Causes and Consequences by Paul M. Mazur, Chapter 3: Evolution of Distribution, Quote Page 24 and 25, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1928, American Prosperity: Its Causes and Consequences by Paul M. Mazur, Chapter 12: The Battle for Consumer’s Loyalty, Quote Page 224, The Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1937 Copyright, Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts by Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Chapter 2: Getting a Living, Footnote 73, Quote Page 46, A Harvest Book: Harcourt, Brace and World, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1993, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture by William Leach, Part 3: Managing a Dream Culture 1922-1932, Chapter 9: “An Age of Consolidation”: Goods, Money, and Mergermania, Quote Page 290, Pantheon Books: A Division of Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. YouTube Video, Title: The Century of the Self – Part 1: “Happiness Machines”, Uploaded on June 20, 2016, Uploaded by: JustAdamCurtis, (Quotation starts at 16 minutes 18 seconds of 58 minutes 45 seconds (BBC Series: The Century of the Self, Part One: Happiness Machines, Written and directed by Adam Curtis, Episode broadcast in 2002), (Accessed on youtube.com on Jan 19, 2021) link
  6. 2002 March 16, The Times, Pick of the week The Century of The Self: Ads infinitum by David Chater, Section: Play, Quote Page 29, London, England. (Gale: The Times Digital Archive)
  7. 2002 March 18, The Guardian, The ego has landed by Gareth McLean, Quote Page B18, Column 2, London, England. (ProQuest)
  8. 2010, Made By Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World by Mark Frauenfelder, Chapter 1: The Courage to Screw Things Up, Quote Page 29, Portfolio: Penguin Group, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 2012, Economists and the Powerful: Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts, Ample Rewards Norbert Häring and Niall Douglas, Chapter 1: The Economics of the Powerful, Quote Page 17, Anthem Press, London. (Google Books Preview) link
  10. 2013, The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change by Al Gore, Chapter: Outgrowth, Quote Page 157, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)