The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 2: The Fear Merchants): psychological thriller satirises business culture’s use of psychology

Gordon Flemyng, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 2: The Fear Merchants)”¬† (1967)

Even though I was a tiny bairn when “The Avengers” was first broadcast on Australian TV back in the 1960s, I have always been a sucker for this iconic British TV spy series starring Patrick Macnee since I discovered it years later as a university undegraduate. In particular the episodes of Season 5 have been favourites for their combination of eccentric characters and plots with science fiction elements, though the underlying messages are usually lowbrow and quite conservative. There is some historical value in these episodes as they capture part of the spirit of a New Britain, youthful and optimistic, ready for a major social revolution that might fell outdated social, economic and political structures and attitudes – and which people in the Britain of today, disillusioned with their institutions that have proven corrupt and incapable of change and delivering¬† justice, might look back on with wistful hope and wonder.

Written by Philip Levene, “The Fear Merchants” is a cute psychological thriller in which the use of psychology and psychological methods by businesses to gain the edge over their competitors, win customers and increase profits is satirised to an extreme. Agents John Steed (Macnee) and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) are called to investigate a series of odd assaults on several businessmen in which they suffer panic attacks caused by some unusual catalyst: in one man’s case, a mouse; in another’s, a sinister bird; in a third case, agoraphobia. These men are all linked: they are competitors of one J Raven who has engaged the services of a psychological consulting firm to help him win more market share at the expense of his competition. It transpires that the directors of the firm use sadistic psychological torture techniques based on finding the competitors’ personal fears (which they presumably discovered by conducting questionnaires and surveys) and turning these weaknesses against their hapless owners. Fortunately they don’t die (which would be usual in a TV spy series) but they are left incapacitated and it’s up to our heroes to trace the trail of evidence together with witness statements to the villains whom they must sort out in a climactic fight.

The plot follows the formula of a series of strange occurrences with a surreal modus operandi used by the perpetrator, Steed and Peel working out the connections and following leads that open up, Peel being captured, Steed arriving to rescue her and a big cat-fight at the end in which the villains are done away with in style. The acting is rather stylised and dialogue can be very twee and sometimes turns on noticeably lowbrow puns. Set design is simple but its very understated style suggests quality and more expense than the episode’s tight budget allowed. There are many plot holes and the fight scene in the quarry strains credulity but the viewer is assumed to fill in necessary gaps with his/her imagination. The whole episode is played for equal parts fun and seriousness; its ambience lacks freshness and spontaneity and the actors appear to know that they’re playing out a familiar routine.

Ultimately the episode isn’t to be taken too seriously but it does raise some dark questions about how companies use and abuse psychology (particularly Freudian psychology) in the quest for customers, market share and long-term profits and whether firms consider the lasting consequences psychological techniques might have on customers and customers’ perceptions of them. The history of corporations’ use of Freudian psychology to uncover people’s desires, fears and weaknesses and use these weak spots against the public since Edward Bernays realised he could put Uncle Sigmund Freud’s findings and methods to use in the business world (and later in American foreign policy against Guatemala by persuading Americans to believe that small country was a nest of nasty Soviet / Communist agents itching to take over the US) is sordid indeed. Moreover Bernays’s methods were later taken up by governments and intelligence agencies such as the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy to sway people into supporting causes and agendas that were not necessarily in the public interest. Even today, politicians, agencies, the press and other organisations use combinations of propaganda and psychological persuasion to convince people to turn against victims of corporate or government crimes and believe the victims are terrorists, criminals or just plain anti-Semitic, or to hide wrongdoing that’s occurring on a massive scale which, if known, would enrage the public so much that the governments and corporations responsible would end up in the garbage bin of history.