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Propaganda

A while back, after watching Adam Curtis’ fantastic ‘Century of the Self‘, a documentary focusing on the rise of individualism in modern society, I purchased a copy of Edward Bernays’ book ‘Propaganda‘. The story of Bernays’ life, as told in Century of the Self, is almost as fascinating as his work.

propaganda-coverBernays was born in Austria in 1891, and was nephew of the renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Bernays went on to become the father of modern Public Relations, and pioneered many of the PR techniques still in use today. Although rather than exploiting his uncle’s popularity, things surprisingly worked in the opposite direction, as at this time Freud was almost unknown outside his native Austria, and Bernays was to be instrumental in popularising Freud’s theories in the US, as they were inherently linked to Bernays’ own work within PR.

One of Bernays’ most famous successes was to break the taboo on women smoking. Whilst working for the American Tobacco Company in 1929, he staged a PR event to launch his so-called ‘Torches of Freedom’ campaign, which attempted (and largely succeeded) to convince women that smoking was a symbol of independence and freedom, and a protest for equality in society.

His book ‘Propaganda’, although written in 1928, is just as relevant today as when it was published, and although some of the examples are slightly dated, the basic principles of public relations remain almost unchanged to this day.

Bernays firstly documents the history of propaganda and it’s usage by governments around the world, and explains why the phrase itself fell into disrepute, mostly due to it’s heavy usage by the German’s in the first world war. Bernays believed that manipulation of the masses through PR was essential to create a properly functioning society:

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 moulded, 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. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

Two of Bernays’ techniques interested me greatly, and can be spotted as a common fixture in today’s advertising-driven culture. The first was the theory that it was necessary to sell the ‘need’  for a particular product, rather than the product itself. He gave the example of a business struggling to sell pianos. Now, rather than advertising the piano itself, Bernays created the idea of a ‘music room’ which people could set aside within the home, he then organised to fill the publications of the day with features on the benefits of the music room, and ideas for furnishing such a room. This would inevitably create the ‘need’ for the piano to fill the space set-aside for it in the newly created room, and so vast swathes of the public had been manipulated into purchasing a product they essentially didn’t need, without even knowing it.

The second of Bernays’ techniques revolved around using a person in authority, who the public would inherently trust, to influence their purchasing decisions:

Suppose the old type of salesmanship, acting for a meat packer, was seeking to increase the sale of bacon. It would reiterate innumerable times in full-page advertisements: “Eat more bacon. Eat bacon because it is cheap, because it is good, because it gives you reserve energy.” The newer salesmanship, understanding the group structure of society and the principles of mass psychology, would first ask: “Who is it that influences the eating habits of the public?” The answer, obviously, is: “The physicians.” The new salesman will then suggest to physicians to say publicly that it is wholesome to eat bacon. He knows as a mathematical certainty, that large numbers of persons will follow the advice of their doctors, because he understands the psychological relation of dependence of men upon their physicians.

This kind of technique I’m certain is familiar to most people and although the public relations business still utilises the services of trusted professionals, nowadays it seems to rely much more heavily on celebrity endorsements, which I suppose signifies the much greater role they play in our lives and the importance we place on their opinions.

Bernays was obviously a highly-intelligent man, who possessed a deep understanding of psychology, psychoanalysis and sociology which he wielded to great effect, it’s certainly a testament to his work that people are still reading it 80 years on. Propaganda is an astounding and highly enjoyable book and as I said earlier it is just as important now (if not more so) than on it’s original release. If you’re interested, the full text can be read online here and here or purchased from here.

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