Propaganda in the Twentieth Century
Part Three in a series on Propaganda
If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway. But men do not need to be actually gathered together in a public meeting or in a street riot, to be subject to the influences of mass psychology. Because man is by nature gregarious he feels himself to be member of a herd, even when he is alone in his room with the curtains drawn. His mind retains the patterns which have been stamped on it by the group influences. -Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928
This post discusses the work of Edward Bernays in shaping modern propaganda.
Propaganda in the Twentieth Century
No attempt to understand the twentieth century can be seriously attempted without an examination of propaganda. Why was this the century in which propaganda shifted from the use of art, to being an artform in itself?
Modernism - the cult of the Self
The Twentieth Century began with a great vanity, one which continues to this day. It birthed a movement - Modernism - which was the result of the enthusiasm and exhilaration felt at obvious and rapid technological advances conflated with an idea of the elevation of mankind. This is at base the superstition known as Progress, the assumption that as our machines become better, so do we.
We shall see in the course of this piece that the machine of propaganda did indeed get better. Alongside the obvious use of modern art, the successes of the Nazi Party and the striking use of Socialist Realism in the USSR was the development of a tremendous fusion of marketing and the distorted personality cult of psychoanalysis. This unholy amalgam gave us the remarkable career of Edward Bernays, whose methods gave rise to the contemporary system of desire delivery we call the mass media.
The tremendous success of this machinery is to have mechanised human life, organising the selves it manufactured according to its own preferred signals. We are, in essence, positively adjusted to a system of traffic lights. Our inner lives are syncopated by digitised signals. We go and stop and pause on command, and we have no direction without them.
Such is the nature of Progress. This myth, that mankind inexorably improves because his machines do so over time, is absurd but enduring. Why? It flatters us to believe it. It is a product of the Enlightenment delusion that Reason will liberate Man from himself, that he can through the process of the advancement of his ideas and his machines deliver himself from his own limitations. That Man can transcend himself by his own means is the pinnacle of self celebration.
This is an intoxicating idea, and it results in Modernism, which places the Self at the centre of all things. A Vitruvian fantasy, giddying in its ambition, which makes of man the measure of everything. With the world compassed by his explorations, mapped and manipulated by his ingenuity, man turned his gaze within, and with Modernism the love affair with his reflection truly began.
Dark Satanic Mills - The Means of Opinion Production
Sigmund Freud made an irresistible appeal to the irrational narcissism central to Modernism. This secured him fame and a tradition which fostered the contemporary addiction that is therapy. His nephew, Edward Bernays, is the self proclaimed father of modern propaganda.
He translated the first of Freud’s books into English, providing Freud with a much needed income. He died, aged 103, in 1995. Harold Burson, CEO of Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest PR enterprises, was quoted in the 1990s as saying:
‘We’re still singing off the hymn book that Bernays gave us.’
Bernays began his professional life as a student at Cornell University College of Agriculture of agriculture. He worked on the college newspaper, which to him suggested a preferable line of work. After graduation, he edited a medical review, which alerted him to a troubled play called ‘Damaged Goods.’
The play was about sexually transmitted disease, a taboo which hampered the financing of the production. Bernays decided to promote the play, inviting respectable community figures to endorse its message, thereby bringing the play to the stage. This was his first attempt at engineering consent, and it was a success.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar
He became a theatrical press agent for several years, before attempting to enlist in World War One. Rejected on medical grounds, he instead joined the U.S. Committee on Public Information, which was tasked with persuading a reluctant population to enter the war.
It is said that Bernays’ career really began with a gift. Having sent his uncle a box of cigars, he received in return a copy of Freud’s ‘General Introductory Lectures’. Bernays would craft his own method - and his legend - in the shadow of this new science. Psychoanalysis must have struck him as remarkable. It is a cleverly packaged invention, being a new disease promoted as medicine. It has never claimed to be a cure. Many people say that it was psychoanalysis which inspired Bernays. I do not agree that it was the theories contained in Freud’s book which guided him, but the sheer brass neck of presenting a product like no other.
Psychoanalysis must have struck Bernays as a masterful campaign in itself. In presenting an unevidenced but seductive reimagining of the self, it made necessary a lifetime of expensive consultations with no measurable results. It was an industry which created a lifelong need - for itself - which had never before existed in history.
Bernays learned from his uncle the magnificent trick of making people depend on things that they never knew existed - because they didn’t. He would make them out of belief, and sell them with desire.
Freedom Sells - Who’s Buying?
However much the US entry into World War One relied on the young Bernays, his experience of wartime information control left him with an enduring lesson:
If this propaganda can be used for war, it can be used for peace.
The 1920s was a time, as now, of soaring inflation and plummeting consumption. Buying habits were based on needs. Bernays understood that needs would never be enough. What was required were new desires. He outlined the methods for their creation in his 1923 book Crystallizing Public Opinion:
The public relations counsel, therefore, is a creator of news for whatever medium he chooses to transmit ideas. It is his duty to create news no matter what the medium which broadcasts this news.
Bernays saw as early as 1923 that news was there for the making. As for what propaganda was -
The only difference between "propaganda" and "education," really, is in the point of view. The advocacy of what we believe in is education. The advocacy of what we don't believe in is propaganda.
His is a morally neutral, task-oriented view reflecting the similar modernist blankness of Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion, published the previous year.
He began to field ‘front groups’, that is, seemingly independent organisations which profess to support concerns of the common good: the Committee for the Study and Promotion of the Sanitary Dispensing of Foods and Drink; the Radio Institute of the Audible Arts; the Temperature Research Foundation; the Middle America Information Bureau – all seemingly innocuous associations that were, in reality, set up by Bernays solely for PR purposes.
One major success was the staging of the 1929 Easter Parade, at which he arranged for women to smoke ‘Freedom Torches’ in public. His clever marriage of the burgeoning idea of women’s liberation to the habit of smoking exemplified the Bernays method. The object was to increase sales. The means was the attachment of Freedom and Power to an object, demonstrated in a staged example of the idea in reality. This is how he made women believe that smoking was cool.
‘He generated events, the events generated news, and the news generated a demand for whatever he happened to be selling.’ - Larry Tye, in his biography of Bernays
Building the Brand of National Socialism
It’s a common mistake to attribute the creation of the Big Lie to the Nazis. They were describing the methods of their enemies with this idea, gleaned from their extensive studies of Bernays. His second book, Propaganda (1928) was a manual for mass opinion formation.
In Bernays’ eyes, generating events was one of if not the most important task of a PR adviser. He himself labelled it as the ‘creation of circumstances’, the staging of apparently spontaneous events to influence people’s behaviour, according to the wishes of the clients.
Bernays knew of course that the sale of policies was the same as the sale of products. Neither presented him with any moral scruples.
If cigarettes, bacon and gramophones could be sold to the people, so could opinions, ideologies or politicians. To Bernays, one was like the other: goods without inner value that had to be sold. He called this selling technique the ‘engineering of consent’, that is, the manufacturing of public approval: in Bernays’ words, ‘the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest’.
In 1933, Bernays met Karl von Weigand who informed Bernays that Goebbels was using Bernays' work for Goebbels' propaganda campaigns.
Bernays remarked in his own autobiography that the Nazis used his work to great effect:
They were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.
Goebbels himself said
The cleverest trick used in propaganda against Germany during the war was to accuse Germany of what our enemies themselves were doing.
Incidentally, the Nazis also employed a New York PR agency to promote their brand in the United States, paying them $6000 a month for a year. They too understood from the closing sentence of Propaganda that
‘Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.’
Chains of Silver
Bernays saw in propaganda an instrument for the organisation and ordering of society, through the staging of events, the creation of myths, the sale of desires attached to false if desirable versions of reality:
‘it is the overt act that makes news, and news in turn shapes the attitudes and actions of people’.
He used these insights to shape American public opinion to favour entering another war, by whose conclusion the term propaganda had been somewhat tarnished.Bernays invented the term ‘public relations’ as a means of rebranding propaganda, calling himself a ‘Public Relations Counsel’ until his death.
He was animated by a sense of man’s irrationality, believing that men like himself were charged with the duty of guiding the masses towards better choices than those they could make for themselves:
‘the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society’.
His paternalism is obvious, and is one which again displaces divine authority with that of the self. His own.
The great Allied campaign to celebrate (or sell) Democracy, etc., was a venture so successful, and, it seemed, so noble, that it suddenly legitimized such propagandists, who, once the war had ended, went right to work massaging or exciting various publics on behalf of entities like General Motors, Procter & Gamble, John D. Rockefeller, General Electric.
The propagandist had moved his method seamlessly between the business of selling products and policies. With the advent of the internet, the engineering of consent would be refined by a new work from home approac. It would work in the home of the creation of feeling and idea. The personality. Yours.
Part Four will be published on Friday, treating the Bernays method the age of the virtual self. It is called ‘This Is How We Make Belief’.