What is propaganda? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means: “Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.” One might associate the term with wartime, and perhaps the First and Second World Wars. During the former, a man called Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, formed the Council for Public Relations and recently, I’ve been reading his book called, simply, Propaganda. It’s a chilling text and one aimed at the heads of business at the time of publishing in 1928.
Bernays is commonly known as the father of public relations having invented the term soon after World War I. “When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace…” he writes early in the book. So, he did – by attempting to manipulate the unconscious mind. Bernays was instrumental in persuading women to smoke with George Hill, the President of American Tobacco Company, as an early client. The models representing the Company garnered much press attention during a New York City parade at Bernays’ behest with the cigarette being called the torch of freedom. In other words, Bernays’ work pertains to the linking of products to desires and feelings (rather than appealing to the intellect) and the forces controlling these desires.
The book is a short one but not without perverse gravitas. Throughout, I was reminded of contemporary chat about “the media” and how the term is thrown around so liberally. Who or what is “the media” and why are they being grouped into a singular entity and criticized so? Perhaps, more to the point, is who is criticizing them and to what end? Bernays might have been in support of the idea of the media is a singular entity because it suits his notion that the media can be used to manipulate “the masses.” He writes: “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 molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
He dubbed this process the “engineering of consent.” This is horrifying enough in itself without breaking down what the term actually means and in a margin of the book I’ve written, “how to profit from fear” which seemed apt upon re-reading it. Are we living in a time in which profit is being made from fear – in whatever guise that might be? To whom are we listening to? Are there forces in control, as Bernays postulates, and if so what are they endeavoring to do? Are we letting them appeal to our desires and feelings or are we using our intellect? It’s perhaps not surprising that Propaganda and the ideas contained within it were used by Joseph Goebbels and Hitler’s Third Reich during World War II. This shocked Bernays, but he later said, “…I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.” I’m not sure that I would call Bernays’ work one with a social purpose but perhaps, to some extent, we are living in a time in which certain sentiments are being propagated and that’s certainly chilling.