From propaganda to deceptive marketing, the field of public relations has allowed politicians and corporations to manipulate the desires and opinions of the working class. These practices were put in place so the ruling class could have better control over the much larger peasant population.
In the early 20th century, there was growing discontent among the general public, who had finally become tired of being treated like second class citizens. The people began to hold strikes, boycotts and take any action they could to weaken the establishment, in hopes to bring about a more humane society and working environment. This was bad news for those in control because they need the cooperation of the average person to build their empires and fill the ranks in their armies.
The government and corporations needed a more respectable image, and that need gave rise to the public relations movement. There were many minds that made this movement possible, but the field itself is most typically associated with a man named Edward Bernays. Bernays is known as the father of public relations not because he was the first or only person to study propaganda, but rather because he was the first person to explain its practical use in a published work.
Bernays was also the first person to use the term “public relations” to describe the work of the propagandist. In his famous book bluntly titled “Propaganda,” Bernays highlighted his own work and the works of many other prominent figures in the public relations industry. It is important to mention that Edward Bernays came from a very prominent family in the field of psychology, as he was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the “father of psychology.” Freud’s discoveries about the human unconscious were the basis of his nephew’s work. Bernays used what he knew about the inner workings of the mind as a tool of persuasion to control the masses through their subconscious.
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In “Propaganda” Bernays doesn’t even attempt to sugarcoat his sinister plan when he makes statements like this one: “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, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…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 that control the public mind.”
Before Bernays published “propaganda” in 1928, advertisements were far less complicated than the ones that were seen after. While advertisements in the past would just describe a product and its uses, now they would appeal to the viewer’s subconscious fears and desires in order to make a mental connection between product and consumer. Do you ever wonder why commercials often times have absolutely nothing to do with the product they are trying to sell? It is because they are trying to sell an image that you can relate to, not just a product.
An unbelievable amount of thought, time and energy are put into every advertisement. Just think about how much money a 30-second commercial spot during the super bowl costs. These corporations know exactly what they are doing. They are playing on your emotions and subconscious through their advertisements so you buy their product, whether you want to or not. Edward Bernays clients were some of the most successful businesses of the time, thanks to Bernays cunning advertisements. Betty Crocker approached him when they were having trouble selling their instant cake mix. Bernays instructed them to change the recipe by adding an egg, which would make the consumer feel that they weren’t just using an “instant mix.” Bernays trick worked, and sales soared.
His next client, however, was far less innocent. A short time after the success with Betty Crocker, Bernays was approached by the American Tobacco Company who was trying to figure out how to convince females to smoke cigarettes. Apparently, at the time there was a stigma attached to females smoking as it was not “lady like.” Bernays and the ATC wanted to end this taboo and open up the tobacco market to the feminine half of the human population, which would double sales. Bernays exploited the women’s civil right struggle by making advertisements that claimed it was liberating and empowering for women to smoke cigarettes. In his advertisements, Bernays called cigarettes “torches of freedom” and encouraged young feminists to “light up.” Again his deceptive marketing worked and the American Tobacco Company doubled their revenue.
These sentiments are echoed in Bernays work as well, In Propaganda, he writes “In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything……It might be better to have, instead of propaganda and special pleading, committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to eat. But we have chosen the opposite method, that of open competition. We must find a way to make free competition function with reasonable smoothness. To achieve this society has consented to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda. Some of the phenomena of this process are criticized—the manipulation of news, the inflation of personality, and the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness of the masses. The instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misused. But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.”
This twisted world view was common among the intellectual elite at the time and still resonates today through their teachings. “Propaganda” actually wasn’t a bad word until it was picked up and used by Hitler, who was an avid reader of the work coming from western PR experts. Prior to Hitler, propaganda was a totally acceptable word that was used by politicians and advertisers frequently.