VJMP Reads: Edward Bernays’s Propaganda XI

This reading continues from here.

Chapter Eleven in Edward Bernays’s Propaganda is called ‘The Mechanics of Propaganda.’ Here Bernays talks about how propaganda gets transmitted to the public.

Bernays defined propaganda here as “the establishing of reciprocal understanding between a person and a group.” Therefore, there is no practical limit to the number and type of media that may be employed to transmit propaganda (one wonders what Bernays would have made of the Internet).

He writes about how the public meeting was the best means of propaganda 50 years ago (i.e. in the 1870s), but people have become “sick of the ballyhoo of the rally,” and prefer to get information from the radio and newspapers. The propagandist must keep up with the shifting patterns of the popularity of various media, as well as anticipate future changes.

Bernays notes here that there is almost no item of news that, if published, would not benefit the interests of some people and harm the interests of others. He notes also that the newspaper does not care about the propaganda value of a piece of information, but only about its news value. Thus, propaganda that is also news is more likely to get propagated.

It’s important to tailor the message to the audience. The propagandist must create propaganda items with specific audiences in mind. To this end, magazines are different to newspapers because they’re not obliged to print news. This also means that magazines are kind of naturally like propaganda organs.

The propagandist might like to consider supplying a propaganda organ with a series of articles that puts the case to a particular audience. This is especially likely to succeed if that organ feels like they can derive prestige from the association with the company the propagandist works for.

Hilariously (with hindsight), Bernays is able to speak about the radio when it was a new invention and its development uncertain. He notes that many newspaper enterprises have moved into radio, correctly in his estimation. Anticipating the Internet, he predicts that various groups will have an ev ever-increasing interest in buying media space for the sake of propagandising.

Incredibly, Bernays was able to write 90 years ago that Hollywood films were major propaganda devices. He also predicts the rise of the cult of personality by noting that “the public instinctively demands a personality to typify a conspicuous corporation or enterprise.” This is acutely true in New Zealand, where our Prime Ministers have little to go on apart from the personality cults.

Bernays notes that the public has already become cynical to attempts at manipulating them through the media, but some interests are universal. People will always have a need for food, for amusement, for beauty and for leadership. For this reason, they will always seek out sources of propaganda.

He leaves us with the statement: “Intelligent men must realise that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help bring order out of chaos.” This statement must be read in the light of World War I, which was itself the result of the old methods of fighting. In this sense, Bernays and this book herald a shift from an Age of Iron to an Age of Silver.

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VJMP Reads: Edward Bernays’s Propaganda X

This reading carries on from here.

The tenth chapter of Edward Bernays’s Propaganda is called ‘Art And Science.’ Here Bernays discusses how one can use propaganda in the service of culture.

As in other chapters, Bernays emphasises that the success of almost any enterprise today depends on public acceptance. Therefore, if a gallery is to successfully run an exhibition featuring a particular artist, they will need to first ensure that their works have public acceptance.

Bernays gives us the maxim “In art as in politics the minority rules,” by which he means that those who understand “the anatomy of public opinion” can shape it. He claims that propaganda gives the artist the opportunity to collaborate with industry to improve society.

As in previous chapters, Bernays mentions that the interest of the public can be captured by associations and by dramatic incidents. He gives the example of an American silk manufacturer who forms industry links with Parisian fashion houses for the sake of forming an association.

The effect of aesthetics is laboured in this chapter. Bernays writes that, because mass production has driven the costs of producing propaganda to the floor, propagandists must look for other ways to stand out. One way is by applying aesthetics to their product. There is an economic incentive to meet the public demand for more beauty.

Part of propaganda is to give people something to talk about when they meet up at tea parties. To that end, it’s important to bring people the best of art and aesthetics as they relate to one’s industry. Museums have an interest in making their message intelligible to the public, and to that end they must employ propaganda.

Even in the late 1920s, Bernays was able to write about the phenomenon where scientific research is sponsored by large corporations. This phenomenon was already powerful enough that Bernays could write about it changing the whole world over decade previous to Propaganda being written. Science needs propaganda in order to condition the public to accept the advances it makes.

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VJMP Reads: Edward Bernays’s Propaganda IX

This reading carries on from here.

The ninth chapter of Edward Bernays’s Propaganda is called ‘Propaganda in Social Service’.

By “Social Service,” Bernays refers to what would today be known as the welfare system. He states that the welfare system requires constant propagandising, on account of that its continued existence is contingent on the will of the wealthy. Here he states the maxim that “Civilization is limited by inertia.”

One striking feature of today’s world, Bernays contends, is the democratisation of propaganda opportunities. Back in the day, change was effected by autocratic rulers who decreed it, but today any person is able at least to try changing public opinion about something.

In this chapter Bernays again underlines the significance of appealing to the leaders of the various groups within society. If a variety of leaders of different social groups can be brought on board, it’s not too hard to get the people they influence on board too. With this achieved, it’s possible to use the approval of these leaders to further propagandise.

Bernays states here that “Social service… is identical with propaganda in many cases.” By this he means that all efforts to effect social change are propaganda efforts. The efforts of the welfare state to raise the wellbeing of people necessitates a propaganda effort. This is especially true when new scientific advances suggest certain changes (as they did in Bernays’s time in the case of prison reform).

He concludes this chapter with the statement that “Social progress is simply the progressive education and enlightenment of the public mind in regard to its immediate and distant social problems.” In this regard, the propagandist has an extremely important role. It’s perhaps telling, though, that Bernays doesn’t write about how the propagandist knows whether they’re enlightening or misleading people with their work.

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VJMP Reads: Edward Bernays’s Propaganda VIII

This reading carries on from here.

The eighth chapter of Edward Bernays’s Propaganda is called ‘Propaganda for Education’.

Bernays opens this chapter with the contention that the public is yet to fully appreciate the value of education. Here he laments that the role of educator has not kept pace with social change, and is operating according to obsolete logic. This is a common theme throughout this book, which is striking for having been written in 1928.

Teachers ought to understand that they have a job as propagandist as well. This is not only in regard to what they teach, but they have to propagandise for the same reason as any other concern, such as a business: public understanding of the teacher’s role, and their acceptance and goodwill, is necessary.

This is not only of advantage to the teachers, who will get a higher salary if their work is more appreciated, but is of advantage to society as a whole, because the profession will be able to attract a higher grade of person. It is necessary to do this because the higher education system gets funding from central governments, and the actions of these governments are subject to public goodwill.

It’s important that institutions of higher learning don’t become dependent on endowments, because this risks that they lose political independence. If the funding is dependent on industry men, those industry men are liable to coerce the university into becoming closer to a polytechnic. As such, the cultural benefits of the institution are lost.

To this end, many of these institutions have employed public relations men. This is one of several points in the book at which Bernays appears to act as a public relations man for the public relations industry itself.

Propaganda can do more for the education industry than to simply raise its profile. Through using a public relations man to stay onside with the newspapers, and thereby establishing friendly relations with the public, the colleges and universities can make sure to attract the best quality of person.

All of the general principles outlined earlier in this book also apply to education. The fact that the public now takes an active interest in the affairs of the companies and businesses that share space with it is noteworthy. This has created a new demand for propagandists, whose job is to keep the public onside.

Bernays concludes this chapter with a warning. Propaganda can be abused. It can be used to create a false image of an institution in cases where such a false image is of benefit to that institution. In this sense, education is little different to business or politics. “There can be no absolute guarantee against its misuse.”

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VJMP Reads: Edward Bernays’s Propaganda VII

This reading carries on from here.

The seventh chapter of Edward Bernays’s Propaganda is called ‘Women’s Activities And Propaganda’.

Bernays is comfortable stating, in 1928, that women “have achieved a legal equality with men”. This doesn’t mean that their activities are the same – it simply means that their vote is of equal worth. This makes them particularly important to understand from a propaganda perspective.

He points out that women don’t have to occupy high positions of political power in order to have a strong political influence. It doesn’t matter that women are not taken as seriously as men in positions of high leadership, because they lead women’s organisations with great numbers of members, and the women leading them have a heavy influence on how their members vote.

Bernays considers the women’s suffrage campaign (which had won victory in America shortly before he wrote this book) to be a good example of the power of propaganda to bring societal changes. He credits the use of propaganda by women’s organisations for increased social welfare and alcohol prohibition. Many female propagandists were trained either by the suffragette movement itself or by the Government during World War One.

These clubs can hold events that draw large numbers of people, so if a popular enough event can be held, it will result in great numbers of people being influenced. Bernays is especially taken with the idea of such clubs sponsoring art or literary competitions. Such events can generate enormous amounts of goodwill.

Bernays is optimistic that an increased voice for women can help mould the world into a better place for all of us. He believes that the entrance of women into politics will allow them to focus on areas that men had previously neglected or were not interested in. This is primarily achieved by the introduction of new ideas or methods.

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VJMP Reads: Edward Bernays’s Propaganda VI

This reading carries on from here.

The sixth chapter of Edward Bernays’s Propaganda is called ‘Propaganda and Political Leadership’. Having elaborated upon the basics, Bernays now turns to what this book is best known for.

The chapter opens with an almost Machiavellian statement of anti-democracy. “No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea.” The leader, then, has an obligation to use propaganda to induce the people to go in the right direction.

Curiously for 1928, Bernays is in a position to lament the apathy that already existed in the American voting population of the time. He presages the coming of Adolf Hitler when he states that this apathy only exists because of the failure of any political leader to capture the imagination of the public (this might be because propaganda has been used to destroy political communication).

Voter apathy is here blamed on the inability of politicians to dramatise themselves and their platforms in terms that have real meaning to the public. This cannot be achieved by a politician who merely follows the public whim. Given the strictures of democracy, “The only means by which the born leader can lead is the expert use of propaganda”.

Political campaigns ought to be planned and conducted as professionally and as meticulously as any advertising campaign of a large company. To this end, they would do well to be honestly funded. Bernays decries the “little black bag” method of funding, on account of that it lowers the prestige of politics.

A clever political campaign will outline, from the beginning, specifically which emotions it intends to appeal to. It will figure out exactly who it intends to appeal to, how to reach those people, and the areas in which multiple target groups have aligned interests.

Politicians, as leaders, ought to be creators of circumstances, not victims of them. In this, they have to be clever. The old-fashioned approach is to assault voting resistance head-on, through argumentation. The new approach is to arrange things so that such a conclusion seems dramatic and self-evident.

The best thing is to agitate the public into a sense of anxiety beforehand, so that when the politician speaks it is as if they are providing the answer to a desperate question. Bernays expresses a strong conviction that untrue propaganda will never drive out the honest, because the untrue propaganda will become weakened by growing public awareness of it.

Viewed from ninety years later, it seems that Bernays was altogether too naive and trusting. He wasn’t wrong when he says that the question of whether the newspaper shapes public opinion or public opinion shapes the newspaper is a bit of both. However, he didn’t appear to have anticipated that those who control the apparatus of propaganda would choose to pump it out ever more shamelessly, nor that mass media would see us soaked in propaganda 24/7.

A real leader ought to be able to use propaganda to get the people to follow them, rather than them follow the whims of the people. Again, Bernays emphasises that understanding the target audience is crucial: “The whole basis of successful propaganda is to have an objective and then to endeavor to arrive at it through an exact knowledge of the public and modifying circumstances to manipulate and sway that public.”

Government can be considered the “continuous administrative organ of the people”. To this end, an understanding of propaganda among its workers is vital for the sake of clear and accurate communication. Bernays prefers to describe this as education rather than propagandising. Perhaps the difference was more distinct in the 1920s.

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VJMP Reads: Edward Bernays’s Propaganda V

This reading carries on from here.

The fifth chapter of Edward Bernays’s Propaganda is called ‘Business and the Public’.

Businesses have realised that their interactions with the public are not limited to selling their product. They also have to keep on side with that public, otherwise the latter will pass laws restricting the operational freedom of that business. This need to stay onside with the moral fashions of the public has created the public relations industry.

Incredibly for 1928, Bernays is already talking about the fact that it is no longer demand that causes goods to be supplied to the market. He is aware even then that demand is something that is created, and that this is economically necessary in an age of mass production owing to the size of the capital investment necessary to get started. This is entirely different to even a century beforehand.

It has meant that psychology is now necessary in order to conduct business. The minds of the market, both as individuals and as collectives, must be understood. The vast reach of mass media only makes this more important. “Business must express itself and its entire corporate existence so that the public will understand and accept it.”

A company must think hard about the impression that it creates on other people. This means that businesses have to think about things like the dress of their staff. Much of this sounds routine for 2019, so it must be remembered this book was written in 1928.

The propagandist’s work can be divided into two major groups: “continuous interpretation” and “dramatisation by highspotting”. The former is a kind of micromanagement of the public mind in all minor matters, whereas the latter attempts to create a striking and lasting impression. The appropriate method to use can only be determined after a thorough study of the needs of the client.

Bernays writes of his conviction that “as big business becomes bigger the need for expert manipulation of its innumerable contacts with the public will become greater.” Critical to this is finding common interests between the good or service to be sold and the public interest. This search can have an almost infinite number of dimensions. He emphasises against that the goodwill of the public is necessary for any success, in particular stock floats.

Competition is now so intense that almost every decision made by the consumer is someone’s interest. Even the choice of what to eat for breakfast impacts a large number of corporate interests, all of who want to sell their product. Bernays jokes that this might lead to people becoming fat out of a fear that manufacturers will go bankrupt if people don’t eat enough – bizarrely ironic considering our obesity struggles 90 years later.

Bernays finishes this chapter writing about the amusement industry, which has its roots in carnivals and “medicine shows”. They were the ones who taught business and industry about propaganda. Ultimately, propaganda is a dynamic industry that responds to changing trends, and therefore “Modern business must have its finger continuously on the public pulse”.

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VJMP Reads: Edward Bernays’s Propaganda IV


This reading carries on from here.

The fourth chapter of Edward Bernays’s Propaganda is called ‘The Psychology of Public Relations’.

The study of mass psychology made people understand the possibility of the invisible government. We learned that the group has qualities that are distinct from the qualities of individuals. Bernays poses the question here: “is it not possible for us to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it?”

Bernays says it is possible, with certain limitations owing to the fact that psychological science is not well developed (it’s worth noting here, again, that this book was written in 1928). Propaganda is a human science and can therefore, like economics and sociology, never be exact.

Bernays again makes the point that if you can influence the leaders, you also influence the groups that they influence. Man’s gregarious nature will make him feel that he is part of a herd, and part of this herd psychology is to allow the group to make its imprints on him. Bernays gives the example of the man who buys railroad shares because something has caused him to associate that company with good feelings.

The group mind doesn’t really think, as such. Rather, it has emotions and raw animal impulses. Its first impulse is to follow a trusted leader. In this sense, we can see that the group mind is very primitive. But when a leader is not on hand and “the herd must think for itself”, it tends to do so in the form of simple cliches, whether in word or image form.

The truth is that men are seldom aware of what actually motivates their actions. They believe themselves to be making rational and dispassionate decisions, when in reality they are influenced by crude egotistical and biological desires. Freud was one of those who made people aware of how many of our desires and behaviours are really just expression of suppressed instincts. A man buys a car for status, not for locomotion.

The successful propagandist must understand people’s true motives, and therefore cannot be content with the reasons people give for why they do things. Human desires are “the steam which makes the human machine work”, and only by understanding these can the propagandist control society.

Old propaganda used what Bernays calls “reaction psychology”, in which people are more or less told what to buy. The new propaganda is more subtle. Instead of advertising bacon, the propagandist convinces doctors to tell their patients to eat it. Instead of breaking down sales resistance by direct attack, propagandists now act to remove it through subtle means.

If the propagandist can make it the group custom to buy a particular good, then he has succeeded. The old propaganda asked people to buy that good; the new propaganda convinces people to go into the salesroom and ask to be sold that good.

The leaders who lend their authority to a propagandist’s endeavour will only do so if it accords with their own interests. For this reason, the propagandist must endeavour to understand the aspirations of as many people as possible. There will be cases in which the interests of many different groups overlap, and in that there is power.

The new propaganda is based on “enlightened self-interest”. Bernays concludes this chapter by saying that this, and the three previous chapters, were devoted to giving a general outline of how propaganda works, and in the remainder of the book he will look at specifics.

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VJMP Reads: Edward Bernays’s Propaganda III

This reading carries on from here.

The third chapter of Edward Bernays’s Propaganda is called ‘The New Propagandists’. Here, Bernays gets to the task of who it is that molds public opinion. “Who are the men who, without us realising it, give us our ideas?”

Bernays admits openly that these molders of public opinion decide for us who we admire and who we despise, and what we think about all manner of political issues. They decide our fashions, our speech, and even what jokes we feel like we’re allowed to make. They decide the shape of everything in our societies – but who are they?

These people include all of the top politicians, all of the leaders of the biggest industries, all of the leaders of the largest cultural organisations, the editors of the largest newspapers and magazines, the heads of the various industry groups, the chancellors of the most prominent universities and the main religious figures. Even so, most of these people, in their turn, get their ideas from elsewhere.

In some cases, it’s clear who the wirepullers are. In most cases, it isn’t. But these people control the destinies of millions. The degree to which a small number of people influence a large number of public figures is generally not appreciated. This number will, however, always be small on account of the great expense involved in manipulating the machinery of propaganda to form public opinion.

This has given rise to the new (in 1928) profession of professional propagandist, which has been euphemised as “public relations counsel”. This role is necessary because all governments, no matter what their type, depend on the acquiescence of the people. Bernays here gives us the maxim “Government is only government by virtue of public acquiescence.” Even commercial enterprises need public approval to succeed.

The propagandist is not simply an advertiser. Although he might use letters to the editor, radio, lectures, magazines and more, his work does not duplicate that of the advertiser. His first business is to make sure that his client’s product is something that the public can be brought to accept. The propagandist’s next job is to analyse the public, and how to approach the leaders of the various groups within it.

Bernays contends that, in the age of mass media, corporations found it necessary to give the appearance of conforming to the public’s sense of decency and honesty. As a result, and much like governments, corporations found propagandists necessary in order to get anything done.

The ideal of the propagandist’s profession is making the client understand what the public wants, and making the public understand the objectives of the client. Propagandising can therein be likened to a form of diplomacy. Bernays labours at length the point that the propagandist does not work to hoodwink the public, and lists the ethical considerations of the profession.

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VJMP Reads: Edward Bernays’s Propaganda I

Fittingly, the Propaganda Ministry turns its attention to the granddaddy of all propaganda literature, Propaganda by Edward Bernays. This short book was written by Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, by way of explaining his own prodigious insight into the manipulation of mass consciousness in the America of 1928.

He opens in the first chapter, “Organising Chaos”, with a stark declaration that the “organised habits and opinions” of the masses are formed according to the will of men who effectively form an unseen government. These men mold our minds and our tastes, mostly without us knowing who they even are.

Bernays contends that this is necessary, owing to the confusion ordinarily created by the democratic process, with its hundreds of different candidates. People would become confused if they were expected to understand the inner workings of all the issues that politicians are faced with. Therefore, the media narrows things down to a range that can be grasped.

Likewise, Bernays claims that society consents to have its choices relating to commercial products narrowed down by way of media propaganda. Because of reasons like these, there is a constant battle going on to capture the minds of individual people.

Bernays mentions that it may have been better to have had committees of wise men, who made decisions about the best way to do things. But we elected for the opposite of this. We have free competition of ideas, and in order for this to not lead to chaos we have to allow for leadership and propaganda to direct attention. This can be misused, but it is necessary nevertheless.

The advent of mass media has changed the way that the world is organised. At the time of the writing of the American Constitution, the village was the basic unit of society. Thanks to the mass media, it has become possible to be organised alongside people who live thousands of miles away.

Our society, instead of being divided by coherent geographical units, is now cleaved by all manner of social, political, ethnic, religious, racial or moral divisions. It is along the lines of these divisions that propaganda is spread. One influential group leader in any of these domains can soon have all the others in that domain following an idea.

Bernays labours the point that these cleavages are nonetheless comprised of individuals who exist in several groups, and therefore these groups are all interlaced. This is, in Bernays’s view, what society is. It is how democracy has chosen to simplify its decision making.

He summarises the book in the final paragraph of the first chapter. It is to explain how the minds of people are molded in modern democratic society, and how the manipulators of it go about their work.

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