Edward Bernays: Forger of the “Public Relations” Industry

“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.” –Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928)

Sigmund Freud’s Nephew Makes Bad in the New World

As posted at American Idealism
By Stepehn Bender

“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.” –Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928)

This is certainly one of the most sinisterly frank introductions in the annals of “democratic” social science. It does for the discerning non-fiction reader what “Maman died today, or maybe it was yesterday” has long done for precocious teens. Just to put a finer point on it, the opening passage continues in the same vein. “We are governed, our minds molded, 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… Whatever attitude one chooses toward this condition, it remains a fact that 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—a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million—who understand the mental process and social patterns of the masses.”

To commemorate the recent reappearance of Propaganda, thanks to Bernays’s daughter Anne in concert with IG Publishing of Brooklyn, it seemed like as good a time as any to relate some of this fascinating man’s work. Voted by Life magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century, this nephew of Sigmund Freud essentially birthed the public relations industry in the United States. He was also pivotal in popularizing Freud’s thought in the U.S., by brokering the English translations of Freud’s work by Boni & Liverlight. His corporate clients over the years included General Motors, United Fruit, the American Tobacco Company and Procter & Gamble among many others. Although he wrote a number of fascinating books, including Crystallizing Public Opinion, The Engineering of Consent and Public Relations, for the purposes of this essay and relative brevity, we shall stick largely to the sufficiently fecund pages of Propaganda.

Born in Vienna in 1891, the Bernays family moved to the United States in the following year, settling in New York. Young Edward was clearly gifted and so went to Cornell where he earned his B.S. in the College of Agriculture. After working his way up the press agent food chain, Bernays parleyed his experience promoting Broadway productions, the opera singer Caruso, and the ballet impresario Diaghileff into a slot with the Committee on Public Information (CPI). This bureau was the war propaganda arm of the Wilson administration set up shortly after the United States entered the First World War in April of 1917.

Bernays relates the impact of this war propaganda bureau in Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays. “The U.S. Committee on Public Information had no precedent in this country… The U.S. Committee marked the first organized use of propaganda by our Government, and its work was the forerunner of modern psychological warfare… Years later, the Nazis and Communists adapted and enlarged upon the Committee’s methods.”

Propaganda, a Thumbnail Sketch
The earliest use of the term propaganda can be traced to the Catholic Church in the year 1622. Alarmed at the spread of Protestantism, Pope Gregory XV established the Congregatio de propaganda fide—the Office for the Propagation of the Faith—with the intent of supervising and strengthening missionary endeavors in the New World. The term retained a more or less neutral meaning into the 19th Century. As Mark Crispin Miller points out in his introduction to the new edition of Propaganda, Emerson used it in a positive fashion in describing the Brits as “still aggressive and propagandist, enlarging the dominion of the arts and liberty.” The term remained obscure enough that it was not included in the legendary 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

This changed with the onset of the First World War and the marshalling of propaganda by the British, not only in demonizing the German “Hun” at home, but also in pushing American public opinion towards an interventionist stance. And so, in due course, the aforementioned CPI was established for the homeland. It was headed up by the progressive journalist George Creel, who was ably assisted by another then progressive journalist named Walter Lippmann and Bernays. One of Creel’s bon mots was “people do not live by bread alone; they live mostly by catch phrases.” All three men would accompany Wilson to Versailles for the peace talks. Once there, the bringer of the 14 Points was met with a rhapsodic mass reception—due in no small part to the preliminary public relations work of Bernays. He said he’d “make the world safe for democracy,” another bit of public relations ooze.

So Bernays from Propaganda: “It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind. The American government and numerous patriotic agencies developed a technique which, to most persons accustomed to bidding for public acceptance, was new. They not only appealed to the individual by means of every approach—visual, graphic, and auditory—to support the national endeavor, but they also secured the cooperation of the key men in every group—persons whose mere word carried authority to hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousand of followers. They thus automatically gained the support of fraternal, religious, commercial, patriotic, social and local groups whose members took their opinions from the accustomed leaders and spokesmen, or from the periodical publications which they were accustomed to read and believe.

At the same time, the manipulators of patriotic opinion made use of the mental clichés and the emotional habits of the public to produce mass reactions against the alleged atrocities, the terror, and the tyranny of the enemy. It was only natural, after the war ended, that intelligent persons should ask themselves whether it was possible to apply a similar technique to the problems of peace… “The important thing is that it is universal and continuous; and in its sum total it is regimenting the public mind every bit as much as any army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.”

Here’s Hitler writing a few years prior to the publication of Propaganda in Mein Kampf. “But it was not until the [First World] War that it became evident what immense results could be obtained by a correct application of propaganda. Here again, unfortunately, all our studying had to be done on the enemy side…”

The Social Psychological Aftermath of War
Stuart Ewen, in his brilliant examination of the public relations industry PR! A Social History of Spin, recounts the role of the emergent technology of visual stimulation just prior to the Great War. “Nowhere was the propagandistic potential of film more evident than in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which had appeared in 1914. With enormous power; the film—which had war as its central theme—incited audiences into a frenzy of identification with racist Southern myths and contributed to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. The film’s ability to rally people to a cause provided a model for World War I propaganda.”

Bernays would blandly remark on the amazing rise of the Klan during the early 1920s in Propaganda. “When an Imperial Wizard, sensing what is perhaps hunger for an ideal, offers a picture of a nation all Nordic and nationalistic, the common man of the older American stock, feeling himself elbowed out of his rightful position and prosperity by the new immigrant stocks, grasps the picture which fits in so neatly with his prejudices, and makes it his own. He buys the sheet and pillowcase costume, and bands with his fellows by the thousand into a huge group powerful enough to swing state elections and to throw a ponderous monkey wrench into a national convention.”

In Bernays’s defense, he did employ his techniques on occasion in the public interest. He did help raise the profile of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s first convention held in the South (Atlanta), and the courageous group of white Southerners who backed equality for African Americans. So too did Bernays orchestrate the Broadway showing of a racy French play, entitled Damaged Goods. It straightforwardly discussed the ravages of syphilis. Bernays set up a panel of leading physicians to endorse the play before its release, thereby neutralizing expected public outrage. This particular appeal to authority, as it almost always does, worked; there was no outcry against the filth.

In the conservative ideological landscape of early 1920s America, it would fall to the ex-Socialist Walter Lippmann to elucidate to elites the vistas which the new social psychology opened. Lippmann, who would go on to become the mid- 20th Century dean of American journalism, introduced the concept of “manufacturing consent” in his highly influential—above all to Edward Bernays—1922 tome Public Opinion. While Lippmann provided the high-minded theory behind the new propaganda, Bernays was far more interested in the practical application. “Lippmann,” Bernays averred, “treated public opinion on a purely theoretical basis. He never got down to matters of changing it. He talked of it as if he were a sociologist discussing a social caste system.” So, in the following year, Bernays wrote the far more accessable Crystallizing Public Opinion, as a guide for enterprising business figures interested in winning over the new consumer.

But Bernays concerned himself with more than just selling product. He surmised—thanks to Uncle Sigmund’s theories of the unconscious and the id—that the voting masses were too irrational and hence dangerous to be unsupervised with the expanding right to vote. He put it this way in Propaganda.

“In the days when kings were kings, Louis XIV made his modest remark, ‘L’Etat c’est moi.’ He was nearly right.

But times have changed… The people actually gained a power which the king lost. For economic power tends to draw after it political power; and the history of the industrial revolution shows how that power passed from the king and the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie. Universal suffrage and universal schooling reinforced this tendency, and at last even the bourgeoisie stood in fear of the common people. For the masses promised to become king.

Today, however, a reaction has set in. The minority has discovered a powerful help in influencing majorities. It has been found possible so to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction. In the present structure of society, this practice is inevitable…”

In short, as Bernays’s daughter Anne put it in the titanic 4-hour BBC documentary Century of the Self, which chronicled the rise and contemporary dominance of public relations in American life, “my father believed the people were too stupid to meaningfully participate in democracy. He used that word a lot.”

“Torches of Freedom” & “Commies” in Guatemala
By 1929, Bernays was already an old hand at influencing public opinion for business, most notably in his “Torches of Freedom” coup for the American Tobacco Company.

At the time, public smoking for women was still taboo, indicative of dicey moral fiber and all of the rest of it. So, Bernays started by consulting the eminent psychoanalyst A. A. Brill, who related the following in Bernays’s memoir. “Some women regard cigarettes as symbols of freedom. Smoking is a sublimation of oral eroticism; holding a cigarette in the mouth excites the oral zone. It is perfectly normal for women to want to smoke cigarettes… But today the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. More women now do the same work as men do… Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”

In turn, Bernays sent the following communiqué to 30 Vogue debutantes. “In the interests of equality of the sexes and to fight another sex taboo I and other young women will light another torch of freedom by smoking cigarettes while strolling on Fifth Avenue Easter Sunday.” He also recruited Ruth Hale, a leading feminist, to sign advertisements in New York newspapers to this end. Ten responded and marched; it caused a national sensation, as Bernays relates. “Front-page stories in newspapers reported the freedom march in words and pictures. For weeks after the event editorials praised or condemned the young women who had paraded against the smoking taboo.”

Bernays also helped develop slogans like “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet,” as cigarettes had been found to suppress appetite and hence were marketed as a dieting device. He also helped organized the “Tobacco Society for Voice Culture” whose letterhead featured the slogan “so to improve the CORDS of the THROAT through cigarette smoking that the public will be able to express itself in SONGS OF PRAISE or more easily to swallow anything.” At the bottom it read: “OUR ULTIMATE GOAL: a smoking TEACHER for every SINGER.”

[When it became clear in the mid-1950s, thanks to the muckraking of the great George Seldes, that smoking was harmful to one’s health; Bernays did make a real effort to make amends, as Mark Crispin Miller pointed out. “Once the toxic side effects of smoking had become impossible to talk away, Bernays not only gave up working for tobacco companies, but became a vocal critic of tobacco, lobbying staunchly (and unsuccessfully) to get the Public Relations Society of America to enjoin its members not to work in any way to spread the habit.”]

That same year, on the cusp of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover, in remarking upon the rise of mass consumption spectacles before an audience of admen, declared that the American people were “happiness machines.” Happiness Machines! The transformation in the self-understanding of the average American as first a citizen and then a consumer was already well underway.

A quarter of a century later, in the early 1950s, Bernays was involved in another infamous bit of public relations, an episode for which he never expressed any contrition. He was heavily involved in the United Fruit Company’s publicity campaign against the elected New Deal-style Arbenz government in Guatemala—the original banana republic—after it nationalized some of the American company’s holdings. The CIA-backed coup which overthrew Arbenz set in motion a chain of military dictators whose murderous wrath killed over 100,000 largely Mayan peasants in the 1980s. In looking back and evaluating the facts of the matter, one can see that Bernays very clearly swallowed some of his own bait—or just didn’t much care about the possible ramifications of strangling Guatemalan democracy.

Bernays admiringly related this anecdote of Samuel Zemurray, the Chairman of United Fruit’s board, from one of their many conversations. “A man who could concentrate on his conversation while reports were brought to him of three disasters at sea involving loss of lives, cargoes and money, was fitted by temperament to direct an American industrial and agricultural complex in the Middle American jungles.” Zemurray would “glance at each” disastrous report handed him then offhandedly “toss it into the trash.” Now that’s Leadership!

In his memoirs, Bernays did acknowledge the “great gulf” he saw between “the rich and the poor” in Guatemala during a 1949 visit, as well as the reality that “there was little or no sense of social responsibility among the rich.” Further, Bernays recognized that “revolutionary movements would therefore spread,” but Zemurray thought the Indians were “too ignorant” to resist. He also quoted the future President of Guatemala Jacobo Arbenz’s reasonable enough remark to an unnamed American. “You people are doing things for your workers that we won’t be able to do for fifty years. That’s why I hate you.” By 1952, Bernays was fretting that Guatemalan Communists “were wielding power out of proportion to their numbers,” rather like public relations men.

Then in 1953 came the expropriations of United Fruit-owned lands—some 250,000 acres—most of which had laid fallow and for which the company was compensated to the tune of about $2 million. In his memoirs, Bernays conveniently omits mention of CIA-involvement in the coup, simply stating that the exiled strongman Castillo Armas and his “army of liberation invaded Guatemala” from Honduras. Intelligence operative E. Howard Hunt, who would later gain notoriety as one of the Watergate “plumbers,” commented on unmarked American planes bombing Guatemala City in concert with the approach of Armas’s troops in Century of the Self. “What we wanted was a terror campaign, much as the Stuka bombers terrorized Holland and Belgium.”

The Universality of “Organizing Chaos” in the “Mass Mind”
Bernays fundamentally believed that truth was determined by what Mark Crispin Miller termed “the preeminent consensus.” In short, truth does not exist in public life per se; it is just a matter of manipulating and engineering it. As Bernays himself recognized, there were perils in this approach. “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 [emphasis mine]. But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.”

In the end though, the “intelligent minorities” have no recourse but “to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically… Only through the active energy of the intelligent few can the public at large become aware of and act upon new ideas… Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought.”

Hitler, again, writing in Mein Kampf, agreed heartily. “The second really decisive question was this: to whom should propaganda be addressed? To the scientifically trained intelligentsia or to the less educated masses? It must be addressed always and exclusively to the masses… All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be…and too much caution cannot be exerted in this direction.”

Apart from the philosophical parallels, Bernays pioneered media manipulation techniques which would be adopted by the Nazis—and later, American Presidents. At the advice of Bernays, the President of the new state of Czechoslovakia, Tomás Masaryk, delayed the announcement of his country’s post-World War I breakaway from the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire until a Sunday in order maximize public attention.

Subsequently, Hitler made sure to announce violations of the Versailles treaty on Friday afternoons, so that his military buildup would be met with as little media attention as possible. Under Johnson and Nixon, deceptive briefings on the state of the war in Vietnam were cynically referred to by reporters as the “Friday afternoon follies.” Every President since that time has released bad news on Friday afternoons. For more on fascist rhetorical continuity, check this out.

It becomes evident as one finishes up Propaganda, that Bernays himself was uncomfortable to some extent with the elitist implications of his work. In this passage he attempts to imply somehow that propaganda is a consensual matter. “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 [emphasis mine] 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 [again, my emphasis] to permit free competition to be organized by leadership and propaganda.”

In undermining support for the Weimar Republic, Nazi propaganda made great hay of the inefficiency inherent in democratic politics, making note in one radio broadcast of the “chaos” caused when “thirty four parties” vie for power. Bernays’s solution was to narrow the choices and then manipulate the public into selecting from, as Walter Lippmann imperiously put it, “tweedledum and tweedledee.” The Nazis simply cut to the chase and eliminated other choices.

A key objective for rulers everywhere and during every time, no matter what the political system, is “stability.” This ought to be familiar for those who remember the Cold War and the imperatives of keeping allied fascist dictatorships “stable,” or our present alliance with the torture state of Uzbekistan for that matter. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, propaganda is the domestic democratic concomitant to secret police terror in far flung authoritarian lands. After all, shooting demonstrators or strikers in cold blood became offensive to public mores in the wake of the New Deal. So, more oblique, and effective, techniques came to the fore.

In terms of contemporary politics, Bernays counsel remains quite familiar. “But when the example of the leader is not at hand and the herd must think for itself, it does so by means of clichés, pat words or images which stand for a whole group of ideas or experiences. Not many years ago, it was only necessary to tag a political candidate with the word interests to stampede millions of people into voting against him, because anything associated with ‘the interests’ seemed necessarily corrupt. Recently the word Bolshevik has performed a similar service for persons who wished to frighten the public away from a line of action….” Heard that, you liberal, pinko freak?

Human resources departments have so widely adopted some of Bernays’s teachings that they are completely unremarkable now. “The successful businessman today apes the politician. He has adopted the glitter and the ballyhoo of the campaign. He has set up all the sideshows. He has annual dinners that are a compendium of speeches, flags, bombast, stateliness, pseudo-democracy slightly tinged with paternalism.” Wasn’t that holiday office mixer fun?

“Trotter and Le Bon [two leading turn-of-the-century French social psychologists who influenced both Bernays and Lippmann] concluded that the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits and emotions. In making up its mind, its first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader. This is one of the most firmly established principles in mass psychology. It operates in establishing the rising or diminishing prestige of a summer resort, in causing a run on a bank, or a panic on the stock exchange, in creating a best-seller, or a box office success.”

Who will keep America safe? W!

As for contemporary liberals, Bernays with some bemusement noted that “good government can be sold to a community just as any other commodity can be sold. I often wonder whether the politicians of the future, who are responsible for the maintaining the prestige and effectiveness of their party, will not endeavor to train politicians who are at the same time propagandists.”

And so these days we have the Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff basking in the gloom of post-election Democratic Washington D.C., peddling his advice on “framing issues” for liberals and progressives. He’s serving up better propaganda, not better policies necessarily. This is unsurprising since liberals and progressives were the ones whose political forebears predominantly popularized Bernays’s concepts. And so it seems, we’ve come full circle.

“It will be objected, of course, that propaganda will tend to defeat itself as its mechanism becomes obvious to the public. My opinion is that it will not. The only propaganda which will ever tend to weaken itself as the world becomes more sophisticated and intelligent is propaganda that is untrue or unsocial.” For once, Bernays was not cynical enough, as the propaganda run up to the Iraq war clearly demonstrated.

“This invisible, intertwining structure of groupings and associations is the mechanism by which democracy has organized its group mind and simplified its mass thinking. To deplore the existence of such a mechanism is to ask for a society such as never was and never will be. To admit that it exists, but expect that it shall not be used, is unreasonable…”

In the American political system today, the words that come out of the mouths of the political class are all calculated, analyzed for psychological effectiveness and then repeated ad nauseum. For that we can thank in large measure Sigmund Freud’s devious nephew.

Just for fun, check out how the Museum of Public Relations treats Bernays & Co.

[For those interested in further examining the roots of social psychology, have a look at the writings of a pair of French sociologists. Gustav Le Bon wrote The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895), while his friend and colleague Gabriel Tarde wrote Laws of Imitation (1903). In the Anglo-American tradition, we have the British political theorist Graham Wallas, who taught Walter Lippmann at Harvard, and wrote Human Nature in Politics (1908), along with the American sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross, author of Social Psychology in the same year. Finally, there is Wilfred Trotter, a British social psychologist who wrote the suggestively titled Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (1916). And who could forget George Creel’s delightful How We Advertised America: The First Telling of the Amazing Story of the Committee on Public Information that Carried the Gospel of Americanism to Every Corner of the Globe (1920). Beyond that, the bibliography in Stuart Ewen’s PR!, from whence the above citations were culled, is sure to delight the most devoted social psychology spelunker.]

Posted in Big Brother & The Police State, New World Order, Newspeak, Social Engineering & Psycho-Social Change Agents.