Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Interesting Bits: "Propoganda" by Edward Bernays

I've been recently perusing Edward Bernays' 1928 classic, Propaganda. The book is considered by many to be the foundational text of Public Relations and indeed much of Marketing.

It's a fascinating text for many reasons, not the least of which is that it comes from a time when society was still coming to terms with mass markets and globalism. It provides a look into the birth of mass communication controlled by a handful of men - for we who live in the death of that system. It is easy to lose sight of just how defenseless the masses once were to official ideologies and party lines in this age of social media.

At any rate, here are a few excerpts for your perusal. If these book bits interest you, here's a link for the Kindle version.

"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 necessary corrupt. Recently the word Bolshevik has performed a similar service for persons who wished to frighten the public away from a line of action."
The more things change, eh? The only parts that we would update for the 2016 edition would be "interests" to "special interests" and "Bolshevik" to "Socialist" or "Racist." Frankly, the most surprising part is that Bernays implies that there was a window where these tricks didn't work!

"While the concrete recommendations of the public relations counsel may vary infinitely according to individual circumstances, his general plan of work may be reduced to two types, which I might term continuous interpretation and dramatization by high-spotting. The two may be alternative or may be pursued concurrently."
"Continuous interpretation" refers to the process of subtly molding the public image of a product or policy in a favorable fashion, whereas "Dramatization by high-spotting" refers to special events to bring a product or policy into the public imagination. For example, Continuous Interpretation would be subtly drawing public attention to the benefits of toothpaste by funding/spreading research on tooth decay and Dramatization would be a highly publicized tooth-brushing competition ("The World Series of Tooth Brushing!!!").

"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."
It is unclear to the extent Bernays actually believed this, but it seems to have held up, particularly the untrue. Blatantly untrue propaganda requires more upkeep and suppression of free speech to succeed.

The Big Lie is effective in the short term, but not in the long term.

"Ours must be a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses."
Sound familiar? Bernays was an instrumental advocate of Democracy From Above. In his mind, there is a natural oligarchy made up of the people who drive public opinion - people like himself. The interest in this book is not only in the techniques of propaganda, but the mindset of social engineers.

"[Women] can justifiably take the credit for much welfare legislation. The eight-hour day is theirs. Undoubtedly prohibition and its enforcement are theirs, if they can be considered an accomplishment. So is the Shepard-Towner Bill which stipulates support by the central government of maternity welfare in the state governments. This bill would not have passed had it not been for the political prescience and sagacity of women like Mrs. Vanderlip and Mrs. Mitchell."

I have been somewhat suspicious of claims that extending the vote to women caused the growth of the welfare state, but here is Bernays trumpeting the accomplishment. This is merely one more point of data - but one wonders if a perusal of more old books on the subject would turn up more triumphal announcements of the role of women in creating the Nanny State.

"As an example of this new technique: Some years ago, the Consumer’s Committee of Women, fighting the “American valuation” tariff, rented an empty store on Fifty-Seventh Street in New York and set up and exhibit of merchandise tagging each item with the current price and the price it would cost if the tariff went through. Hundreds of visitors to this ship rallied to the cause of the committee."

Women vs. Tariffs. Quite interesting given the recent reemergence of the tariff topic.

"Yet if this is the case— if the university shapes its whole policy toward gaining the support of the state legislature— its educational function may suffer. It may be tempted to base its whole appeal to the public on its public service, real or supposed, and permit the education of its individual students to take care of itself. It may attempt to educate the people of the state at the expense of its own pupils. This may generate a number of evils, to the extent of making the university a political instrument, a mere tool of the political group in power."
Can there be any doubt that Bernays' fears proven true? The university system is nothing if not a political instrument, and it is due to public funding.

This section is the crux of the whole book, and unfortunately Bernays himself did not seem to realize it. The marriage of propaganda, oligarchy, and politics repeats over and over in the following chapters, but the university is the only place Bernays sees any potential problems.

"In such a case, it is not the work of the public relations counsel to urge that the courses be made better known, but to urge that they first be modified to conform to the impression which the college wishes to create, where that is compatible with the university’s scholastic ideas."
If the SJW has one true skill, it is in convincing institutions that they are the public opinion to which institutions must appeals. Bernays' naivety in thinking universities will maintain their scholastic ideas is adorable.

"And since social service, by its very nature, can continue only by means of the voluntary support of the wealthy, it is obliged to use propaganda continually. The leaders in social service were among the first consciously to utilize propaganda in its modern sense."
Interesting to see where propaganda first took root.

"The great enemy of any attempt to change men’s habits is inertia. Civilization is limited by inertia."
Oh Bernays, you stupid fuck.

"Today the privilege of attempting to sway public opinion is everyone’s. It is one of the manifestations of democracy that any one may try to convince others and to assume leadership on behalf of his own thesis."
True, but Bernays actively sought to undermine this by putting control of public opinion in the hands of a few unelected puppet masters. Social media really is a miracle by the grace of God.

"When art galleries seek to launch the canvases of an artist they should create public acceptance for his works. To increase public appreciation a deliberate propagandizing effort must be made."
The fine arts are as susceptible to market pressures as anything else.

"Propaganda can play a part in pointing out what is and what is not beautiful, and business can definitely help in this way to raise the level of American culture."

Can, sure can. Didn't, sure didn't. The same political pressures Bernays predicted on the university affect the museum as well (more often than not, directly through the university).

"A piano manufacturer recently engaged artists to design modernist pianos. This was not done because there existed a widespread demand for modernist pianos. Indeed, the manufacturer probably expected to sell few. But in order to draw attention to pianos one must have something more than a piano. People at tea parties will not talk about pianos; but they may talk about the new modernist piano."
Not everything Bernays says infuriates me. This is actually very clever and explains a lot about loss leaders.

"A recent annual report of an art museum in one of the large cities of the United States, says: “An underlying characteristic of an art Museum like ours must be its attitude of conservatism, for after all its first duty is to treasure the great achievements of men in the arts and sciences.” Is that true? Is not another important duty to interpret the models of beauty which it possesses? If the duty of the museum is to be active it must study how best to make its message intelligible to the community which it serves. It must bodily assume aethetic leadership."
And we're back to fury. Nothing Bernays says is technically untrue - it would be great if museums had a leading role in raising aesthetic standards in the community. The issue is that the marriage of political oligarchy and propaganda in the arts has had the opposite effect: the uglification of culture.

"There is no means of human communication which may not also be a means of deliberate propaganda, because propaganda is simply the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group."
And people wonder why I'm paranoid.

"It was not many years ago that newspaper editors resented what they called “the use of the news columns for propaganda purposes.” Some editors would even kill a good story if they imagined its publication might benefit anyone."
Can we go back to this? Please? Pretty please?

"In the New York Times— to take an outstanding example— news is printed because of its news value and for no other reason. The Times editors determine with complete independence what is and what is not news. They brook no censorship. They are not influenced by any external pressure nor swayed by any values of expediency or opportunism."
Lol, New York Times was an pillar of journalistic integrity.

"If the public relations counsel can breathe the breath of life into an idea and make it take its place among other ideas and events, will receive the public attention it merits. There can be no question of his “contaminating news at its source.” He creates some of the day’s events, which must compete in the editorial office with other events. Often the events which he creates may be specially acceptable to a newspaper’s public and he may create them with that public in mind."
False flags, paid demonstrations, and fake outrages are extremely effective in creating propagandistic news. And I love the way that he hand-waves the charge of "contaminating news at its source" by immediately jumping into "creating some of the day's events," which is the very definition of contaminating news at its source.

"Large groups, political, racial, sectarian, economic or professional, are tending to control [radio] stations to propagandize their points of view."
As depressing as reading what we've lost in newspaper ethics is, it pales in how compromised other media sources have been since their beginning.

"The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world today. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions. The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation. Because pictures are made to meet market demands, they reflect, emphasize and even exaggerate broad popular tendencies, rather than stimulate new ideas and opinions. The motion picture avails itself only of ideas and facts which are in vogue. As the newspaper seeks to purvey news, it seeks to purvey entertainment."
Bernays underestimates the ability of movies to create new ideas and opinions, but absolutely nails its role as the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda and its reliance on the vogue. But once you become the source of vogue information, you become the voice of what is vogue. That's when you can start introducing new ideas/fashions/messages.

"Yet the vivid dramatization of personality will always remain one of the functions of the public relations counsel. The public instinctively demands a personality to typify a conspicuous corporation or enterprise."
Older than print: “No, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

"Undoubtedly the public is becoming aware of the methods which are being used to mold its opinions and habits. If the public is better informed about the processes of its life, it will be so much the more receptive to reasonable appeals to its own interests."
You have to love Bernays' optimism here. Maybe it would have worked out better if the propagandists had more (any) concern for our interests, and less for oligarchical control over our lives.

"Propaganda will never die out. 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."
Ordo ab chao; indeed, Novus ordo seclorum ab chao . But Bernays is correct. The propagandist will always be with us, and it behooves us to use his arts wisely. Shedding light on these techniques is the first step to building defenses against their misuse.

It is for this reason that I highly recommend Bernays' book. Whether the propagandist is your idol or your enemy, it can only benefit you to learn his tricks.

No comments:

Post a Comment