Edward Bernays

June 13, 2013 |  by

The double nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays was “the father of public relations.” He published his infamous Propaganda in 1928, a philosophy and practical manual for manipulation of public opinion. A pioneer of using crowd psychology in PR campaigns, he described his techniques as “the engineering of consent.”

Propaganda is astounding for its clarity, insight and forthrightness on mass manipulation. In Bernays’ view, control and manipulation of public opinion is an important and necessary part of a democratic society. Highlights include:

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.

Governments, whether they are monarchical, constitutional, democratic or communist, depend upon acquiescent public opinion for the success of their efforts.

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 which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.

It [is possible] to mold the mind of the masses that they will throw their newly gained strength in the desired direction.

If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it?

You get the drift. Throughout the book is the idea that the ordinary man (the public) isn’t smart enough to make his own choices. He must be led, for his own good and the good of society, by those who know better—”the true ruling power” as Bernays calls them.

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.

Small groups of persons can, and do, make the rest of us think what they please about a given subject.

Bear in mind, Bernays was no quack. He was highly skilled, successful and one of the most influential people of his time. His PR campaigns were legendary: hosting the first NAACP convention in Atlanta, breaking the taboo against public smoking by women, changing the breakfast habits of Americans from light to heavy, and reportedly helping in the 1954 overthrow of the Guatemalan government. Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels was said to use Bernays’ book Crystallizing Public Opinion in directing the Nazi campaign against the Jews.

His clients included President Calvin Coolidge, Procter & Gamble, the United Fruit Company and the American Tobacco Company. One of his particular gifts was the “tie-in,” the linking of a product or cause to an unrelated event, celebrity or venue, for the purpose of altering perception of one by the other.

One of the most curious themes of Propaganda is the repeated reference to an invisible, ruling power.

Who are the men who, without our realizing it, give us our ideas, tell us whom to admire and whom to despise, what to believe about the ownership of public utilities, about the tariff, about the price of rubber, about the Dawes Plan, about immigration; who tell us how our houses should be designed, what furniture we should put into them, what menus we should serve on our table, what kind of shirts we must wear, what sports we should indulge in, what plays we should see, what charities we should sup- port, what pictures we should admire, what slang we should affect, what jokes we should laugh at?

Yes, who are these men? We’ll look at this in our next post.


Propaganda, Edward Bernays


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