Edward Bernays: Prophet of “Spin”
In his masterpiece “On the Nature of Things”, the great philosopher Lucretius from the first century BC argued that in a machine-like world of atoms “evasion” or “turning” must be set as the basis of free will. Over the past millennia, quantum theory has gained much greater patronage as an account of indeterminacy, and Clinamen, Lucretius’ Latin word translated as spin, has adopted the broader connotation of bias or bias. Perhaps no one in the 20th century used this development more than Edward Bernays, the prophet of “spin”.
Bernays imagined himself to be the “father of public relations”, a title he had invented and used all his life. His book Propaganda (1928) unwittingly contributed to turning this once neutral word that propagated something into a term of derision in the sense of biased or misleading information. Bernays believed that the masses were largely uninformed and irrational, and that it was up to the Cognoscenti to take advantage of their herd instinct and crystallize it into forms favorable to their own ends. Such beliefs have significantly influenced both American advertising and American political discourse.
Bernays was born in Vienna in 1891 as the two-time nephew of Sigmund Freud – his mother was Freud’s sister and his father’s sister married Freud. When Bernays was a child, his family moved to the United States. Bernays graduated from Cornell with a degree in agriculture but was passionate about journalism. Bernays worked as a medical editor and press representative before joining the World War I Public Information Committee, where he was tasked with building public support for the war effort. In 1922 he married Doris Fleischman, who kept her maiden name in disregard of the conventions of the time.
His experiences during the war opened Bernay’s eyes to the manipulability of public opinion. After the war he opened a PR business and published the book Crystallizing Public Opinion in 1923. Bernay’s campaigns are legendary – he advertised ivory soap because it was floating; He promoted Dixie Cups by suggesting that disposable cups spread disease. and while working for a hairnet company, he successfully campaigned for laws mandating their use. He was hired to spice up a boring Calvin Coolidge and invited celebrities like Al Jolson over to the White House for a pancake breakfast.
Bernays, the publicist, had a long relationship with tobacco companies. The distribution of free cigarettes to US troops during World War I had led a large proportion of US men to smoke, but women were reluctant to take up the practice. Bernays began to associate cigarettes with a slim figure and promoted them as good substitutes for candy. To exploit the idea that women were being oppressed, he advertised cigarettes as “torches of freedom”. He caused young women to crash the 1929 Easter Day parade in New York. They emerged from places of worship, lit up and proudly took part in the procession.
To hold up to Bernay’s cynical vision, democracies need less manipulable consumers and more citizens worthy of self-government.
Some of Bernay’s endeavors took on a more political tone. Bernays was hired in the 1940s to promote US banana sales and had celebrities publicly perform with the fruit in hand to advertise its beneficial effects. When his client, the United Fruit Company, voiced concerns about the political situation in Guatemala and dwarfed the nationalization of the industry, Bernays prompted and even organized the publication of many articles deciphering the communist threat Tours of the country for prominent citizens. In 1954, the CIA helped organize a coup in which Bernays was the primary source of information for the US press.
Bernays called his approach the engineering of consent:
If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regulate the masses at our will without their knowledge? Recent propaganda practice has shown that this is possible at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.
He compared the production of mass opinions with the mass production of material goods and called it “the essence of the democratic process of convincing and suggesting freedom”. He wrote that the only difference between education and propaganda is perspective. In fact, he said, “Standing up for what we believe in is education. Standing up for what we don’t believe in is propaganda. “
Bernays was not an advocate of a society of free and responsible people, at least not in relation to ordinary citizens. Believing the average person to have no idea what to think, he argued that it was up to the elites to choose him.
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element of democratic society. Those who manipulate this invisible mechanism of society form an invisible government that is the real ruling power of our country. We are ruled, our spirits are molded, our tastes are molded, our ideas proposed, mostly by men we have never heard of.
As Bernays saw, a healthy democratic society requires the regulation of the beliefs of the many through the work of a few. Such people understand the principles of psychology and the technology of public opinion. “They’re pulling the wires that control public consciousness,” he wrote, “and they’re harnessing old social forces and inventing new ways to bind and guide the world.” They tell us who to admire and who to despise, how our homes should be designed, what food should be served, how to dress, what sports to play, what conversations to prefer, how to talk and even what jokes we should be laughing at. The government itself depends on how it gets the public to submit.
Bernays doubted that ordinary people have the ability to think for themselves and may have enjoyed contemporary political discourse, which often relies on attribution and ridicule. He was forced to think for himself, he thought, and people could only resort to “clichés, gossip words and images that represent a whole group of ideas or experiences”. The propagandist only has to “tag a political candidate with the word” interests “to get millions of people to vote against him”. This use of opinion-forming labels has increased in the age of social media. It is enough just to classify someone or something as communist, capitalist, woken up or systemically racist.
Bernays was not even burdened with a trace of political or ethical idealism. He was convinced by his uncle’s writings that thoughts and actions are only substitutes for desires that people must suppress, that people cannot see things for their intrinsic worth, but only as representations of something else, and that practically no one can endure them face your true motives. Accordingly, Bernays argued that “no serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses a divine or particularly wise and lofty idea”. As a result, public opinion must be shaped with symbols and clichés from propagandists for it.
Bernays found such ideas not only sustainable, but also immensely profitable. He made a fortune and lived to the age of 103. His wife Doris was not that lucky. At the same time that her husband was successfully increasing the attractiveness of cigarettes for women, Doris had become addicted to them. Bernays tried repeatedly to make her stop, even breaking half of all the cigarettes he found in the house and flushing them down the toilet. Later in his life, he would try to undo the damage he had done by working with public health lawyers on smoking campaigns. But his efforts have turned out to be too little and too late for Doris, who died 15 years ago.
Bernay’s efforts failed in other ways as well. One of the admirers of his books was Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda in National Socialist Germany from 1933 to 1945. According to Bernays himself, Goebbels had Bernays books in his library and used them “as the basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany, which shocked me. “Once consideration for freedom and responsibility has been thrown in the trash can of history, nothing will stop the technology of public opinion from turning in a direction that those in power might choose. In a world from which respect for objective truth has been obliterated, we are left with nothing but prejudices and the propagandists who shape them.
To hold up to Bernay’s cynical vision, democracies need less manipulable consumers and more citizens worthy of self-government. They must take care of separating truth from falsehood, recognizing Spin when they see it, and jealously protecting their freedoms and responsibilities. Among other things, the development of such citizens would require child-rearing and educational practices in which appreciation ends over means, with knowledge and service of good taking precedence over mere getting what one wants. One way to foster appreciation for the importance of this knowledge is to introduce students to Bernay’s work and invite them to look at life in the dystopia he described.