I was recently at a conference and in the course of a conversation that turned to foreign relations the topic came up of how easy it is to get populations riled up for war through propaganda. At some point I brought up how Edward Bernays, at the request of the US government, skillfully spearheaded public support for US intervention into Guatemala in the 1950s. We had to help the “freedom fighters” as rebels against the democratically elected government were labeled. I am sure you have heard that term applied over and over again up until our current age. Strange that none of these highly educated people had ever heard of Edward Bernays.

Labels are important, they conjure up feelings, emotions and passion.  Up until Edward Bernays appeared on the scene advertising dealt with comparing one product against another for durability, cost and other “rational” considerations.  Bernays changed that forever and is regarded the founder of modern public relations and marketing.  You see, Bernays had an uncle named Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis. Freud believed we as humans are driven by unconscious instincts and desires (i.e. sex) yet our conscious mind attempts to mask these somewhat uncivilized aspects of our psychology. Freud wanted to understand people in order to explain their behavior and ultimately help them deal with anxiety and trauma. Yet when his nephew read his works he was inspired to apply these insights to getting people to buy products.

And that was how modern advertising was born. One of his most noteworthy projects was to get women to smoke. He consulted a psychiatrist on what the cigarette meant psychologically…naturally there was a psycho-sexual component to both the shape of a cigarette and its symbolic meaning, i.e. power. He turned a yearning for feminism and equality into a marketing ploy by organizing a group of young, attractive women to show up at a parade and publically violate a taboo by not only smoking but smoking in public – it was equivalent to today’s “Free the Nipple” campaign supported by some feminists, except of course breaking a societal taboo against a woman going topless in public serves no economic agenda; quite the opposite actually if advertisers no longer could capitalize on the taboo against the human form to capture our attention to sell completely unrelated items.

Back to Bernays though, he not only demonstrated how the public could be sold a product as long as you skillfully associated it with a primal desire or insecurity but also how an individual politician could sell himself or herself using the same emotionally-connected strategies.  And once in office politicians could employ these skills to convince the public why they needed to adopt agendas including war. Oh, and if a politician gets in trouble just call in the spin-doctor who can organize interviews with him/her with their family, a pet dog and other props to demonstrate how warm and sincere the politician is – at least while in front of the camera. Public perception is what is important today.

I often wonder why Edward Bernays is not mentioned in high school history books in the USA. Then again, why is it rare to have lessons on media literacy or critical thinking in those classrooms? Perhaps the answer is too obvious.

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