"Propaganda", the greatest work
Almost a century after its publication, in 1928, "Propaganda", by Edward Bernays, is still considered one of the most remarkable constributions for the industry of Communication
The year was 1928.
After the success of the books Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and The Public Relations Counsel (1927), Edward Bernays publishes the emblematic work that will coin him as the “Father of Public Relations.”
Quickly the book Propaganda would become the reference work for Communication professionals.
Through what kaleidoscope did Bernays take a peek at Propaganda?
The innovation of his contribution consisted in the adaptation of psychological concepts to the Communication sphere, an unexplored vision until then.
The father of PR explained the psychology behind the mass manipulation through the use of Propaganda. In addition, he examined how this way of communicating influenced politics, social change and the practice of lobbying.
“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. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. ”
Never a statement has remained as up-to-date as this one.
In his analysis, Bernays begins to shape his popular concept of “engineering consent”. The great theorist believes that consensus is vital for the survival of democracies, and those who help build it are the ones who really hold the power over people, including their ideas and opinions.
“Some of the phenomena of this process [Propaganda] 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. But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.”
The chosen angle focuses on the defense of Propaganda as a necessary and as a vital tool for shaping public opinion and for the normal functioning of life in society.
In fact, Bernays goes even further and says that Propaganda is a tool to gain the approval of the masses, and that those in power need this approval to be able to act.
“Propaganda is here to stay”.
However, the modern society of the 20s/30s was confronted with a new Propaganda.
“Modern Propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.”
New techniques also meant the emergence of a new professional that put them into practice:
“The propagandist who specializes in interpreting enterprises and ideas to the public, and in interpreting the public to promulgators of new enterprises and ideas, has come to be known by the name of ‘public relations counsel.’”
The emergence of financial scandals in the 20th century increased awareness of the importance of Public Relations.
However, a suspicion joined this new perception: society’s difficulty in distinguishing a propagandist from a Public Relations professional.
“If we accept public relations as a profession, we must also expect it to have both ideals and ethics”.
Propaganda and capitalism
Bernays doesn’t stop there. The argument of Propaganda as a fundamental instrument to the functioning of a democratic society was expanded and encompassed to the economic field. According to the author, Propaganda has a positive impact on capitalism.
“A single factory, potentially capable of supplying a whole continent with its particular product, cannot afford to wait until the public asks for its product; it must maintain constant touch, through advertising and propaganda, with the vast public in order to assure itself the continuous demand which alone will make its costly plant profitable.”
With the massive use of Propaganda during the First World War, this form of communication had already acquired a somewhat negative connotation.
And then Bernays presents a new insight about this way of communicating, studying its effects and defending its use.
“I am aware that the word ‘Propaganda’ carries to many minds an unpleasant connotation. Yet whether, in any instance, Propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published.”
Bernays goes even further in his conception about this process.
“Man’s thoughts and actions are compensatory substitutes for desires which he has been obliged to suppress. A thing may be desired not for its intrinsic worth or usefulness, but because he has unconsciously come to see in it a symbol of something else, the desire for which he is ashamed to admit to himself.”
This psychological perspective of individuals and masses has contributed to a new vision of Propaganda. The work of the propagandist became so much more than disseminating an idea or a product. They start to devote themselves to finding the hidden motifs and desires of their audience.
Thus, Propaganda aroused, in the target audience, a reaction filled by a duality: to act or not to act? Right or wrong? Good or bad? The choices of the individuals became limited.
And what is the result? Faster and more fervent responses.
From 1928 to the present
In the preface of the first Portuguese edition, Communication Consultant and Public Relations Luís Paixão Martins takes us on a journey through Edward Bernays’ life.
Much more than a pioneer, this American from an Austrian origin stood out from his peers and created roots in several practices and customs that are still part of our daily lives today.
From the introduction of bacon in the American breakfasts to the exoneration of smoking in public associated with women’s emancipation in the “Torches of Freedom” initiative, including the creation of the concept currently accepted as “beer is the drink of moderation,” Bernays fairly earned the title of “father of Public Relations.”
When Bernays identified himself in court as a “Consultant in Public Relations,” this was established as an unprecedented milestone in History.
It was the turning point for Public Relations as a profession.
However, the most surprising thing about this figure has always been his ability to think “outside the box.”
Arguing that it is easier to change the attitudes of millions of people than the actions of a single individual, Bernays showed early on that he understood better than anyone the importance and functioning of public opinion.
With a reputation somewhat controversial due to his prominence – which broke with the conventional behaviour of Public Relations men, who were confined to the backstage – Bernays broke barriers just like an Olympic athlete.
He created the original theory about the reaction to rumours and suspicions, he conceived the concept of “segmental approach,” he formulated the model of PR projects, he prepared the famous marketing technique “engineering consent,” he was a pioneer in “product placement,” and he developed the first techniques for political lobbying.
More than the “father of PR” or “spin father,” Edward Bernays would leave a unique legacy that would establish one of the most influential professions ever.
At a time full of prejudices and strict social conventions, the theorist would cross the line and risk everything to follow his ideas. Even if they collided with established standards.