Bernays’s mastery of propaganda and the general art of public influence, as illustrated in his works, laid the foundation for much of the marketing of the 20th century, and his theories are still employed in marketing and public relations today.
What Newton is to Physics, or Adam Smith is to economics, Bernays is to Propaganda (which he later dubbed public relations, somewhat ironically playing public relations on behalf of the term propaganda which he himself popularized).
Life magazine once called Edward Bernays, “one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century”, but that may be an understatement.
Bernays combined the work of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, with previous concepts of crowd psychology and group decision making to create the handbook of modern public relations illustrated in his book Propaganda (1928). In the first chapter of Propaganda Bernays describes the New World Order and how to use emotion to steer “the ship” towards western democracy. His subsequent books followed a similar theme of explaining influence and the ethics of influence. Bernays used his powers for the good, bad, and ugly, and it is only through studying Bernays that we can understand the complexity, morality, and implications of his work.
We may not remember his name, but the influence of Bernays’s work is still in full force today. Anyone interested in politics, social sciences, or marketing owes it to themselves to study Bernays.
You can read Propaganda by Bernays online here. His other works included aptly named titles like “Public Relations“, “Manipulating Public Opinion“, “Democratic Leadership in Total War“, “Psychological Blueprint for Peace“, and “The Engineering of Consent“… The theme should be clear to you by now. I strongly suggest you read his works if you want to understand the world you live in.
HOW TO CONTROL WHAT PEOPLE DO | PROPAGANDA BY EDWARD BERNAYS | ANIMATED BOOK REVIEW.
“A Public Relations counsel must never accept a retainer or assume a position which puts his duty to the groups he represents above his duty to society” – Bernays “This Business of Propaganda” (1928). Wise words from Bernays, but not ones he always followed.
Understanding Edward Bernays the Master of Propaganda in Context
Edward Bernays can be considered the father of public relations due to his theories on how to sway public opinion without force in a free-market centered democracy. As Adam Smith noted in his Wealth of Nations pertaining to his Theory of Moral Sentiments (paraphrasing), “if the average person isn’t moved by goodness, we can at least understand how to organize a society around the type of selfish moral sentiment that does motivate them”.
This line of thinking may seem amoral, but a close reading of the classics shows that Bernays simply wrote the modern version of Aristotle’s Rhetoric which was written in 350 BC. In truth, there isn’t much Bernays says that Aristotle hadn’t said before.
You see, even Aristotle believed that rhetoric and political science, along with the study of ethics (ethos), was the key to moving society (polis) toward a more virtuous path (arete). In this way, many philosophers and social scientists from Aristotle to Bernays tried to understand the art of influence.
With this said, unlike Aristotle and Smith, Bernays took some seedy contracts and, through no direct action of his own, inspired Joseph Goebbels propaganda master of the NAZIs. So Bernays the man, is a little more complex than hero or villain, but his work (like Aristotle’s) remains as vital and arguably virtuous as ever (in the right hands at least).
What is Propaganda?
Propaganda is the art of manipulating public opinion through mass marketing, or, in other words, through “public relations.” Propaganda is also a book written by Edward L. Bernays in 1928. It is rivaled, in my opinion, only by Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as far as modern books on behavioral science go.
TIP: You can see another more conspiracy oriented take on Bernays here. I strongly disagree with the conspiracy take on Bernays, after all, Bernays specifically sheds light on conspiracy and clearly lays out his tactics for others. That said, there is a fun rabbit hole to go down if that is your thing. You can also check out “Noam Chomsky on Edward Bernays and the Advertising industry” or “Manufacturing Consent – Noam Chomsky” for another look at social engineering (the overarching field in which “engineering consent” falls under).
Edward Bernays is an important figure in marketing, he popularized modern Propaganda and Public Relations. Today we can consider Edward Bernays the father of public relations (which in many ways makes him the father of modern advertising and marketing, and other arts like social engineering).
Was Bernays Good or Bad?
Neither Bernays nor propaganda is good or bad, but neither are they easy to explain in a talking point. Thus, we often conveniently avoid uttering them on the public stage.
Bernays studied the complex relationship between human psychology, democracy, and corporations, and wrote a handbook for those mechanics; he didn’t invent the relationships he just shed light on them.
Bernays’ intentions were good enough. He wanted to influence people for their good through marketing using group social psychology. To use propaganda to effectively advance social issues like women’s rights, education, and social services. The question then becomes, “when one has the power to influence society for good, can we call the utilizing of this power ‘bad,’ or expect it not to be used? Is it our understanding, and not the actions of others, that need an examination?”
At his core, Bernays wanted to advance western democracy, and that is commendable and even admirable. He recognized that he wasn’t alone and that many loosely or unconnected groups had this same goal throughout human history. He wrote a handbook for all “modern propagandists” who wanted to read it. From 1928 on, history had been quietly changed for the first time as the non-elite class gained access to the handbook of the art of social influence (social engineering).
Bernays helped America win the war with his personal public relation campaigns. He influenced you to eat bacon and eggs in the morning, and that is not bad. He is also the reason water is fluoridated, and the reason women smoke.
Bernays was not particularly idealistic when it came to taking consulting contracts, although his written work is a good deal more idealistic than his actions. When he consulted, his ideas were applied to both positive and negative forces.
Good and bad aside, his ideas are just as powerful today as they were in a time before social media and the internet.
The word propaganda has been viewed in a negative light since WWII, hence today’s more common use of the term public relations. Ultimately, however, Bernays theories of propaganda, public relations, and marketing aren’t inherently good or bad.
It’s not the tools you have; it is how you use them. Such is the nature of the world.
With this in mind. I invite you to watch this documentary about the master of propaganda, the man behind nearly every marketing campaign of the 20th century (at least in spirit), Edward Louis James Bernays.
Edward Bernays the man was complex, and so was his work. With this in mind, Propaganda and his other books get at one of the most important points to grasp in life: “rhetoric can and will be used”.
You can understand it, guard against it, employ it, or ignore it. But one thing is for sure, if it isn’t used as a tool of the just, then it will be used to great effect as the tool of the unjust. Or at least, so says history.
Better than to look past the negative connotations, and focus on Aristotle’s concept of rhetoric being a technology of the good in an effort to steer the ship toward virtue. One has to remember that, before WWII, propaganda was less a dirty word and more a book released to the public that described clearly the technologies of social influence.
“Every Art and Science is the aim of some good… So then, if there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object.
It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term. ” – Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 350 BC
“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. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.
Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet.
They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons—a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million—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.” – Edward Bernays’s Propaganda 1928
Author: Thomas DeMichele
Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind ObamaCareFacts.com, FactMyth.com, CryptocurrencyFacts.com, and other DogMediaSolutions.com and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...