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Propaganda by Edward Bernays explores the idea of convincing people to want things they didn’t need. The author coins the term ‘engineering of consent’ which essentially involves controlling the masses without them being aware they are being manipulated. The book has powerful ideas that are an accurate reflection of public relations, celebrity culture, advertising, and democracy, and so should be exploited by actors in these respective fields. And even though at first sight many will think, as is the conception that propaganda is often associated with evil, the author proves otherwise. It is an aspect that can also be exploited for the common good.
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘propaganda’? The extent to which this word impacts you depends on your interests in life. If you are entrepreneurial-focused, your mind probably runs to the many manipulative marketing messages floating all over us. If you are into politics, the idea of propaganda most likely strikes a chord that reminds you of the likes of Hitler and his evil message against the Jews. Either case classifies as propaganda, but is that what Edward Bernays meant in his 1928 book Propaganda?
According to the author, propaganda entails controlling how the public sees an idea, a group, or business. Bernays argues that you must understand propaganda if you are to have a better grasp of human nature and democracy. This is a tool that you can use to build a professional reputation and spread your ideas.
Human reactions can be predicted and manipulated
It is human nature to be emotional. Most of our decisions and actions are emotional as opposed to being rational and logical. Even if we have hard facts right in front of us, we will end up choosing based on our feelings. And the fact that this is our nature, it means that our reactions can be predicted, thus manipulated.
This is something that Bernays understood pretty well while writing his book Propaganda. He notes that “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the masses is an important element in a democratic society.” If you gain this manipulative power, you can direct the masses to do just about anything.
One would easily concur with the author’s assertions. Think of Hitler’s days and his evil message against the Jews. Hitler understood that by portraying the Jews as being less of humans, he could get the Germans to attack them and help him achieve his end goal. Yes, he whipped up the sentiments of his compatriots to build up a xenophobic mindset against the Jews, even though he failed at the end.
And it is not just in Germany that propaganda took center-stage during the World War II era. The Fascists in Italy and the Communists in Russia also made effective use of it. And across the sea, posters were being printed in the United States. These posters sparked patriotism amongst Americans and instigated hatred against the enemy. Such posters portrayed the image of good and evil, whereby America was the ultimate culmination of good. Judging by the way things turned out, the architects of such messages justified Edward Bernays’ writings that propaganda is the mother of public relations.
Such manipulation can be seen in our society in several ways. Since social media has become a major part of our everyday life, several reports often indicate Facebook manipulates users’ emotions for science. The platform is even described as the best human research lab that doesn’t require participants to sign pesky consent forms.
The invisible government
Democracy is defined as the rule by people. It involves people going to the ballot and freely and by their will electing an individual, they want to lead them for a specific period. You could have direct democracy where citizens vote directly on every issue. Similarly, there could be representative democracy, in which case the citizens choose representatives among themselves. These representatives then meet and form a governing body like a legislature.
It is important at this point to detail how democracy works is because Edward Bernays considers propaganda to be such a powerful tool that it penetrates through democracy and corrupts it. According to the author, the whole setup of democracy is in such a way that we need someone who helps us understand important issues. This is what makes voting easy. That is, you will choose a particular candidate because they stand (or claim to stand) for given issues.
Edward Bernays describes these people who bring issues to us as the invisible government. Whether they eventually get the elective posts they want or not, they are still a government to their followers. That is so since they are a representation of the values that you believe in. The author notes that we have voluntarily allowed the invisible government control over our data such that they are in charge of our choices.
Take the Roman Catholic Church which controls over a billion Christian around the globe. The church is essentially not that much of a government. However, it could still fall under the description of the invisible government in that it manipulates the unseen mechanism of society. The church itself has been involved in propaganda campaigns, most notably under Pope Gregory XV, who created the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. The activities of this group of cardinals were marred with manipulative messages to spread the faith.
Even though the idea of an invisible government may scare many, Bernays simply references how democracy and the church works. At each given moment there is a group of people who direct public opinion; it could be religious leaders, journalists, politicians, and other influencers.
Is influencer marketing that new?
Influencer marketing involves getting a group of people to buy your product because a prominent or popular person in society says it is cool. Social media has made the world a global village. This means that we have more access to our celebrities. Most people would do anything that these prominent people of society tell them to do.
Such a trend has led to the emergence of influencer marketing where businesses are rushing to have their products endorsed by those with huge social media following. As new as the term might be, it seems like the concept has been around longer than we imagined. Some talk about persuasive advertisement. Even in the book Propaganda that is more than 100 years old, Bernays talks about it!
The author argues that if you want to sell, you should not struggle to convince people that your product is the best. Rather, determine the most influential person in your target audience and then get them to recommend your product. He refers to this strategy as ‘the new salesmanship’. In essence, this is what we call today ‘influencer marketing’.
Influencer marketing works because society believes that whatever a prominent person recommends is the best. Whereas that is not always true, businesses are still able to achieve their end goal. However, one is forced to think whether doing so is ethical. Isn’t it unfair to make others buy a product that even yourself wouldn’t use?
Whether or not it is right to do so, Bernays proves that this is not a new concept. He also considers it to be some kind of propaganda initiative, which is, of course, found.
Role of the media in spreading propaganda
A politician, religious leader, or any other influential person may have some propaganda message to share out. But how will it reach the masses? This is exactly where the media comes in.
In the case of World War II, posters used to be pinned all over where the target audience could easily see. Traces of the same approach could be seen during the American Revolution. Even in modern-day society, the media is still dependent upon this negative connotation. Take the case of North Korea and its ballistic missile tests. The state media often cover these events to portray its leader, Kim Jong-Un, as a fearless individual who can stand up to the United States. The end goal is to influence the points of view of the country’s residents.
Bernays believes that any means of human communication can be used to swell propaganda, given that the word propaganda simply involves creating a reciprocal understanding between the parties involved. He references public meetings as the best places for that to happen.
However, the emergence of radio, social media, television, newspaper, and other technological innovations replaced public meetings. These new channels of communication are equally good at this marketing strategy.
Movies can equally not be ignored in the whole propaganda spreading encounters. One thing about movies is that they tell the story of a hero, someone that most viewers admire and identify with. Thus, this person can easily influence their opinions, something we have seen happen quite a lot with Hollywood.
The title of this book itself is enough to make you want to read it. It leaves you wondering what it is all about. You might find yourself wondering what type of propaganda the author is talking about.
Once one begins reading it, things begin to get more interesting as the author captures the true state of society. Right from the way the government manipulates the masses’ opinion for the implementation of its strategies to how businesses operate sneakily for profit, this book does justice to the term propaganda. Bernays shows us that propaganda does not have to be evil. , Propaganda shares the knowledge that influential and regular persons will find worth considering.