By Dennis Lewis
When Edward Bernays, proclaimed by many as the father of public relations, published his book Propaganda in 1928, few people realized the far reaching influence that the new discipline of public relations would have on society. Propaganda, Bernays claims, is not something pernicious that one government or group inflicts on another, but is rather an integral part of democracy itself.
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” said Bernays, who, perhaps appropriately, is the great grandson of Freud. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
Living in a so-called free market democracy, we are besieged with choices of all kinds in our daily lives—from the products and services we buy for home and business, to the activities that we undertake for entertainment and relaxation, to the politicians and government amendments we vote for, to the ideas that bring us motivation and meaning. Bernays points out that as citizens we have “voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high‑spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.”
If this was true in in Bernays’ time, it is even truer today. The ever-growing influence of the mass media, combined with the ability of inexpensive powerful computer technology to manipulate huge databases of information and images and to communicate this data almost instantaneously worldwide, has spurred the move from a industrial society to an information society. There is simply no way that any one of us can keep up with and interpret all the information that is required for sound decisions in the many arenas of our lives. Whether we like it or not, we depend on the “special pleading,” the “propaganda,” the “public relations” of communications experts, mostly invisible, to bring to our attention the products, services, people, facts, and ideas that fit in best with our own specific social, psychological, political, and economic situations. These invisible experts, who include advertising and public relations professionals, newspaper editors, book publishers, movie producers, government officials, TV editors and anchormen, and so on thus have a tremendous influence in our lives.
Though most of us would agree—at least intellectually—that this is all obvious and true, we live our lives as though it were not. We assume, for the most part, that we are the masters of ourselves and that in issues of real importance we are able to discriminate between these outside influences and our real needs and beliefs—between hype and reality. Such an assumption is questionable, however, when we realize that from early childhood on, almost everything we eat, buy, use, or read has been shaped or packaged for us by a member of this invisible government.
The fact is, Bernays takes his ideas much further than many of us would like. He states that “We are governed, our minds our molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” And he then proceeds in this and other books to lay out the formal mechanism by which propaganda can be used to meet the needs of a democratic society.
Propaganda, along with the special pleading it depends on, has been around since the beginning of time. But in the past—before the advent of the mass media—it was clear who was doing the pleading and for what purpose. Radio, television, newspapers, motion pictures, and lately computers have changed all that. Propaganda of one sort or another has become so much a part of our lives that we don’t even recognize it as such. As Lao Tzu said, “the best knots are tied without rope.”
Of course, one could easily say that we in the west are better off than people living in communist countries or under dictatorships, because their propaganda is far more rigid and insidious than our own. This argument is a misleading one, however, for the simple reason that their propaganda is more visible and easier to perceive than our own. By its very nature, a democratic society offers so many choices to its citizens that we would have neither the time nor the energy to narrow them down without a whole industry of communications professionals dedicated to just that. Our propagandists do not use rope, barbed wire, mental hospitals, and the militia to make their point; no—they use the latest communication techniques disseminated through the print and electronic media in the guise of “giving us what we really want.”
What is truly pernicious about much of the propaganda that surrounds us in the west is the very “reasonableness” of it—the way in which we are taught to believe that it somehow represents our real needs. For the goal of a propagandist—no matter what his or her stripe—is to make a sale of some kind by seeking to convince us that they understand our inner or outer needs and goals and are responding to them. In this regard, a newspaper editor or TV anchorman trying to tell the news in a way that will attract readers or watchers is no better or worse than a public relations professional attempting to improve the public’s perception of a company or product.
What is important in either case is that we, the public, begin to understand this process better so that we begin to differentiate between what we really want and what we’ve been conditioned to want by the invisible government competing for our share of mind and money. Such a differentiation is an important step on the path of self-knowledge and in the struggle for inner freedom.