On this date, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, created the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The CPI blended advertising techniques with a sophisticated understanding of human psychology, and its efforts represent the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda on such a large scale. It is fascinating that this phenomenon, often linked with totalitarian regimes, emerged in a democratic state.
Edward L. Bernays and journalistic giant Walter Lippman had come to Woodrow Wilson’s assistance in 1917 to reverse negative public sentiment about war. These two behind-the-curtain wizards were indispensable in helping the president whip gun-shy America into an anti-German frenzy to go “over there” for the first World War. Bernays created the patriotic war slogan “Make the World Safe for Democracy”.
Edward Bernays: “Torches of Freedom”
After WW I, Bernays took the techniques he learned in the CPI directly to Madison Avenue and became an outspoken proponent of propaganda as a tool for democratic government. “It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind,” wrote Bernays in Propaganda, published in 1928. “It was only natural, after the war ended, that intelligent persons should ask themselves whether it was not possible to apply a similar technique to the problems of peace.” He also wrote:
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.… 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…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind. (ibid.)
Bernays set to work for major corporations, with one of his most spectacular successes being to help break the taboo against women smoking. Through psycho-analytical methods, Bernays determined that smoking gave women a symbol of the penis and it challenged male sexual identity so much that men were sub-consciously keeping women from smoking. That gave Bernays the idea to hire beautiful young girls to burst out of several different churches along the route of the 1929 Easter Parade in New York City and light up. He carefully instructed them to walk arm in arm at the front of the parade, puffing away. He made sure half the city’s reporters and photographers were there when they rounded the corner on main street. The next day, articles written by Bernays were published all over the country accompanied by giant pictures, exclaiming the brave virtues of these young girls and their “torches of freedom”. Anyone criticizing the idea of women smoking would now appear to be against freedom, and the numbers of women taking up the habit shot through the roof.
After this success, Lehman Brothers and other big New York banks financed the development of department stores, confident that they could use the techniques pioneered by Bernays to persuade people to purchase a range of products that left to themselves they may very well not have bothered with. This period also saw the introduction of the techniques of product placement and psuedo-scientific product endorsement so familiar to us today.
But the peacetime application by the government of what was, after all, a tool of war, began to trouble Americans who suspected that they had been misled. In The New Republic, John Dewey questioned the paternalistic assumptions of those who disguised propaganda as news. “There is uneasiness and solicitude about what men hear and learn,” wrote Dewey, and the “paternalistic care for the source of men’s beliefs, once generated by war, carries over to the troubles of peace.” Dewey argued that the manipulation of information was particularly evident in coverage of post-Revolutionary Russia.
All of this had little, if anything, to do with real democracy. The objective for Bernays was to provide government and media outlets with powerful tools for social persuasion and control, what he proudly referred to as the “engineering of consent.” As a matter of fact, so impressed was he with Bernays’ early works Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels relied heavily upon them for his own dubious inspiration in the 1930s. Apparently, that Bernays was a Jew mattered little to Goebbels.
Ironically, Bernays’ propaganda campaign for the United Fruit Company (today’s United Brands) in the 1950s had consequences just as evil and terrifying as if he’d worked directly for the Nazis — it led directly to the CIA’s overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala.
The term “banana republic” actually originated in reference to United Fruit’s domination of corrupt governments in Guatemala and other Central American countries. The company brutally exploited virtual slave labor in order to produce cheap bananas for the lucrative U.S. market. When a mildly reformist Guatemala government attempted to reign in the company’s power, Bernays whipped up media and political sentiment against it in the early years of the Cold War.
“Articles began appearing in the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Atlantic Monthly, Time, Newsweek, the New Leader, and other publications all discussing the growing influence of Guatemala’s Communists,” wrote Larry Tye in The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of PR (1998). “The fact that liberal journals like the Nation were also coming around was especially satisfying to Bernays, who believed that winning the liberals over was essential. . . . At the same time, plans were under way to mail to American Legion posts and auxiliaries 300,000 copies of a brochure entitled ‘Communism in Guatemala — 22 Facts.’”
Edward Bernays: How to Sell a War
Bernays’ efforts led directly to a brutal military coup. Tye wrote that Bernays “remained a key source of information for the press, especially the liberal press, right through the takeover. In fact, as the invasion was commencing on June 18 , his personal papers indicate he was giving the ‘first news anyone received on the situation’ to the Associated Press, United Press, the International News Service, and the New York Times, with contacts intensifying over the next several days.”
The result, tragically, was decades of tyranny under a Guatemalan government whose brutality rivaled the Nazis as it condemned hundreds of thousands of people (mostly members of the country’s impoverished Maya Indian majority) to dislocation, torture and death. “The propaganda war Bernays waged in Guatemala set the pattern for future U.S.-led campaigns in Cuba and, much later, Vietnam,” according to Tye. Bernays apparently never regretted his work for United Fruit.
Democratic theory, as interpreted by Jefferson and Paine, was rooted in the Enlightenment belief that free citizens could form respectable opinions about issues of the day and use these opinions to guide their own destiny. Communication between citizens was assumed to be a necessary element of the democratic process. During World War I, America’s leaders felt that citizens were not making the correct decisions quickly enough, so they flooded the channels of communication with dishonest messages that were designed to stir up emotions and provoke hatred of Germany. The war came to an end, but propaganda did not. For almost a century now, those who lead our nation, along with those who seek to overthrow it, have mouthed the ideals of Jefferson while behaving like Bernays.
Just as troubling, Bernays realized that selling to the intellect was not nearly as effective as selling to the emotions. He helped to shift America from a needs-based economy to a culture of desire. No, you do not logically need a new car — but just think of how much better you are going to feel when you have the car! Our society has stopped manufacturing “goods” since World War I while we have been cranking out “desires” ever since.