Subverting the Truth: April 13, 1917 (a Friday)

On this date, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th U.S. president, created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) as an independent agency by Executive Order 2594. 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.

'Enlist U.S. Army' is the caption of this World War I propaganda poster for enlistment in the US Army.

‘Enlist U.S. Army’ is the caption of this World War I propaganda poster for enlistment in the US Army.

George Creel, director of the CPI, recruited publicity agent Edward L. Bernays, journalist Walter Lippmann, and others to carry out its mission of reversing negative public sentiment about the Great War, now known as World War I. Bernays was influential in promoting the idea that America’s war efforts were primarily aimed at “bringing democracy to all of Europe”.

The CPI used a number of techniques to dehumanize the enemy and to promote anti-German sentiment in the United States with the goal of encouraging people to support the war “over there”. Atrocities committed by the other side were reported in detail and sometimes with unreliable facts, while questions about the activity of American forces and their allies were suppressed.

The committee’s propaganda and censorship worked beyond all expectations. Mobs lynched German Americans. Nearly 5,000 were jailed for being of German descent. Businesses barred people with German names from working for them. People were coerced into buying war bonds to prove their loyalty. Many people changed their names. For example, Mueller became Miller.

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. (Propaganda, 1928)

Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Freud divided the mind into the conscious mind, which consists of all the mental processes of which we are aware, and the unconscious mind, which contains irrational, biologically-based instincts for the primitive urges for sex and aggression. Combining the ideas of Gustave Le Bon (The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, 1895) and Wilfred Trotter (Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, 1916) on crowd psychology with the ideas of his uncle, Bernays was one of the first to attempt to manipulate public opinion by appealing to, and attempting to influence, the unconscious. He felt this manipulation was necessary in society, which he regarded as irrational and dangerous as a result of the “herd instinct”.

Bernays’ basic idea was that human behavior is driven more by emotion than by logic and that by harnessing that emotion at a group level you could get people to do what you wanted them to do. In Propaganda, he wrote, “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Bernays believed that to maintain order the populace must be kept docile, and in order to be kept docile, people must be kept content, happy. Or at least, be told that they’re happy. The real irony is that in order to convince them of their contentment, Bernays’ method manipulated their mindsets in such a way as to ensure that they could never be contented. He ensured that people would instead be in endless pursuit of happiness. From that point on, no matter how competent a product might be, it could never satisfy people indefinitely. Only their endless search for the elusive one that might satisfy them indefinitely could possibly keep them placid.

The creation of consumerism didn’t mean people were satisfied; instead they were offered satisfaction as a goal to aim for. A goal where the posts can be continually and cunningly moved just beyond reach. In 1929 Charles F. Kettering, director of General Motors, wrote in an article entitled “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied” that the “key to economic prosperity is the organized creation of dissatisfaction…If everyone were satisfied no one would want to buy the new thing.”

Edward Bernays: “Torches of Freedom”

Bernays’ method served a greater purpose than domestic tranquility. The Great War spurred the development of mass production techniques to supply huge quantities of war material. After the war, industry could produce consumer goods in much greater quantities and for less. For example, Henry Ford pioneered the mass production of automobiles — in the 1920s, his assembly lines dramatically lowered the cost of an automobile so that millions could afford them. However, those running the corporations were worried about overproduction — that people might actually stop buying things once they had what they needed. “We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture,” wrote Wall Street banker Paul Mazur (Harvard Business Review, 1927). “People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” Bernays claimed he was the first to tell car companies they could sell cars as a symbol of male sexuality.

In his work for major corporations, one of Bernays’ most spectacular successes was to help break the taboo against women smoking. George Hill, the President of the American Tobacco corporation, asked Bernays to find a way to break it. A.A. Brille was one of the first psychoanalysts in America. And for a large fee he told Bernays that cigarettes were a symbol of the penis and of male sexual power. Women smoking challenged male sexual identity so much that men were sub-consciously keeping women from smoking. He told Bernays that if he could find a way to connect cigarettes with the idea of challenging male power, then women would smoke because then they would have their own penises.

That gave Bernays the idea to hire beautiful young girls to burst out of several different churches along the route of the 1929 Easter Day 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. Bernays saw that it was news, not advertising, that would get the message to the people and told the press that there was going to be a protest that day on “lighting the torch of freedom”. Half the city’s reporters and photographers were there when they rounded the corner on main street. It was his phrase that hit the headlines – squarely positioning smoking with female independence and liberty.

From that moment on, smoking was seen as a sign of freedom for women. This was a classic appeal to the emotional rather than the rational. It is quite clear that smoking does not make you free (probably a more appropriate slogan for the washing machine or the pill), but the association made women feel powerful, and it stuck. The numbers of women taking up the habit shot through the roof.

Who knew socks could seem so sexy? Interwoven advertisement, circa 1927, by Joseph Christian Leyendecker.

Who knew socks could seem so sexy? Interwoven advertisement, circa 1927, by Joseph Christian Leyendecker.

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. Buying things because they say something about us, or make us feel a certain way, was a complete transformation in the 1920s when most selling was done on the basis of information and function. Bernays spent a lifetime helping companies connect with the “irrational emotion” of their customer.

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.

The objective for Bernays was to provide government and media outlets with powerful tools for social persuasion and control. In an article entitled “The Engineering of Consent” (1947) he argued, “The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.” But all of this had little, if anything, to do with real democracy. Adolf Hitler learned from the CPI; he wrote in Mein Kampf (1925) admiringly that “the war propaganda of the English and Americans was psychologically correct…There, propaganda was regarded as a weapon of the first order, while in our country it was the last resort of unemployed politicians and a comfortable haven for slackers. And, as was to be expected, its results all in all were zero.” In fact, so impressed was Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels with Bernays’ early works Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda that he 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-supported overthrow of the democratically-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 [1954], 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. In 1820, Jefferson wrote in a letter to William C. Jarvis:

I know of no safe depository of the ultimate power of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.

Communication between citizens was assumed to be a necessary element of the democratic process. But 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.

It was the idea of Bernays to sell warfare as the spreading of democracy, an idea that rules the American thought process to this very day. The amazing power of this campaign can be seen a full hundred years later, as the most common reason given by heads of state for military intervention abroad is to “bring democracy”, whether it is Europe, Asia, or the Middle East. The region is irrelevant, the only goal is to bend the will and thoughts of society about the necessity of a particular event. Democracy works so well as a rallying cry because it boosts the mental image of the recipient of the propaganda, giving the illusion that the collective group is already extremely lucky to “have democracy”, and also that those who want to bring democracy elsewhere are performing a noble and needed thing, for the benefit of humanity. Thus, once the propaganda has taken hold in the collective mind, anyone putting forth a different viewpoint, is seen as “against democracy”, or against the essential tenets of the society in which they reside.

Just as troubling, Bernays realized that the same technique could be used for selling products, by appealing to the emotions rather than to the intellect. 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 one!) In the November 1924 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, journalist Samuel Strauss lamented, “Something new has come to confront American democracy… [T]he American citizen’s first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer.” Rail and airline passengers become “consumers” of the service called “transport”; one attends university classes as a consumer (of the degree, not the knowledge); and a visit to a doctor is for the purpose of consuming medical care.

More recently, soon after the September 11 attacks, members of the Bush administration exhorted Americans to demonstrate their patriotism by maintaining high levels of consumer spending. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt proclaimed that Americans were “not giving up on America, they’re not giving up on our markets.” Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill said, “We’re going to show we have backbone.” President Bush declared that the American economy was “open for business,” and Vice President Cheney urged Americans to “stick their thumb in the eye of the terrorists and…not let what’s happened here in any way throw off their normal level of economic activity.” Interestingly, in his memoir Decision Points (pp 443-4), which was published in 2010, Bush commented, “Later, I would be mocked and criticized for telling Americans to ‘go shopping’ after 9/11. I never actually used that phrase, but that’s beside the point. In the threat-filled months after 9/11, traveling on airplanes, visiting tourist destinations, and, yes, going shopping, were acts of defiance and patriotism.”

Newsweek cover, 23 March 2009.

Newsweek cover, 23 March 2009.

Treating people as consumers and convincing them that this is their existential role has profound political implications. First, it objectifies one’s fellow citizens. He/she is not a person but a provider of a commercial service on demand, such as transportation, a college degree, or medical care. Second, and implied by the first, no social interaction is expected between the “provider” and the “consumer”. Third, since people are buyers, it is in their interest that they buy at the lowest possible price. The consequence of the three is that the transaction, be it for transport, schooling, or medical aid, is an exchange in which the buyer views the seller as a thing that conveys a commodity. Finally, for a consumer, paying taxes to the government is an involuntary reduction in the income available to spend on commodities. The government thereby denies consumers part of what brings them fulfillment — income to spend on commodities — which is why so many people today view the government not as “us” but as “them”. In a nutshell, the governing impulse of the consumer is “I want.”

The word “citizen” has its roots in the word “city” – an inhabitant of a city, a member of a community. As a member of a community, being a citizen means being part of something bigger than oneself by participating in it. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, everything and everyone is interconnected, interdependent. To a citizen, the provider of a commercial service is a fellow worker and participant in civil society. The transaction between the two is an exchange in which the buyer views the seller as a fellow citizen, an equal with basic human rights, among which is being paid decently. It takes no great insight to realize that obtaining commodities as cheaply as possible implies driving down one’s own income. And a citizen is not “buying healthcare”, but is making sure everyone in his/her community is healthy, because if there is sickness, it is bad for everyone, including oneself. It is equally obvious that minimizing taxes implies minimizing those activities and functions, such as public education, that create a society from a collection of isolated individuals. The governing impulse of the citizen is “we need.”

So, the next time you hear a news reporter on television or radio inform you that the cost of healthcare reform is “borne by the taxpayer”, or improved wages for teachers “will increase our taxes”, realize that you are being fed a not-very-subtle political message: you live alone; you need feel no responsibility for other members of society; and collective action for social improvement reduces your happiness. In other words, you are a consumer, not a citizen.


  • Alan Axelrod, Profiles of Folly: History’s Worst Decisions and Why They Went Wrong (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2008).
  • Edward L. Bernays, Crystallizing Public Opinion (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923).
  • —————–, Propaganda (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 1928).
  • —————–, The engineering of consent. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science No. 250, p. 113 (March 1947).
  • The Century of the Self, 2002. Film. Directed by Adam Curtis. England: BBC Four. Transcript here.
  • Sigmund Freud. (1912) A note on the unconscious in psychoanalysis, in The Standard Edition [SE] of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Vintage, 1999) vol. 12: 260-6.
  • —————–. (1915) The unconscious, in SE (Vintage, 1999) vol. 14: 159-204.
  • —————–. (1916-1917) Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis, in SE (Vintage, 1999) vol. 22: 1-182.
  • Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Charles Jarvis, September 28, 1820. Quoted in “A Short Exercise for the Fourth of July”, Putnam’s Monthly Magazine of American Literature, Science and Art, vol. 10, no. 55, pp. 103-4 (July 1857).
  • Stewart Justman. Freud and his nephew. Social Research 61: 457–476 (1994).
  • Charles F. Kettering. Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied. Nation’s Business 17, no. 1: 30–31, 79 (January 1929).
  • Paul Mazur, American Prosperity: Its Causes and Consequences (New York, NY: Viking Press, 1928), pp. 24, 44, 47, 50.
  • John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (Common Courage Press, 2002). [But remember: there are some very important people counting on you, and they really would prefer that you didn’t ever hear about this book, much less buy it.]
  • Samuel Strauss. Things Are in the Saddle. The Atlantic Monthly 134: 577-88 (November 1924).
  • Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of PR (Crown, 1998).
  • Woodrow Wilson: “Executive Order 2594 – Creating Committee on Public Information,” April 13, 1917. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. Retrieved from

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