Saturday, 24 December 2011

Engineering Consent

Edward Bernays is most famous for introducing the concept of manipulating public opinion for profit. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays dreamt up a number of breathtaking techniques that have changed the way opinions are formed, and ideas sold, using the mass media.

In an essay called Engineering Consent he wrote,  "entire populations, which are undisciplined or lacking in intellectual or definite moral principles, are vulnerable to unconscious influence and susceptible to want things that they do not need."

Bernay's first major triumph, in the field of advertising, was in the campaign to persuade women to smoke. At the time, the 1920's, there was a taboo against women smoking. Bernays cleverly associated women's smoking with the campaign for votes for women. Totally spuriously, he propagated  the idea women campaigning for the right to vote considered the cigarette the symbol of their cause, the Torch of Freedom.

Bernay paid women to smoke in public and took photographs of them. These were always attractive women, but carefully chosen not to look like models. The newspapers were supplied with these pictures along with explanatory copy which they could use free of charge. Interestingly, this led to genuine campaigners for women's votes picking up on the cigarette campaign and eventually endorsing it.

Since 1920, when Bernay's techniques were still called propaganda, opinion manipulation has gone from strength to strength. The Nazis excelled at such matters, so well in fact that they brought the word into disrepute and Bernays had to come up with a new term, Public Relations, to replace propaganda.

In earlier times advertising had been about announcing the latest products and their features. But now the owners of the big manufacturing companies, and the banks, wanted people to buy more than merely what they needed, they must now desire things. With Bernays help, through the manipulation of irrational desire,  the consumer was invented.

Paul Mazer, a Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in the 1930s, said, "We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. ... Man's desires must overshadow his needs.Bernay's, with his Freudian connections, linked sex to marketing and soon American car ads showed couples enjoying almost orgasmic delight over their new car purchases.   

Eventually all political campaigns latched on to public relations and by 1997 Britain's Labour Party had fully embraced the marketing model to the extent that actual, fundamental policies, in particular Clause 4 (which is to say the principles of socialism), were abandoned. Because the two main parties in Britain have well entrenched support the New Labour campaign of 1997 concentrated first on identifying the 'swing' voters, those who might or might not  support Labour, depending on policies. When typical swing voters were identified they were invited to join focus groups and policies that would please the focus group were determined. From this Labour's campaign was developed. 

This strategy of using focus groups, (tell me what you want, what you really, really want) is now used to market everything from movies to cake mix. It doesn't just identify what the voters want, or rather what the focus group wants, it actually comes to change the product. Nowadays movies are 'test screened' so that the producers can decide which of a variety of endings is most satisfactory. And so too were New Labour policies test marketed, to see what would engender the most votes. 

Of course, some causes are not negotiable. Support for unpopular wars must still be 'sold' to the public. And certain agendas, for example, are promoted by strong vested interests. These days the media is saturated with input from armies of special interest groups, not just political parties, each promoting a particular cause.

Neom Chomsky, the linguistics expert and liberal has gone to lengths to identify how public opinion is manipulated, for both political and consumer marketing ends.  

Chomsky refers to the Bought Priesthood, the technocrats, columnists, pundits, university professors, intellectuals and business lobbyists  who benefit from the political status quo and use their position to defend and support it. Chomsky argues that all mass media news comes ready filtered, for our consumption, via the Propaganda Model. 

Filter 1, Ownership. 
The ownership of mainstream media is concentrated into a decreasing number of growth orientated, profit motivated clusters. The BBC cannot be excluded from this group, as in order to maintain funding they have to keep the government of the day on side. As Jon Pilger wrote, "The BBC began in 1922, just before the corporate press began in America.  In the same year the British establishment was under siege. The unions had called a general strike and the Tories were terrified that a revolution was on the way. The new BBC came to their rescue. In high secrecy, Lord Reith wrote anti-union speeches for the Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and broadcast them to the nation, while refusing to allow the labor leaders to put their side until the strike was over."

Filter 2, Advertising. 
Stories that conflict with a "buying mood", will tend to be excluded, along with information that presents a picture of the world that collides with advertisers' interests.

Filter 3, Sourcing. 
All news media have to maintain their sources, they have to keep in good favour with government spokespeople in order to maintain the flow of news.

Filter 4 Flak. 
The US-based Global Climate Coalition (GCC) - comprising fossil fuel and automobile companies such as Exxon, Texaco and Ford is a typical flak machine. The GCC was started up by Burson-Marsteller, one of the world's largest public relations companies, to attack the credibility of climate scientists and promote the notion that the climate scientists were producing 'scare stories' about global warming. 

Filter 5, originally, Anti-communism and fear. 
This filter speaks of the selecting of bogeymen, originally communists but lately any group who might be accused of possibly having a terrorist agenda. The recent Occupy Wall Street group have already started to share this demonisation. As Chomsky puts it, "the way artificial fears are created is with a dual purpose... partly to get rid of people you don't like but partly to frighten the rest. Because if people are frightened, they will accept authority."   

Watching a recent clip from Christopher Hitchens, he made the amusing observation that at 250 dollars a year a subscription to the Washington Post is way too much. As it's largely an organ of government propaganda it should be free to all taxpayers. (British readers can change that to the Daily Telegraph or the Guardian) 

As the Czech novelist Zdener Urbanek put it. "In dictatorships we are more fortunate that you in the West in one respect. We believe nothing of what we read in the newspapers and nothing of what we watch on television, because we know its propaganda and lies. Unlike you in the West, we've learned to look behind the propaganda and to read between the lines, and unlike you, we know that the real truth is always subversive."


  1. I watch what comes up in the news very careful and pay close attention to the way it is presented. A number of years ago as the abortion debate in the US was heating up and the Republicans were planning to overturn Roe vs. Wade, an obscure news story grabbed national headlines about a young housewife who was at first missing and then found dead. What struck me as odd was that her murder was not described as her murder it was always phrased as "the murder of Lacie Peterson and her unborn child" because she had been pregnant. I saw this constant posting of this in the news as a way to raise public ire against abortion rights without directly referring to the hot topic of abortion.

    Another type of news story that pops up frequently and I think it is used to keep women's rights in check with an instilled cultural fear is the story of the beautiful young college girl who goes to some exotic location, gets wild, and ends up dead. These stories pop up like clock work and the message is always she was a good girl if she just hadn't strayed she would still be alive. These are stories of fear.

    I could go on and on so much of the news cultivates the way that people are supposed to think, much of it by generating fear.

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