Living in the Age of Propaganda Part 1

By Barbara With

Much has been written about Edward Bernays and the origins of propaganda. The word literally means that which is to be spread or promoted widely. Originating in the Catholic Church in the 1600s when the Congregation for Propagating the Faith was written to spread the Catholic faith, various forms of propaganda have been used throughout history.

But the roots of the today’s modern age of propaganda began in the early part of the 20th century, when Sigmund Freud was delving into a study of the subconscious.

Sigmund Freud, 1921

Freud concluded at the time that all humans had dark and aggressive forces hidden inside their minds that, if not controlled, could lead individuals and even societies into chaos and destruction. He developed a process to explore these subconscious influences known today as psychoanalysis.

Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays was the first to use psychoanalysis to create propaganda. Bernays was strongly influenced by Walter Lippman, a leading political writer who theorized that if human beings were really driven by unconscious, irrational forces, it was necessary to rethink democracy. He proposed a new elite who could manage the bewildered herd using psychological techniques that could control the unconscious feelings of the masses. In this new mass democracy, at its heart would be the consuming self, focusing on economy and work, making money to consume the needed products to keep them happy and docile, thus creating a stable society.

The selling of WWI

Edward Bernays

In 1914, the Austrian-Hungarian empire was leading Europe into what was to become World War I. Freud saw this tragic and bloody war as proof that his findings were correct: European governments seemed to have unleashed the primitive forces in human beings, and no one knew how to stop them.

In 1917, Bernays was working as a press agent for Enrico Caruso, who was touring the U.S. As a part of the war effort, the U.S. government set up a “Committee on Public Information” and hired Bernays to drive the public to accept U.S. entry into the war.

To that end, President Woodrow Wilson was given a new slogan that Bernays created: the U.S. would fight to “make the world safe for democracy.” He was exceptionally skillful at promoting this propaganda both at home and abroad, and it is still used today to push the American public to accept the U.S. entry into wars.

At the end of WWI, Bernays attended the Paris Peace Conference and was shocked to see Wilson being received as a liberator of the people. Their propaganda had apparently worked to convince the French that Wilson was about to create a new world of democracy. As he watched the cheering crowds surround Wilson, Bernays began to wonder if he could do this in peace time.

Public Relations

Back home, the U.S. had become a mass industrial society. Bernays wanted to find a way to manage these new crowds and experiment with altering the way they thought and felt. So he turned to Freud.

Using theories outlined in his uncle’s book General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Bernays theorized that the way to control the masses was not by presenting factual evidence and appealing to their intellects, but by tapping into their irrational emotions. By linking mass-produced products to their unconscious, unfulfilled desire, people could become “happy and docile.” Thus began the era of the “consumer,” one that continues to dominate the world today.

Germany’s use of the word propaganda during WWI had bad connotations, so Bernays came up with a new and more palatable term: public relations. He immediately established the Council on Public Relations and set out to experiment with the minds of the popular classes.

Marlene Dietrich

At that time, it was tabu for women to smoke in public. American Tobacco Association President George Washington Hill hired Bernays to change this using “public relations” propaganda. Bernays suggested first consulting a psychoanalyst to find out what cigarettes meant to women.

Psychoanalyst Dr. A.A. Brill told them that cigarettes were “a symbol of the penis, of male sexual power.” If admen could find a way to make cigarettes a way of challenging male power, then women would smoke.

A public relations event was planned around the 1928 New York City Easter Day Parade. Bernays hired a group of debutants to hide cigarettes under their clothes, and at the signal, were to stand up, light the cigarettes and join in the parade. At the same time, he gathered the press and told them that these women were Suffragettes, marching for their rights, carrying “torches of freedom.”

Bernays knew it was irrational to think smoking actually made women freer. But by crafting a message directed at their unfulfilled emotions, he would promise fulfillment—smoking would make them thinner, more popular, more self-confident, freer—thereby getting them to consent to buy and smoke cigarettes.

Suddenly, a single publicity stunt made it socially acceptable for women to smoke in public. Smoking was now seen as something that made a woman more independent and alluring. Around the world, women smoked their torches of freedom, and cigarettes sales noticeably rose.

Engineering Consent

Before the war, except for the upper classes, most people bought goods on an as-needed basis—shoes, stockings, food. Cars were viewed only in terms of function and durability. Advertisements were to show the practical virtues of the products.

After the war, U.S. corporations were rich and powerful, with manufacturing running in high gear. There were concerned about reaching a saturation point where people had enough goods and would stop buying. In order for the corporations to keep profiting, they had to transform the way Americans thought about products.

Paul Mazur, a leading Lehman Brothers banker at the time 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. We must shape a new mentality in America; desires must overshadow needs.”

By stimulating people’s inner desire and then sating them with consumer products, Bernays created a new way to manage the irrational force of the masses that had been his uncle’s concern. Engineering consent was a way to tap into people’s deepest desire or deepest fear and manipulate it in such a way as to influence their decision-making process to consent to buy the product. Public relations people were referred to as “engineers of consent.”


Bernays had now proven that he could influence people to behave irrationally by linking products to their feelings. The next step was to explore the psychology of how to appeal to the masses with merchandising and sales establishments.

Starting in the early 1920s, Wall Street funded a series of chain department stores across America, the outlets for the mass-produced goods. Bernays was to produce the new type of customer, that of the mass consumer.

Hired by William Randolph Hearst to promote his magazines, Bernays was the first to link products to famous people. Clara Bow, his client at the time, posed in advertisements for hats that were then run in Cosmopolitan.

Irrelevant objects became powerful emotional symbols of how a person wanted to be seen by others: designer clothing, expensive jewelry, and fashion appealed to women’s “selfish desires.” Bernays made cars into symbols of wealth and security, and first used product placement in movies.

Bernays also began the practice of using media to promote products. Public relations articles were written by Bernays that were then distributed to various newspapers, who used the free content and disguised it as “news.” These cross-promotional tactics became common.

A proof of an article for publication with the headline, “Cigarettes Go Fifth Avenue” (ca. 1928–31). (Box 84, Edward L. Bernays Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress)

Stock Market Crash

Bernays helped create a stock market boom throughout the 1920s, convincing ordinary people to borrow money and buy shares of stock to “get a piece of the action.” Millions followed his advice. By 1928 President Hoover was hammering the message home: consumerism was the central motor of American life. “Admen, you have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines, machines that become the key to economic progress.”

When the Stock Market crashed in 1929, Bernays had just pulled off the 50th anniversary celebration of the invention of the light bulb for General Electric. President Hoover, the leaders of major corporations, and bankers like John D. Rockefeller were summoned to celebrate the power of American business. Three days later, the stock market took its first deep skid into its eventual fatal crash, and everything changed in an instant.

Bernays suffered through the crash, but in the 1930s, his critics were harsh. A vast number of Americans had lost everything, having been manipulated by his propaganda. In Germany, Joseph Goebbel was praising Bernays and utilizing his process to create a “Fuhrer cult” around Hitler. “They were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany,” Bernays said. “This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purpose or misused for anti-social ones.”

Historian Robert Ensor wrote in the 1930s that “Hitler puts no limit on what can be done by propaganda; people will believe anything, provided they are told it often enough and emphatically enough, and that contradicters are either silenced or smothered in calumny.” To know Hitler was using his process, however, did not stop Bernays from engineering a coup d’etat in Central America for the company now known as Chiquita Banana.

Propaganda of the Guatemalan Coup and the Beginning of the Banana Republic

In the early 1940s, Chiquita was operating as United Fruit Company and hired Bernays to promote the sale of bananas in the U.S. Linking them to good health, he got them into the hands of celebrities, did product placements in newsreels and movies, and wrote PR pieces for the media. He also created the propaganda group called the Middle American Information Bureau, which supplied journalists and academics with information coming out of Central America, where United Fruit operated.

In 1944, Guatemala was under the control of a violent, U.S.-backed dictator, Jorge Ubico, who had given huge concessions to United Fruit and supported the oppressive labor practices of the wealthy landowners. United Fruit was renown for its exploitative colonialism, taking over countries, frequently bribing government officials and working to creative monopolies.

Jacabo Árbenz Guzmán

Ubico was defeated in a pro-democracy uprising led by Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, and in the elections that followed, new President Juan José Arévalo began a highly popular social reform program. Guzmán was elected president in 1951 and continued the reforms. During his tenure he allowed workers to organize, made political parties legitimate, expanded the right to vote, and encouraged free speech. The centerpiece of his program was an aggressive agrarian reform program that gave large pieces of land back to the poverty-stricken people, many were indigenous and had been driven off their land after the Spanish invasion in the 1500s.

Bernays’ propaganda focused on the “communist menace in Guatemala” and played on the fear that Guatemala was headed to the same outcome as Iran, who had just nationalized their oil companies and took over British Petroleum. His campaign included universities, lawyers, and the U.S. government, all condemning the agricultural reform program as an “immoral and illegal” expropriation and pressuring the media to induce the President to issue a pronouncement as such. In the following months, The New York Times, the New York Herald TribuneTimeNewsweek, and Atlantic Monthly all complied.

Next came the propaganda to impose economic sanctions on government aid going to “pro-communist regimes.” United Fruit distributed their PR pieces and an anonymous Report on Guatemala weekly to members of Congress. Their Guatemalan Newsletter was sent to over 250 journalists, many of whom used it as the source of their reporting. In 1952, Bernays brought the journalists to Guatemala on a trip sponsored by United Fruit.

In 1954, the CIA backed a coup, fronted by Carlos Castillo Armas. Bernays was the primary supplier of information for the international newswires Associated Press, United Press International and the International News Service. After the takeover, Bernays worked with Guatemala’s new president Carlos Castillo Armas, giving advice for his public appearances both in Guatemala and in the US.

In 1959, United Fruit dispensed with all external advisors, including Bernays. Guatemala plunged into a bloody civil war that lasted for decades, killing over 200,000 people.

The memorandum which describes the CIA’s organization of the paramilitary deposition of President Jacobo Árbenz in June 1954

Most Americans don’t know what it’s like to live in a culture without public relations and propaganda. In Bernays’ and Lippman’s management of the masses, democracy turns into a palliative, giving people a feel-good medication that helps them respond to immediate pain or yearning, but does not alter objective circumstances. Democracy was supposed to be about changing the relations with the power that governed the world. Bernays believed in maintaining the relations of power, even if it meant stimulating the psychological lives of the public with lies and propaganda.

Bernays’ processes are standardized practices now, more than ever in 2019. Corporations are bombarding the public with advertising, media, and “news” that have been carefully prescribed to trigger emotions and manufacture consent. Today’s triggers are that of fear, helplessness and hopelessness that leads to complacency. Consumerism is eating away at connection to the natural world and to our communities.

When corporations collude with legislators to write and pass laws that benefit the corporations at the expense of human and civil rights, corporation fascism takes control. When the masses are complacent or fighting each other, the corporations and legislatures can collude to pass more laws that benefit the corporations at the expense of the people, environment, and community.

This is called “creeping fascism” and it is alive and well in Wisconsin in 2019.

PART TWO: Breaking through the bonds of propaganda


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