Saturday, October 17, 2009

Public Relations Part I

So it begins...

The other day while reading about how shocking it is that more Americans are not rallying against the return to the status quo that is taking place in the financial industry, an astute observer linked to a video series online called The Century of the Self.

Don't worry the first 10 seconds are a little scrambled as it looks like some one ripped this from a VCR recording. VCR? Well it was a machine that played videotapes, which were very similar to cassette tapes in that you could record on certain types videos from your television. My grandmother vividly remembers watching two or three Nintendo video games instead of Dr Zhivago, but I digress.

So I started watching and then I started note taking and below is what I have garnered from watching two of the four parts (they are each an hour long.)

In the beginning there was Freud. Freud gave his young nephew a copy of his book called "General Introduction to Psychoanalysis" This nephew was Edward Bernays and he worked on the PR effort for the US during the First Great War. One of his key messages that he created was that the US was not restoring old monarchies but bringing democracy to Europe. He attended the peace talks with Woodrow Wilson and emerged with a slogan "Making the World Safe for Democracy." After the war he wondered, and would soon make himself rich upon, whether the same type of propaganda/persuasion employed during the war and peace talks could also be equally applied in peacetime.

In a later in life interview with Mr. Bernays he casually states that the Germans had used the word propaganda and now it was tainted, thus, he coined a new term called public relations. The idea that information is power was certainly very relevant to Mr. Bernays. However, he also knew that the information could be coached in such a way as to elicit the desired response despite what logical conclusion could be drawn from it. This was a key understanding of his uncle's work.

One of his first clients was the American Tobacco Company. His task was to find a way to break the male originated taboo of public smoking for women. As Big Tobacco noted, they lost half the target market due to this social taboo. Bernays turned to AA Brill who told him and ATC that cigarettes represented the male penis and male sexual power. Brill continued, stating they would need a way to connect cigarettes as a way of challenging male power by giving women their own penises.

This is where Bernays makes his money. During the NYC Easter parade, Bernays had female models stash cigarettes on their person and at a designated time to light them up and begin smoking. Then he informed the press that Suffragettes were going to light up cigarettes in public as a protest of voting rights and that the cigarettes were "Torches of Freedom." The symbolic gesture, the phrase, the emotion and the memory all tied together as one in the American psyche. The Torches of Freedom ran in major newspapers and soon the sale of cigarettes began to rise. Women found them socially acceptable and felt that smoking made them more powerful and independent. You read that right, a product, a consumption habit (unhealthy at that), was signaling to other people status and power. Bernays had proven what Freud has insinuated that you can produce irrational behavior in people by fulfilling deeper needs and desires.

This method became Bernays masterstroke that he would employ over and over again for businesses. It was called the tie in and it would be the machine that drove the "engineering of consent." One example is of Cosmopolitan magazine (a customer) and he would place advertisements next to specific articles or interviews, which would be one of his other clients, say an actress. In the pictures of the interview she would be wearing or consuming the product. Then in the next movie she filmed she would also be using the product. These powerful images of an attractive person, leading an attractive life filled with products that everyday citizens could also enjoy marked a new era in consumerism.

In the days before the war products were sold on a basis of practical value. Industry worried that once you had sated people's needs that there would be fewer profits as you would then only be replacing obsolescence. Bernays was now showing a new way for the consumer to buy, to have their desires out shadow their needs. He was changing the focus from the clothing to how the clothing made you feel. Also implicit in this was the idea that consumerism helped the country as well. This is because products could fill the voids of everyday life by appealing to the desires and fears of the masses. By keeping these consumption machines happy, which would also keep them docile. It was now as though products were giving people "feel-good" medicine and thus initiating social control. So instead of using social institutions to control people, you could answer their desires and upon sating the desires, the elite could then go about ruling the country.

Some additional acts Bernays pioneered include: product placement in movies, selling cars as symbols of male sexual power, paying doctors to state a product was healthy or recommended (an apple a day...), having fashion shows at department stores with models.

This became especially relevant once the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. The idea that humans could make rational decisions was being crushed as Moscow and St Petersburg burned. This was not the only piece of evidence. As the Great Depression began and ran its course the new consumer Bernays created died. Then the Second Great War ended and the aftermath including the Holocaust very much convinced those in power that humans are dangerous and needed to be controlled.

A closer look at National Socialism was enlightening. Here were normal every day citizens wielded as a weapon by the leadership. The messages were spun in a way to channel the feelings of the masses. Analysts would look at the situation noting that libidinal forces were repressed in deference to the leadership, but it created violence. This violence was then directed outside the group. Even though this behavior should be considered irrational the social norms instituted by the Nazis outweighed what an earnest human being might deem correct.

Later, during a controlled experiment in which 29 participants were actors, 30 people would have to decide which of two lines shown were longer. At first the actors would choose the correct one and of course the experimentee would as well. Then after about 10 different sets, the actors would choose the shorter line. The lone real person, would hesitate, take longer to decide, may at first fight it, but eventually succumb and choose the shorter line to achieve group consensus.

More during the next post, stay tuned.

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