10 things about Edward Bernays’ Propaganda


  1. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, was an Austrian-American propagandist who is credited with the development of public relations in America. He is largely responsible for the shift from information based advertising (buy this car because it is the safest and most fuel efficient) to desire and emotion based advertising (buy this car because it will make you sexy).
  2. He is one of the subjects of Adam Curtis’ 2002 documentary The Century of the Self which I highly recommend.
  3. Bernays’ book Propaganda was published in 1928 with two aims: to get rid of the negative connotations of the word “propaganda” and to demonstrate how public relations can improve the profitability of a business. In a sense, this book is propaganda for propaganda.
  4. This is the opening sentence of the book: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”
  5. Bernays plays loose with the definition of propaganda. In the beginning of the book he says that propaganda is “the mechanism by which ideas are disseminated on a large scale.” Later on he defines propaganda as “the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group.”
  6. The parts of the book that I found the most interesting were his accounts of work he did for his clients (which he always wrote of in the passive voice so as to not appear to be bragging). When approached by a company selling pianos, instead of taking out ads in music magazines for this company’s pianos, he instead contacted interior design magazines and “persuaded” them to run articles on designing music rooms. He then contacted architects and “persuaded” them to design houses that had a designated music room (he’s never clear on how these people were persuaded, though I assume it was with cash). Once the idea that all houses should have a music room became, as Bernays phrases it, “the thing,” the idea of purchasing a piano comes naturally. Rather than asking the individual to buy a product, Bernays created cultural conditions which would stimulate demand for that product. There are many examples of this in the book.
  7. Throughout the book, Bernays talks about an “invisible government” that controls the opinions and habits of citizens. But there’s a tension in how he speaks about the “invisible government”; he categorizes the government as “invisible,” but speaks as if everyone is aware of it and consents to its practices. According to him, because we don’t spend our lives studying political, ethical, and economic issues, we tacitly agree to let “experts” form opinions for us.
  8. Bernays seems to be a right-wing historical materialist. He accepts the idea that manipulating the material and social conditions of society produces changes in behaviour and thought. However, he doesn’t see a problem with this; he thinks it’s impossible to have a smooth, functioning society that doesn’t manipulate the masses.
  9. He still believes he’s being ethical, that there is an ethics of public relations. When Bernays learned that there was irrefutable proof that smoking cigarettes was harmful to your health he refused to work with tobacco companies anymore. But his ethics are still sketchy. They rest on an unethical basis; he says that the propagandist does the “right” thing because it’s the most beneficial to the propagandist. A company will make truthful claims because it’s not worth the risk of being caught in a lie. But this means that doing the right thing is contingent; it could have just as easily been the case (and in fact may be the case) that the propagandist benefits from doing the wrong thing.
  10. The last seven chapters of the book are an insubstantial discussion of how various groups use propaganda: politicians, educators, artists, scientists, women, and social justice groups. The book doesn’t offer much insight if read as a manual, but is valuable as a cultural document describing how advertising and public relations became what it is today. However, its usefulness is still debatable: Bernays ends with the claim that, even if the public becomes aware of and opposes the practices of propaganda, they will still be just as receptive to it. In his view, the existence of propaganda is an immutable fact.



One comment

  1. Terry Taylor · · Reply

    Cool website Taylor… I like the format of listing either 10 or 21 things – it makes things very easy to digest! It’s funny that you posted about this book, ‘Propaganda’, because I was just listening to a podcast series all about it. The series is over 10 hours long, and even features an interview with Bernays’ daughter Anne. You can check it out here: http://smellslikehumanspirit.com/edward-bernays-propaganda

    Keep up the good work!


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