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Propaganda Book Summary – Edward Bernays

What you will learn from reading Propaganda:

– Understand the mechanisms that underpin propaganda.

– Understand the complex relationship between human psychology, democracy, and corporations. 

– Learn how different areas of society use propaganda to their benefit. 

Propaganda Book Summary

“To explain the structure of the mechanism which controls the public mind, and to tell how it is manipulated by the special pleader who seeks to create public acceptance for a particular idea or commodity.” 

Unlike the more modern books on propaganda that tend to emphasise the nefariousness of the topic, Bernays’ approach is more academic, seeing it as a neutral mechanism that is essential to organise societies and influence the citizens to make the right choices in life. 



Propaganda and the Great War

The word propaganda before WWI was not used much. Its meaning was less derogatory than it is today.

The definition at the time was “Any association, systematic scheme, or concerted movement for the propagation of a particular doctrine or practice.”

Before the war, the advertising agent was seen as a charlatan, however, the war improved the status of the advertising agent, by somewhat legitimised propagandists.

During the war, the word “propaganda” was used so much to refer to the enemy that it tainted the word and gave it a negative connotation. From the 1920s to the second world war the public saw it as a weapon that was associated with not just lying but betrayal as well.

It also had the negative effect of framing democracy as the “manufacture of consent.”


Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays approached propaganda as a tool/ science (one that could be used for good or bad, but which was nonetheless essential).

“Bernays subscribed to the philosophy of Lippmann – Lippmann had arrived at the bleak view that “the democratic El Dorado” is impossible in modern mass society, whose members-by and largely incapable of lucid thought or clear perception, driven by herd instincts and mere prejudice, and frequently disoriented by external stimuli-were not equipped to make decisions or engage in rational discourse. “Democracy” therefore requires a supra-governmental body of detached professionals to sift the data, think things through.”

“Bernays’s adaptation of it is both simple and enthusiastic: “We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” These “invisible governors” are a heroic elite, who coolly keep it all together, thereby “organizing chaos,” as God did in the beginning. “It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.”

His view at the time was that it is impossible to have pure democracy due to mass society being incapable of coming to a consensus on its own.

Edward Bernays was considered the best propaganda strategist, aiming at trying to transform the buyers’ world. 

“The modern propagandist sets to work to create circumstances which will modify that custom.” Bernays sold Mozart pianos, for example, not just by hyping the pianos. Rather, he sought carefully “to develop public acceptance of the idea of a music room in the home”-selling the pianos indirectly, through various suggestive trends and enterprises that make it de rigour to have the proper space for a piano.

“Such agitators work within a certain mental borderland, where one can never clearly see conviction as distinct from the calculation. Indeed, that inner murkiness appears to be the very source or basis of the mass manipulator’s enigmatic power, and so we cannot comprehend it through schematic dualistic formulas. (Orwell’s elusive concept of “doublethink” is highly pertinent here.)”

Bernays believed that to influence the masses you had to influence the influencers.

For example: “The newer salesmanship, understanding the group structure of society and the principles of mass psychology, would first ask, “Who is it that influences the eating habits of the public?” The answer, obviously, is: “The physicians.” The new salesman will then suggest to physicians to say publicly that it is wholesome to eat bacon. He knows as a mathematical certainty, that large numbers of persons will follow the advice of their doctors because he understands the psychological relation of dependence of men upon their physicians.”

He also believed that if the message was inaccurate/ toxic (smoking/bacon) the message should be corrected (using propaganda for good).

He wrote for those who understood the value of the craft and who could afford to make it work for them. The fact that people didn’t like it, didn’t make it ineffective. This just made it seem more astonishing and as a craft, any publicity is good publicity. 

That propaganda easily seduces even those whom it most horrifies is a paradox that Bernays grasped completely.


Organising Chaos

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

The fundamental problem of democracy is that an individual can’t educate themselves on every matter they would need to make decisions on. We are governed, our minds moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of how our democratic society is organised.

An invisible government can be understood as those who consciously and intelligently manipulate the organised habits and opinions of the masses. To reduce the chaos of having too many candidates for office, society chooses – for the sake of simplicity and practicality – to narrow it down to three or four. 

The idea is that it would be impossible for an individual to educate themselves on every matter they need to make decisions on.

Propaganda is used to simplify the overwhelming amount of choices given to a citizen. Therefore there is always an effort to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity.

We have agreed to trust and let an invisible government sift through the data so that they can narrow our field of choice on practical issues. The issue with this is that their biases reflect how they filter the data, and in turn what options are available to the masses.

As society grows, so do the methods used for mass persuasion. For example, when the constitution was written, it reflected the methods of persuasion used for a small mass (town, village, etc.), whereas today they have evolved. 

Napoleon – “‘Do you know,’ he said in those days, ‘what amazes me more than all else? The impotence of force to organize anything.”


The New Propaganda

The industrial revolution took power away from the kings and gave it to the people. 

The promise of the democratic doctrine was that universal literacy would educate the common man so they could control their environment. However, the minority then discovered a way to influence the majority.

Propaganda is essentially the mechanism which is used to disseminate ideas/ beliefs/ doctrines on a large scale. It is the effort used to gain public support for an opinion or a course of action. 

“Truth is mighty and must prevail, and if any body of men believe that they have discovered a valuable truth, it is not merely their privilege but their duty to disseminate that truth. If they realize, as they quickly must, that this spreading of the truth can be done on a large scale and effectively only by organized effort, they will make use of the press and the platform as the best means to give it wide circulation. Propaganda becomes vicious and reprehensive only when its authors consciously and deliberately disseminate what they know to be lies, or when they aim at effects which they know to be prejudicial to the common good.”

Modern Propaganda can be understood as a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group. It focuses on the individual, the mass, and how the interlocking groups of society rely on one another.

“Judged by this definition, we can see that in its true sense propaganda is a perfectly legitimate form of human activity. Any society, whether it be social, religious or political, which is possessed of certain beliefs, and sets out to make them known, either by the spoken or written words, is practising propaganda.”

The more public support propaganda can gain, the more efficiency is recognised. 

“They not only appealed to the individual by means of every approach—visual, graphic, and auditory—to support the national endeavour, but they also secured the cooperation of the key men in every group—persons whose mere word carried authority to hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of followers.”


The New Propagandists

Politicians are also influenced by dictators in other fields. 

“It is not generally realised to what extent the words and actions of our most influential public men are dictated by shrewd persons operating behind the scenes.”

The invisible government tends to focus on influencing the group leaders rather than say 50 million individuals because it is cheaper.

Due to the negative connotation associated with the word ‘propaganda’, it has now been rebranded as “public relations counsel.”

A public relations counsellor proceeds in the following ways:

  1. Helps to bring an idea into the consciousness of the public.
  2. Starts by analysing the problems of the client, making sure that what they want to offer is something the public would accept.
  3. Considers the public’s support for certain actions, doctrines and opinions surrounding this offer. In particular the groups and group leaders of interest.
  4. Endeavour to shape the actions of the client so that they will gain the interest, approval and acceptance of the public. They formulate methods of governing all aspects of the client’s behaviour that come into contact with the public. 

It must be noted that the public relations counsellor is not an advertising man, but he advocates where advertising is needed.

Propaganda is a means of bringing about an understanding between educators and the educated, between government and people, etc.

  • Bridging, syncing, and calibrating the companies/ governments with the public’s opinion, then changing it accordingly. 


The Psychology of Public Relations

Studies have shown that the group mind has mental characteristics distinct from those of the individual, and is motivated by impulses and emotions.

Bernays believed that if it was possible to understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, can we not control it to our will without them knowing?

The group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts, it has impulses, habits, and emotions. 

When thinking for itself the group usually relies on:

  • On impulse follows the example of a trusted leader.
  • Or if absent, relies on cliches.

You can influence the group by either: 

  • Influencing the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation.
  • Playing on old cliches, or manipulating a new one.

“Human desires are the steam which makes the social machine work. Only by understanding them can the propagandist control that vast, loose-jointed mechanism which is modern society.” 

“Under the old salesmanship, the manufacturer said to the prospective purchaser, “Please buy a piano.” The new salesmanship has reversed the process and caused the prospective purchaser to say to the manufacturer, “ Please sell me a piano.”


Business and the Public

Businesses used to run their own affairs without considering the public’s opinion. Demand created supply, but today, the supply must actively seek to create its corresponding demand.

For the public to understand and accept a company, it must lay everything out and express itself and its entire existence, especially those areas that contact the public.

The public relations counsellor must be familiar with the structure, prejudices, and whims of the general public.

Businesses need to be aware that the public is becoming increasingly discriminative in its standards (eco-friendly, inclusivity, diversity, etc.).

A public relations counsellor will not try to force exaggerated claims on the public, instead, he will try to interpret every avenue of the businesses that lead to the public.

He attempts to convince the public using two methods: 

  1. Continuous interpretation (reaction) – controlling every approach to the public mind in a way that the public receives the desired impression, often subconsciously.
  2. Dramatisation by high spotting (pro-action) – vividly seizes the public’s attention and fixes it on a specific detail or aspect that is typical of the entire enterprise.

It is merely about finding the appropriate modes of expressing the personality that is to be dramatised 

“Through mergers and monopolies, companies are constantly increasing the number of persons with whom it is in direct contact. All this has intensified and multiplied the public relationships of business.”

It is the public relations counsellor’s job to anticipate the trends of public opinion and try to avert them by either:

  1. Convincing the public their fears and prejudices are unjustified.
  2. Modifying the action of the client by removing the cause of the complaint.

New Competition refers to the inter-commodity competition between products used alternatively for the same purpose.

  • For example – “If you represent the plumbing and heating business, you are the mortal enemy of the textile industry, because warmer homes mean lighter clothes.”
  • For example –  By promoting the style of big fur collars on women’s coats it ruins the hat business by forcing women to wear small and inexpensive hats.


Propaganda and Political Leadership

The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion.”

Companies caught on quickly to the ways of propaganda, while politicians did not.

“The politician understands the public, what they want and will accept, but he is not necessarily a public relations counsel or a man who knows how to secure mass distribution of ideas.”

Modern-day politics puts emphasis on the politician’s personality (rhetoric) instead of on the ability to deliver the party’s program and aims which are more important. 

Politicians must use the media to create events and activities and to put ideas into circulation

Propaganda is seen more as a useful and fundamental aid to democratic administration, rather than an aid to get votes.

“It will be objected, of course, that propaganda will tend to defeat itself as its mechanism becomes obvious to the public. My opinion is that it will not. The only propaganda which will ever tend to weaken itself as the world becomes more sophisticated and intelligent is propaganda that is untrue or unsocial. But even supposing that a certain propaganda is untrue or dishonest, we cannot on that account reject the methods of propaganda as such.”

Politicians and governments send out feelers into the public sphere before committing to legislation or foreign/ domestic policies. 

The propagandist helps to interpret the people to the government and the government to the people

“Ours must be a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses.”


Propaganda for Education

The educator has been trained to stimulate thought in individuals, but not in the public. This can be problematic as the public cannot understand unless the teacher understands the relationship between the general public and the academic idea.

The evolution of the academic has not kept pace with the social evolution around him. They are out of gear with the instruments for the dissemination of ideas which modern society has developed. 

The public is much more in touch with the business/ advertising world than the academic world because they have successfully connected to the public. This means academics are continually being compared, in the minds of their own pupils, with the successful businessman and the successful leader in the outside world.

Universities are caught in the crosshairs trying to appeal to their students, to their state legislature, to the businessmen, and to the public for support. Too much emphasis on one can irritate others.

The value of something does not only come from the people who use it but how it is perceived by the public.

Propaganda for education can be abused just like it can in any other sector.


Art and Science

“Mass production reaches an impasse when it competes on a price basis only. It must, therefore, in a large number of fields create a field of competition based on aesthetic values.”

The artist can work with the propagandist by introducing an element of aesthetic value to a product to make it more attractive.

This way not only is the product brought to the public’s attention but so is the art.


The Mechanics of Propaganda

“There is no means of human communication which may not also be a means of deliberate propaganda because propaganda is simply the establishing of reciprocal understanding between an individual and a group.”

It is almost impossible for propaganda not to profit or injure someone. Instead, the merit of this mechanism should be focused on the truth and accuracy of its message. 

Just because profit can be made from a widespread understanding of something does not condemn the dissemination of such information.

It is the job of the propagandist to adapt to the ever-changing present system.

The vivid dramatisation of personality will always remain one of the functions of the public relations counsel. People anthropomorphise things, so whether it’s a company, a product, or an idea, the public will project a personality on it. It is the job of the propagandist to shape the personality accordingly.

“If the public becomes more intelligent in its commercial demands, commercial firms will meet the new standards. If it becomes weary of the old methods used to persuade it to accept a given idea or commodity, its leaders will present their appeals more intelligently.”