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Edward Bernays and Jolly Manipulation

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Gather round, kids: here’s how you sway public opinion

Edward L. Bernays is called the father of public relations and his book Propaganda (NY: Horace Liveright, 1928) shows why. Bernays is absolutely jolly as he lays out the psychology of manipulation. He doesn’t just talk about the formulas, he gleefully demonstrates them in paragraph after paragraph. Much like one might describe building a shelter to a group of boy scouts, Bernays is positively beaming as he writes about how to pull self-interest into the equation to get publics to do your corporate bidding.

The modern propagandist studies systematically and objectively the material with which his is working in the spirit of a laboratory. (48)

Edward L. Bernays is the urflack.

If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway. (49)

Reading Propaganda today, it is clear Bernays thought corporations and government leaders and those in power would certainly use his manipulation techniques for good.

How could it be otherwise?

Look through here. You’ll see what you’re supposed to see.

Look through here. You’ll see what you’re supposed to see.

But World War II was just around the corner and every nation developed their own propaganda machines. In the US, we still react viscerally to the imagery and code words used by Nazis. Today old Stalinist imagery has it’s own unique draw. The US had powerful PR apparatus as well. We continue to feed that machine. And since, then, of course, unending sets of military skirmishes/wars, each equipped with God-given reasons for why we must respond. Then Watergate and totalitarian despots revealed and deposed, and, well, it’s a long list of fails that contribute to today’s cynicism and “Question Authority” stance. People found their voice and collected it to push back with outrage at corporations and governments and to call attention to wrong doing when it appears.

Eighty-six years later, the entire population of the US—possibly the planet—is wise to Bernays’ techniques. Not that we’ve studied them: those techniques study us all day every day. Especially in countries like the US where consumption is our patriotic duty. We know manipulation from the inside out.

Bernays would be impressed were he alive to see it. I imagine him smacking his head and saying, “Wait—they know they are being manipulated, and …they still buy it? This is even better than I hoped.”

Why talk about manipulation? Not just because Bernays book is fun to read and easy to contrast with today. In particular, why would a copywriter talk about manipulation? Isn’t that secret sauce you trade in all day? Why pull back the curtain?

As a copywriter my goal is to tell my client’s story in the best possible light. I continue to argue that persuasion is a natural piece of how people interact with each other all day long. It’s part of the human condition. But I argue our efforts at manipulation damage actual conversation. When we use words and techniques with manipulative technique, we shut off further conversation. At that point it is about winning not connecting. Maybe there is a fine line between persuasion and manipulation. Propaganda is the textbook for manipulation.

As a copywriter, I want my clients to engage in conversations not endless manipulative monologues. That seems a more human approach to communication. I continue to think conversation is what today’s market will bear.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Why I Don’t Listen To Christian Music

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Short Answer: No One Likes Being Manipulated

On Conversation is an Engine I mostly write about communication and conversation and copywriting and how business interacts because I am fascinated by what happens when people talk. But undergirding this sense of wonder is a faith in God that makes me see much of life in theological hues. The fallout from that theological saturation means I want to approach the work of communication and persuasion from an ethical perspective—as best I can.

Lots of music labeled “Christian” does not do that.

OneTheMove-05122014The college I occasionally teach at has a radio station that spins out Christian music. I stopped listening years ago when I realized my emotions were being manipulated by music that was nearly content-free. It had a veneer of faith, but seemed much more about living a good life and having positive feelings.

Especially positive feelings.

I’m not against positive feelings. Happy is good in my book. Happy makes sense to me. But if happy comes from a sugar-like high that dissipates as quickly as it formed, was it real? And is happy the point of faith in God?

I argue: No.

Happy is good. Joy is better and depending on how you define things, joy lasts longer. And true is best.

And really, what is Christian music? I might argue Tom Waits has a lot more truth to offer than whatever contemporary Christian band is currently famous. The Talking Heads seemed to provide many glimpses of truth—so do many of the folk musicians I listen to. Certainly Mr. Bach and Mr. Mozart and Mr. Telemann and Mr. John Adams and even Philip Glass provide more soaring and more depth and more truth.

Of course, music is a very personal thing and there is no right or wrong. We like what we like and I don’t want to disparage anyone’s choices—really I don’t. But if I sense I’m being manipulated by sentimental lyrics, I move on.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston, in response to on the move

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