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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

King Corn

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How talk of an acre became talk of an industry

Here’s a story seemingly about not knowin’ nothin’: two friends from Boston decided to figure out why we grew so much corn in the U.S. So, naturally, they went to Iowa and hired an acre of land to grow their own corn.

As anyone would, given a compelling question.08292014-KingCorn

In King Corn, friends Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis found their grandfathers both came from the small town of Greene, Iowa. In this documentary (a form we know as dedicated to a version of a story rather than seeking objectivity), the two friends plant, fertilize, weed, and then harvest their acre of corn. All with the help of local farmers. But this is not the gotcha-style documentary that Michael Moore practiced. These friends seem genuinely interested in all aspects, ask the dumb questions that any of us (non-farmers) might ask, and make connections with the farmers, families and communities along the way. They let their questions propel them and others join in, though we have a strong hunch where the questions are going.

As they tell their story, they identify Earl Butz, secretary of agriculture under Nixon and Ford. They note how Butz initiated a government policy shift that turned small farmers into big producers (especially of corn) rather than keeping them as small producers (that is, paying them to not produce to keep prices high). The friends also talk with Michael Pollan and a number of other fancy academic big-shots with opinions and research on food and agriculture. What they found turned the conversation.

  • Massive feed lots that have dialed up cattle production by letting them stand and eat corn nearly constantly. So: faster to market. The cattle continue to eat toward an upper physiologic limit and must ingest a constant stream of antibiotics to continue eating. That would be our beef industry.
  • A high fructose corn syrup industry spawned from the great quantities of corn produced. High fructose corn syrup seems incredibly malleable and shows up in a high percentage of the produced foods we buy. And high fructose corn syrup, as we are learning, is just more sugary, empty calories that help contribute to our nations struggle with obesity.
Click for trailer

Click for trailer

What’s odd is that raising corn, on its own, is a money-losing endeavor. But with the subsidies our government kicks in, it becomes profitable for farmers to set aside enormous sections of land to grow it. And the resulting industries and practices have a problematic relationship with our culture and health.

King Corn ends up as an uncomfortable look into an industry we all partake in. And like all documentaries, there is a clear point of view, which was fun to watch. I’m certain the beef and high fructose corn syrup industries have excellent and solid rebuttals for the conclusions any viewer might form from the film.

We’re all happy with cheap food, but the film helps us ask about the long-term cost of our cheap food.

What I appreciated about the tone of the film was just two guys just asking questions (yes, I bought into that portrayal of the friends). And rather than Michael Moore-style bombast, the filmmakers presented a couple sides to the story (though certainly not all sides) through conversation. The result helps me begin to rethink the low-priced, easily available food that surrounds us and for which I am grateful.



Written by kirkistan

August 29, 2014 at 8:34 am

Work Posters: Violence in the Service of Safety

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Careful: Train Cars will Crush Your Skull

In classes I teach we often puzzle through how to get and retain attention. As a nation our attention spans continue to shrink so that a block of copy seems too huge a commitment. Many readers move on. These old work-safety posters are a gory-wonder in gaining attention and remaining memorable.



Written by kirkistan

January 28, 2011 at 9:53 am

Posted in art and work, curiosities

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