• Rush Eby

Propaganda: Books To Read Before You Die

As civilization has become more complex, and as the need for invisible government has increasingly been demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented.

With the printing press and the newspaper, the railroad, the telephone, telegraph, radio and airplanes, ideas can be spread rapidly and even instantaneously all over the whole of America.

~Edward Bernays, Propaganda

With a title like “the father of public relations,” you’d think that Edward Bernays would be a more recognizable name. Bernays was the nephew of the legendary Sigmund Freud. Except instead of making waves in psychological theory, Bernays married the soft science to the hardest and most empirical realm out there: business.

Influenced by Walter Lippman of the U.S. Committee of Public Information during World War I, Bernays had an unusually grand scope of how media shapes the public consciousness. He brought this understanding to clients like Procter & Gamble, CBS, General Electric, president Calivin Coolidge, and a little niche known as the tobacco industry.

Bernays was a master of application. His campaigns targeted not just the influenceable, but the influencers themselves. Search “influencer marketing,” and you’ll see pages of blog posts talking about leveraging bloggers and Instagram personalities to pitch your products. But few of these authors have any idea where these strategies originate from. To fully understand these strategies, one would be well-served to think like Bernays.

Question: How does one market a company like a felt textile manufacturer?

Find people who “like” felt on Facebook.Create new fashion trends by requisitioning fashion influencers to wear felt hats at public events and optimize the impact by staging press coverage.

Bernays called methods like this “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” And while your business might not be ready for that type of scale, you can still glean tidbits from this mentality. (That said, if you are, be sure to drop us a line and ask us about our “intelligent manipulation of the masses” package.)

Bernays may not be someone you necessarily want to emulate in his entirety. But his understanding of the underlying mechanisms of public opinion is scarcely surpassed. In an age where information is more transparently commoditized than ever, the gatekeepers of digital infrastructure will rule supreme, for better or for worse. If nothing else, reading Bernays will help you understand how your opinions are being continuously shaped by media, even at this very moment.

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