“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it?” – Edward Bernays
Chapter 4 of ‘Propaganda’ by Edward Bernays is held under the microscope this week in Episode 67 of the Smells Like Human Spirit Podcast. Guy Evans examines how Bernays learned from his peers – Walter Lippmann, Gustave Le Bon, Graham Wallas, and Wilfred Trotter in particular, and subsequently advised governments to exclude their people from important affairs. Instead of encouraging active political participation, he adopted new theories on mass psychology that would reduce individuals to nothing more than consumers, never happy, and never satisfied. A great show as ever so enjoy, and peace!
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The systematic study of mass psychology revealed to students the potentialities of invisible government of society by manipulation of the motives which actuate man in the group. Trotter and Le Bon, who approached the subject in a scientific manner, and Graham Wallas, Walter Lippmann and others who continued with searching studies of the group mind, established that the group has mental characteristics distinct from those of the individual, and is motivated by impulses and emotions which cannot be explained on the basis of what we know of individual psychology. So the question naturally arose: If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it?
The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits. Mass psychology is as yet far from being an exact science and the mysteries of human motivation are by no means all revealed. But at least theory and practice have combined with sufficient success to permit us to know that in certain cases we can effect some change in public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy by operating a certain mechanism, just as the motorist can regulate the speed of his car by manipulating the flow of gasoline. Propaganda is not a science in the laboratory sense, but it is no longer entirely the empirical affair that it was before the advent of the study of mass psychology. It is now scientific in the sense that it seeks to base its operations upon definite knowledge drawn from direct observation of the group mind, and upon the application of principles which have been demonstrated to be consistent and relatively constant
The modern propagandist studies systematically and objectively the material with which he is working in the spirit of the laboratory. If the matter in hand is a nation-wide sales campaign, he studies the field by means of a clipping service, or of a corps of scouts, or by personal study at a crucial spot He determines, for example, which features of a product are losing their public appeal, and in what new direction the public taste is veering. He will not fail to investigate to what extent it is the wife who has the final word in the choice of her husband’s car, or of his suits and shirts.
Scientific accuracy of results is not to be expected, because many of the elements of the situation must always be beyond his control. He may know with a fair degree of certainty that under favorable circumstances an international flight will produce a spirit of good will, making possible even the consummation of political programs. But he cannot be sure that some unexpected event will not overshadow this flight in the public interest, or that some other aviator may not do something more spectacular the day before. Even in his restricted field of public psychology there must always be a wide margin of error. Propaganda, like economics and sociology, can never be an exact science for the reason that its subject-matter, like theirs, deals with human beings.
If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway. But men do not need to be actually gathered together in a public meeting or in a street riot, to be subject to the influences of mass psychology. Because man is by nature gregarious he feels himself to be member of a herd, even when he is alone in his room with the curtains drawn. His mind retains the patterns which have been stamped on it by the group influences. A man sits in his office deciding what stocks to buy. He imagines, no doubt, that he is planning his purchases according to his own judgment. In actual fact his judgment is a melange of impressions stamped on his mind by outside influences which unconsciously control his thought. He buys a certain railroad stock because it was in the headlines yesterday and hence is the one which comes most prominently to his mind; because he has a pleasant recollection of a good dinner on one of its fast trains; because it has a liberal labor policy, a reputation for honesty; because he has been told that J. P. Morgan owns some of its shares.
Trotter and Le Bon concluded that the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits and emotions. In making up its mind its first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader. This is one of the most firmly established principles of mass psychology. It operates in establishing the rising or diminishing prestige of a summer resort, in causing a run on a bank, or a panic on the stock exchange, in creating a best seller, or a box-office success.
But when the example of the leader is not at hand and the herd must think for itself, it does so by means of cliches, pat words or images which stand for a whole group of ideas or experiences. Not many years ago, it was only necessary to tag a political candidate with the word interests to stampede millions of people into voting against him, because anything associated with “the interests” seemed necessarily corrupt. Recently the word Bolshevik has performed a similar service for persons who wished to frighten the public away from a line of action.
By playing upon an old cliche, or manipulating a new one, the propagandist can sometimes swing a whole mass of group emotions. In Great Britain, during the war, the evacuation hospitals came in for a considerable amount of criticism because of the summary way in which they handled their wounded. It was assumed by the public that a hospital gives prolonged and conscientious attention to its patients. When the name was changed to evacuation posts the critical reaction vanished. No one expected more than an adequate emergency treatment from an institution so named. The cliche hospital was indelibly associated in the public mind with a certain picture. To persuade the public to discriminate between one type of hospital and another, to dissociate the cliche from the picture it evoked, would have been an impossible task. Instead, a new cliche automatically conditioned the public emotion toward these hospitals.
Men are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions. A man may believe that he buys a motor car because, after careful study of the technical features of all makes on the market, he has concluded that this is the best. He is almost certainly fooling himself. He bought it, perhaps, because a friend whose financial acumen he respects bought one last week; or because his neighbors believed he was not able to afford a car of that class; or because its colors are those of his college fraternity.
It is chiefly the psychologists of the school of Freud who have pointed out that many of man’s thoughts and actions are compensatory substitutes for desires which he has been obliged to suppress. A thing may be desired not for its intrinsic worth or usefulness, but because he has unconsciously come to see in it a symbol of something else, the desire for which he is ashamed to admit to himself. A man buying a car may think he wants it for purposes of locomotion, whereas the fact may be that he would really prefer not to be burdened with it, and would rather walk for the sake of his health. He may really want it because it is a symbol of social position, an evidence of his success in business, or a means of pleasing his wife.
This general principle, that men are very largely actuated bv motives which they conceal from themselves, is as true of mass as of individual psychology. It is evident that the successful propagandist must understand the true motives and not be content to accept the reasons which men give for what they do.
It is not sufficient to understand only the mechanical structure of society, the groupings and cleavages and loyalties. An engineer may know all about the cylinders and pistons of a locomotive, but unless he knows how steam behaves under pressure he cannot make his engine run. 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.
The old propagandist based his work on the mechanistic reaction psychology then in vogue in our colleges. This assumed that the human mind was merely an individual machine, a system of nerves and nerve centers, reacting with mechanical regularity to stimuli, like a helpless, will-less automaton. It was the special pleader’s function to provide the stimulus which would cause the desired reaction in the individual purchaser.
It was one of the doctrines of the reaction psychology that a certain stimulus often repeated would create a habit, or that the mere reiteration of an idea would create a conviction. Suppose the old type of salesmanship, acting for a meat packer, was seeking to increase the sale of bacon. It would reiterate innumerable times in full-page advertisements: “Eat more bacon. Eat bacon because it is cheap, because it is good, because it gives you reserve energy.”
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.
The old-fashioned propagandist, using almost exclusively the appeal of the printed word, tried to persuade the individual reader to buy a definite article, immediately. This approach is exemplified in a type of advertisement which used to be considered ideal from the point of view of directness and effectiveness:
“YOU (perhaps with a finger pointing at the reader) buy O’Leary’s rubber heels—NOW.”
The advertiser sought by means of reiteration and emphasis directed upon the individual, to break down or penetrate sales resistance. Although the appeal was aimed at fifty million persons, it was aimed at each as an individual.
The new salesmanship has found it possible, by dealing with men in the mass through their group formations, to set up psychological and emotional currents which will work for him. Instead of assaulting sales resistance by direct attack, he is interested in removing sales resistance. He creates circumstances which will swing emotional currents so as to make for purchaser demand.
If, for instance, I want to sell pianos, it is not sufficient to blanket the country with a direct appeal, such as:
“YOU buy a Mozart piano now. It is cheap. The best artists use it. It will last for years.”
The claims may all be true, but they are in direct conflict with the claims of other piano manufacturers, and in indirect competition with the claims of a radio or a motor car, each competing for the consumer’s dollar.
What are the true reasons why the purchaser is planning to spend his money on a new car instead of on a new piano? Because he has decided that he wants the commodity called locomotion more than he wants the commodity called music? Not altogether. He buys a car, because it is at the moment the group custom to buy cars.
The modern propagandist therefore sets to work to create circumstances which will modify that custom. He appeals perhaps to the home instinct which is fundamental. He will endeavor to develop public acceptance of the idea of a music room in the home. This he may do, for example, by organizing an exhibition of period music rooms designed by well known decorators who themselves exert an influence on the buying groups. He enhances the effectiveness and prestige of these rooms by putting in them rare and valuable tapestries. Then, in order to create dramatic interest in the exhibit, he stages an event or ceremony. To this ceremony key people, persons known to influence the buying habits of the public, such as a famous violinist, a popular artist, and a society leader, are invited. These key persons affect other groups, lifting the idea of the music room to a place in the public consciousness which it did not have before. The juxtaposition of these leaders, and the idea which they are dramatizing, are then projected to the wider public through various publicity channels. Meanwhile, influential architects have been persuaded to make the music room an integral architectural part of their plans with perhaps a specially charming niche in one corner for the piano. Less influential architects will as a matter of course imitate what is done by the men whom they consider masters of their profession. They in turn will implant the idea of the music room in the mind of the general public.
The music room will be accepted because it has been made the thing. And the man or woman who has a music room, or has arranged a corner of the parlor as a musical corner, will naturally think of buying a piano. It will come to him as his own idea.
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.”
The value of the associative processes in propaganda is shown in connection with a large real estate development. To emphasize that Jackson Heights was socially desirable every attempt was made to produce this associative process. A benefit performance of the Jitney Players was staged for the benefit of earthquake victims of Japan, under the auspices of Mrs. Astor and others. The social advantages of the place were projected—a golf course was laid out and a clubhouse planned. When the post office was opened, the public relations counsel attempted to use it as a focus for national interest and discovered that its opening fell coincident with a date important in the annals of the American Postal Service. This was then made the basis of the opening.
When an attempt was made to show the public the beauty of the apartments, a competition was held among interior decorators for the best furnished apartment in Jackson Heights. An important committee of judges decided. This competition drew the approval of well known authorities, as well as the interest of millions, who were made cognizant of it through newspaper and magazine and other publicity, with the effect of building up definitely the prestige of the development.
One of the most effective methods is the utilization of the group formation of modern society in order to spread ideas. An example of this is the nationwide competitions for sculpture in Ivory soap, open to school children in certain age groups as well as professional sculptors. A sculptor of national reputation found Ivory soap an excellent medium for sculpture.
The Procter and Gamble Company offered a series of prizes for the best sculpture in white soap. The contest was held under the auspices of the Art Center in New York City, an organization of high standing in the art world.
School superintendents and teachers throughout the country were glad to encourage the movement as an educational aid for schools. Practice among school children as part of their art courses was stimulated. Contests were held between schools, between school districts and between cities.
Ivory soap was adaptable for sculpturing in the homes because mothers saved the shavings and the imperfect efforts for laundry purposes. The work itself was clean.
The best pieces are selected from the local competitions for entry in the national contest. This is held annually at an important art gallery in New York, whose prestige with that of the distinguished judges, establishes the contest as a serious art event.
In the first of these national competitions about 500 pieces of sculpture were entered. In the third, 2,500. And in the fourth, more than 4,000. If the carefully selected pieces were so numerous, it is evident that a vast number were sculptured during the year, and that a much greater number must have been made for practice purposes. The good will was greatly enhanced by the fact that this soap had become not merely the concern of the housewife but also a matter of personal and intimate interest to her children.
A number of familiar psychological motives were set in motion in the carrying out of this campaign. The esthetic, the competitive, the gregarious (much of the sculpturing was done in school groups), the snobbish (the impulse to follow the example of a recognized leader), the exhibitionist, and—last but by no means least—the maternal.
All these motives and group habits were put in concerted motion by the simple machinery of group leadership and authority. As if actuated by the pressure of a button, people began working for the client for the sake of the gratification obtained in the sculpture work itself.
This point is most important in successful propaganda work. The leaders who lend their authority to any propaganda campaign will do so only if it can be made to touch their own interests. There must be a disinterested aspect of the propagandist’s activities. In other words, it is one of the functions of the public relations counsel to discover at what points his client’s interests coincide with those of other individuals or groups.
In the case of the soap sculpture competition, the distinguished artists and educators who sponsored the idea were glad to lend their services and their names because the competitions really promoted an interest which they had at heart—the cultivation of the esthetic impulse among the younger generation.
Such coincidence and overlapping of interests is as infinite as the interlacing of group formations themselves. For example, a railway wishes to develop its business. The counsel on public relations makes a survey to discover at what points its interests coincide with those of its prospective customers. The company then establishes relations with chambers of commerce along its right of way and assists them in developing their communities. It helps them to secure new plants and industries for the town. It facilitates business through the dissemination of technical information. It is not merely a case of bestowing favors in the hope of receiving favors; these activities of the railroad, besides creating good will, actually promote growth on its right of way. The interests of the railroad and the communities through which it passes mutually interact and feed one another.
In the same way, a bank institutes an investment service for the benefit of its customers in order that the latter may have more money to deposit with the bank. Or a jewelry concern develops an insurance department to insure the jewels it sells, in order to make the purchaser feel greater security in buying jewels. Or a baking company establishes an information service suggesting recipes for bread to encourage new uses for bread in the home. The ideas of the new propaganda are predicated on sound psychology based on enlightened selfinterest.
I have tried, in these chapters, to explain the place of propaganda in modern American life and something of the methods by which it operates—to tell the why, the what, the who and the how of the invisible government which dictates our thoughts, directs our feelings and controls our actions. In the following chapters I shall try to show how propaganda functions in specific departments of group activity, to suggest some of the further ways in which it may operate.
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