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Edward Bernays (wikipedia.org)
58 points by FridayoLeary 3 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 35 comments



I suggest contrasting Century Of The Self (the documentary) with Propaganda (Edward Bernays' book). Century makes him out to be somewhat of a villain whereas after reading Propaganda I got more of a sense that Bernays was tapping into something powerful and hadn't thought of all the shitty second-order and third-order effects of his methods. Still shady no doubt but less of a villain IMO. It also helps to "empty the cup" and remember that they lived through this stuff in realtime whereas we bring all of the baggage of subsequent history. For example in Century they talk about how Bernays associated cigarettes with female empowerment. For me I bring all these judgments of how terrible that was precisely because I know how terrible cigarettes are for health. But they had much less of an idea that "cigarettes = bad" back then. Of course the general technique of associating identity with consumer products is still problematic and that's probably the core idea that Century wanted to get across.


> Of course the general technique of associating identity with consumer products is still problematic and that's probably the core idea that Century wanted to get across.

I think there's a lively debate to be had around whether or not this is actually a bad thing. Here is my argument for why it might a positive force in society. Let's focus on the "torches of freedom" [1] event.

The key thing that Bernays did was associate a physical symbol (cigarettes) with a much deeper need/desire: women's rights. What if this really did lead a lot of women to advocate and assert their rights more? What if lighting up that cigarette was the first symbolic act towards deeper change? For a personal example, a year or two ago I felt I needed to make some radical changes in my life, and one of the first things I did was dye my hair blonde. That physical change paved the way for some deep psychological changes. It's very easy for us to judge the torches of freedom thing as "bad" because we now know that cigarettes are bad for health. But they didn't know that now. Actually, we can replace cigarettes with another consumer product that served the similar purpose of women's empowerment (without any of the health problems): jeans. Women wearing jeans was a big political act of rebellion back in the day. If the jeans makers capitalized on that and associated themselves with women's empowerment, is that a bad thing? I think the counterargument here is that people take on these symbols (cigarettes, jeans) as part of their identity and stop there. I.e. it's not the first step of a deeper transformation. You just get a surface level symbol of the identity you want to portray and then stop there.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torches_of_Freedom


> after reading Propaganda I got more of a sense that Bernays was tapping into something powerful and hadn't thought of all the shitty second-order and third-order effects of his methods.

The most important thing to remember about Propaganda is that it, too, is propaganda. Bernays wanted this book to help normalize the use of propaganda within the commercial sector since this is how he made his living.


A wise point, it took me a while to realise this - intellectual honesty can lead to the habitual expectation it will be reciprocated and upheld by others.


That's true, but that doesn't mean the argument he lays out isn't grounded on a sound analysis for the most part.


An important insight one gets from Propaganda is that propaganda is an inevitable effect in a society that goes through an explosion of the amount of available information, and it becomes more about how to deal with it than trying to suppress it. That is in fact what the book is about originally, rather than what "propaganda" has come to mean nowadays. In a way, it's more of a book about how to deal with bounded rationality than about how to persuade people for more or less nefarious purposes (there are better books about that).


To Bernays, propaganda was an essential tool in a democracy. He didn't regard ordinary people as qualified decision makers and saw influencing the masses as the proper function of people like himself. This is what he literally says in the opening paragraphs of his 1928 Propaganda:

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

> We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.

It's pretty clear he is talking about propaganda in the modern sense - using rhetorical and persuasive techniques to bypass the target's rational decision making procedures in order to achieve specific policy goals.

Remember Bernays was an alumnus of the first truly industrial scale propaganda effort, the Creel Committee, set up to convince US citizens they should support US entry into WWI.

According to him, it

> bombarded the public unceasingly with enthusiastic reports of the nation's colossal war effort [...] Dissenting voices were stilled, either by agreement with the press or by the persuasive action of the agents of the Department of Justice.

> Intellectual and emotional bombardment aroused Americans to a pitch of enthusiasm. The bombardment came at people from all sides - advertisements, news, volunteer speakers, posters, schools, theaters; millions of homes displayed service flags. The war aims and ideals were continually projected to the eyes and ears of the populace. These high-pressure methods were new at the time, but have become usual since then. [...]

> The most fantastic atrocity stories were believed.

(- Bernays, Public Relations, 1951, via [1])

Bernays indeed saw this as desirable and necessary, and very much cast himself as a member of the "invisible government."

If you grant impeccable intentions and absolute probity to the "invisible governors" this might still seem a cogent viewpoint, though offensive to most modern sensibilities.

Realistically, though, modern history should have taught us the devastation that can result from adoption of propaganda as the primary tool of government, and its inimicability with true democracy.

Democracy proper relies on informed consent, and consent under a propagandising state can only ever be misinformed consent.

1: https://everything2.com/title/Edward+L.+Bernays


I still don't read it that way, or at least I think there's more to it.

What he's expressing is a structural property ("logical consequence") of representative authority, applied to information, much like it is applied to power in democracy.

The point is that there's always a limit to informed consent, and that technocracy/"government of experts" is more or less an inevitable property of ("true") democracy itself rather than a choice.

That consent can only ever be misinformed is the point or at least the argument debated here.


I'll note here however that my other comment in this thread [1] is somewhat inconsistent with the "Bernays was tapping into something powerful and hadn't thought of all the shitty second-order and third-order effects of his methods" idea I mentioned above. In that other comment I said that he was aware of this force and may have been somewhat motivated by public interests to make the tactics wider known. I don't really have a horse in this race and don't care about attacking/defending Bernays. Just sorting out my own thoughts in realtime.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27700192


Jeff Bezos probably doesn't think he is a villain either. The ego and surrounding yourself with yes-men allows people who made decisions out of greed to rationalize their actions then into thinking they are a misunderstood hero.


The same documentary claims that it was the cigarette manufacturers who were looking to make more money from the other half of the population--women who at the time did not smoke as it was considered unladylike. Bernays was happy to spin a made up story to tap into that underdeveloped market. If you read that Wikipedia page closely you will find that he was happy to engage in projects that are hard to defend on moral grounds like setting up a fake news agency. He later rebranded propaganda as public relations, but his methods have not changed. His 'Propaganda' was admired by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of ... Propaganda.


Is this the first example of "woke capitalism"? Are there any earlier ones?

Companies today frequently posture as supporting sociopolitical movements as a sales technique. Ex. All of the rainbow capitalism during pride month - even from companies which give money to anti-lgbt politicians.

Did Bernays invent this too?


https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Randolph

Bernays' nephew... first CEO of Netflix.


Their Epstein documentary Filthy Rich was a master exercise in propaganda. Never watched their Bill Gates one but have to assume it was the same.


“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions. It is not generally realized to what extent the words and actions of our most influential public men are dictated by shrewd persons operating behind the scenes.” ― Edward L. Bernays

"The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes." ― Benjamin Disraeli

A theme worth exploring...


Very interesting. Any recommendations on where I can start?


Adam Curtis


See also:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_Opinion_(book)

And then there's always this quote:

Edwards : Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.

Kay : A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.


Part 1 of the excellent The Century of Self gives a good overview of his impact. /watch?v=DnPmg0R1M04


Edward Bernays's toxic shadow looms large over the 20th century, and we are nowhere near escaping its baleful legacy.


Propaganda is a pretty nice, short, readable book


I am almost halfway through, but have halted several times due to unhappiness/outrage at the hubris... To me, it reads equivalent to "most people are too dumb to know what's best for them, government and corporations have a duty to trick them into what they know is right behavior and values."

For me, it really taps into the terrible misfortune caused by those who think they are smart enough to attempt to enforce how other people should live/behave.


It's interesting that we had such different takes on it. To me Bernays did somewhat of a public service by letting the genie out of the bottle and sharing these ideas publicly. Whether or not we like it, it's happening, and by writing a book about it he made it more possible for society at large to detect and counter these tactics. Of course I know that he was in this system and used these tactics himself for wealth and power. He probably wrote the book to further his own name. But he may have legitimately had the public interest in mind, also.

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


"most people are too dumb to know what's best for them, government and corporations have a duty to trick them into what they know is right behavior and values."

This attitude is what makes me wary of the current top-down attempts to rein in misinformation on the web. There is a visible assumption that people are not to be trusted and must be lead somewhere. If necessary, by a bit of force. (Deletions, bans.)

Trading misinformation for a nanny-knows-best authority that manipulates you into its preferred position is not much of a trade at all. Either we accept diversity of humanity (including morons), or we will edge our societies towards benevolent informational autocracy that won't stay benevolent forever. I strongly prefer the former, dealing with morons, even though it is not pleasant.


There has always been a war on information, it's just more in the open now. Clandestine organizations have kept heavily guarded secrets for millenia and the democratization of communication via the internet is now being clamped down through censorship in the form of shadow-banning, as well as both broad and targeted espionage AKA intellligence.


Yes I agree. In some respects it's quite a malicious, misanthropic read. I encourage everyone to take a look, though.

I also think that more and more, I disagree with the book's outlook that people are more or less like putty and can be bent into doing anything you want - I've come to see people as strong in their fundamental convictions yet open to things they don't have any fundamental disagreements with. And more than willing to let you guide them in the direction of things they already wanted. Sort of an Adam Curtis outlook I guess.


One could argue that the effectiveness of propaganda that stems from this viewpoint proves its premise.

Whether that makes propaganda of any given form justifiable is another matter.


What do we do about this? How does one go about jamming this kind of signal? I want to inoculate people against this kind of nonsense.

IMO, if we were capable of decentralizing more of our systems, that might help. Reduce the efficacy of these tactics and you might be able to starve the beast.

Culturally, I think doing away with hero worship could go a long way towards mitigating Bernays-style influencing. But then, how do you execute on that?

If I could fix just one problem, I wouldn't be upset if it were this one. It's such a sticky mess, though.


Sad to see that we're still not quite free from the clutches of mass psychology (i.e. the assumption that masses as such can be manipulated).

By the way, "if then" by Jill Lepore is a great book about how tech translated this approach even in the 60s. (https://scholar.harvard.edu/jlepore/publications/if-then-how...)


> the assumption that masses as such can be manipulated

I'm curious - do you think it isn't true? I see it every day.


The core issue is whether masses have a distinct element beyond being a sum of malleable individuals.

Mass psychology at the beginning of the 20th century thought so, and some research throughout the 70s and 80s continued to do so. Recent works have been less eager to assume a distinct "mass identity", and I'd also be hesitant to assume one exists (beyond corner cases such as mass panics).


Perhaps. But he applied what he thought to these things. Such as making smoking more popular than it should have been. Then on the other end making it less popular. Using the same tools. He basically in a few years was able to convince half the population to start smoking. But I do have to admit bacon at breakfast is pretty sweet.

Mass marketing as of the style he did had a profound impact on our lives. Even until this very day. But think about this. Why are companies like facebook, google and others hoovering up whatever data they can about you? Because while the 'mass' part works up to a point. If they can also add in targeted information they can add a few % to whatever they want to convert you to. The mass marketing primes you to take in the targeted bits. It is quite a clever manipulation.


I'd thought that FB and the rest wanted to know everything about you so that when a certain leading % of your cohort (however you create and group them, I'm no expert here) changed behavior, they can sell higher-converting, related ads to the rest of that cohort. I suppose you might classically use an example of how the Peloton caught on or something commercial like that, but you could definitely also track memetic influences.

I suppose my point is: you're implying FB is converting you to a behavior (FB retains agency in the action), but I'm more curious on whether they're "just" helping that behavior cascade through a cohort (the 3rd party advertiser retains agency in the action since they're designing the ads and expecting a return.) I suppose that if it did exist, this distinction probably gets blurred a bunch in reality (sometimes FB themselves might really want you to convert! e.g. antitrust or whatever)


The way the Bernays method works is to use several different advertising systems from different sources to help guide you to a conclusion.

Lets say I want you to buy my product XYZ. Run an advert campaign talking about some issue, that XYZ just happens to solve. But do not mention XYZ at all. Now that may seem counter intuitive. But it is priming you. Now I make sure I have that splattered everywhere. Get different groups arguing about it? Even better. I now get my product into the hands of someone who is considered an authority (4 out of 5 doctors agree) or popular in some way. Get them to talk it up. By itself that is meaningless. However now my 3rd set of ADs can combine the two. Our brains will not connect the two but the 3rd ad puts it together for us. XYZ fixes 'problem'. We are primed to see the connection and conclusion for us.

FB and google have their cohort groups. They can help build all 3 parts of that campaign for you. Making sure you target the correct set of people at each stage and not waste advertising dollars. This is especially important in the first two parts. The third part if you do it right will bleed over into others as the final targeted group will talk it up for you.


Edward Bernays is responsible for the propaganda campaign that led to compulsory water fluoridation across America https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_relations_campaigns_of_... . Think about that one.




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