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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

Great Moments in Rhetoric: Climate Change and the IPCC Mission

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Good communicators are transparent about their purpose.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) mission to take “sophisticated and sometimes inconclusive science, and boil it down to usable advice for lawmakers.” The article speculates (via scientists working with the IPCC) that institutional bias toward oversimplification is what lies behind the erroneous projection that Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035.

If there is anyone out there who still believes in truly objective science—or truly objective anything—I’d like to meet them. It should surprise no one that we constantly arrange facts to meet our pet goals. And we infuse those facts with the urgency that fits our purpose rather than an urgency arising from the facts themselves. This is a human trait and we should expect it in every communication. Facts are facts, yes. But facts are also small pieces of a rhetorical puzzle that can (and will) be built together in a number of different ways. Is there ever a time when we experience facts in isolation—without some rhetorical flourish—that is, without some political aim that wishes to move us toward a favored action?


But persuasion is not wrong. It is a necessary piece of human life on this planet. All our actions, all our thinking, all our communication, all our learning, all of most everything is organized by political pulls. That’s not overstatement: even the best among us are always motivated by partisan or self-serving objectives. Rather than resist this fact of human life, it makes more sense to look closely at the objectives that drive us. Of course, there are two sides to every story, including this large story on climate change. Sure the WSJ is written from a conservative perspective and this article was meant to shine light on hypocritical methods of their opponents, which always makes for good reading and sells newspapers.

It’s just important that we keep in mind what stake our communication partners have in moving us one way or another. And perhaps as communicators, we do best when we state our goals early. In fact, I think our audiences are put in a positive state of listening when they hear our disclosures up front.


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