Did you know it was someone’s job to promote the idea that US efforts in World War I were intended to bring democracy to Europe? The “Committee on Public Information” was tasked with not just selling war bonds, but selling the war itself. After selling $17 billion worth of bonds (the equivalent share of GDP today would be $6.3 trillion), Edward Bernays decided to see if the propaganda techniques they developed worked in peacetime as well. Rebranding ‘propaganda’ as ‘public relations’, Bernays made the case that it was essential to a functioning democracy. “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”
He then proceeded to use these powers to get women smoking (Lucky Strike), promote the use of disposable plastic cups (Dixie), and get an anti-immigration president re-elected (Calvin Coolidge). Though he also sometimes donated his services for free to charities, was responsible for convincing kids to bathe more (Ivory Soap), convince Americans that water fluoridation is safe (Alcoa), and promoted the first civil rights convention in Atlanta without triggering any violence or counter-demonstrations (NAACP). He’s also the reason Americans eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, use wristwatches instead of pocket watches and have an interest in Russian ballerinas. Whether you call it propaganda or PR, these techniques can be used for good or evil. As Bernays himself laments “any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones”.
Overlooking Bernays’ Jewish heritage, Joseph Goebbels was a notable admirer of his work. He implemented these techniques as Minister of Propaganda for the Nazis, with primary ambition to create a cult of personality around Adolf Hitler. Thankfully America’s economic might beat Nazi pageantry, as defector KGB agent Yuri Bezmenov said “[ideology is] something you cannot eat, wear, or store for a ‘rainy day’”. As detailed by Bezmenov, the Soviets partook in psychological warfare too, using “ideological subversion” to attempt to demoralize America and her allies in the Cold War. The compiled list of tactics are shocking in that once you’re made aware of them, you can see echoes of their effects indicating they’re still in use to this day.
- Corrupt the young, get them interested in sex, take them away from religion. Make them superficial and enfeebled.
- Divide the people into hostile groups by constantly harping on controversial issues of no importance. (Non-issues)
- Destroy people’s faith in their national leaders by holding the latter up for contempt, ridicule, and disgrace.
- Always preach democracy but seize power as fast and as ruthlessly as possible.
- By encouraging government extravagances, destroying its credit, producing years of inflation with rising prices and discontent.
- Incite unnecessary strikes in vital industries, encourage civil disorder, and foster a lenient and soft attitude on the part of the government towards such disorders.
- Cause breakdown of the old moral virtues: honesty, sobriety, self-restraint, faith in the pledged word.
The aim of these tactics were to use disinformation and foster ideological group differences to “change your perception of reality to such an extent that even despite an abundance of information and evidence about the danger of Communism, you are unable to come to sensible conclusions in your own interests and in the interests of your nation.” On top of brainwashing the masses, propaganda serves to remind those who aren’t brainwashed of the regime’s power. Often that may even be the main point, which is why most propaganda is so dull or nonsensical. As Lisa Weeden observes from her work in Syria, forcing citizens to participate in obviously irrational behavior is a costly signalling technique: “The greater the absurdity of the required performance, the more clearly it demonstrates that the regime can make most people obey most of the time.”
According to Bezmenov, the only defence to this type of ideological aggression is more ideology. Fight fire with fire. He notes that people don’t fight for truth or for logic, but they do lay down their lives for religion. That religion is less ideologically fashionable in elite circles today, perhaps explains why Bezmenov is no longer widely studied. You might not like that these tactics exist, but that doesn’t make them less effective, and it doesn’t make our enemies any less likely to use them. Whether they work is without doubt. The question is are these techniques being used against us, and if so, how do we counter.
Bezmenov’s Steps (Ideological Subversion)
GROW! Marketing and Public Relations Tips Lessons from Edward Bernays Most Notable Public Relations Campaigns
Love Letter to America
Propaganda in the United States
The manipulation of the American mind: Edward Bernays and the birth of public relations
The Original Influencer
The True Purpose of Propaganda