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. 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 often donates his services for free to charities, and was also responsible for convincing kids to bathe more (Ivory Soap), convince Americans that water fluoridation is safe (Alcoa), and promote 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.
Despite his Jewish heritage, Joseph Goebbels was a notable admirer, and implemented his techniques as Minister of Propaganda for the Nazis to create a cult of personality around Hitler. As Bernays laments “any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones”. The question is not whether PR works, but how do we use it for good.
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