Edward Bernays claims, in his book Propaganda, that most of our actions and thoughts are affected by propaganda, even if we are not aware of it. He notes two main aspects of our society that make effective propaganda possible. The first aspect is our tendency to define ourselves by the groups that we belong to. A person may belong to many different groups, for instance; a person may belong to a church group, a national organization for women’s rights, a local bridge club, a labor union, and they may be affiliated with a certain college. These groups all serve as channels for propaganda to reach an individual through the “group mind”. These groups are not separate entities, and often overlap. According to Bernays, “The invisible, intertwining structure of groupings and associations is the mechanism by which democracy has organized its group mind and simplified its mass thinking” (18). The other aspect of society that allows for effective propaganda is the media. As mass media grows, propagandists have the ability to reach millions of people simultaneously. Bernays defines the media as “all the means by which people to-day transmit their ideas to one another” (150). Propagandists can use many different types of media; newspapers, lectures, magazines, war posters, and speeches, to ensure that their message reaches the masses. Our tendency to define ourselves by the groups we are a part of, coupled with mass media, make it possible for propaganda to be effective. Our society is set up as a perfect channel for propaganda. However, Bernays also attempts to erase the common misconception that propaganda is a purely negative thing.
Even today, the word propaganda continues to carry a negative connotation. However, Bernays defines propaganda by claiming, “Any society…which is possessed of certain beliefs, and sets out to make them known, either by the spoken or written words, is practicing propaganda” (22). Therefore, it is apparent that propaganda is not an inherently negative thing. It is only when propaganda is misused to spread false information, or information that is detrimental to society as a whole, that it becomes a negative thing (Bernays 22). Furthermore, not only is propaganda not an inherently negative practice, it is also a necessity in a modern democracy. The increasing presence of mass media has allowed the public to become better informed of the practices of both corporations, public figures, and presidential campaign promises. As such, public opinion of an entity, whether it is a single politician or a giant company, has a direct effect on the well-being of that entity. The need to affect public opinion has given rise to modern propagandists who are called public relations counsels. “The public relations expert may be known as the public relations director or counsel. Often he is called secretary or vice-president or director. Sometimes he is known as cabinet officer or commissioner” (Bernays 42). Propagandists are a part of any successful enterprise that is subject to public opinion.
A modern propagandist must understand the “group thinking” that has spawned from a person’s tendency to define themselves by the groups that they belong to. Bernays notes that when people associate themselves with a specific group, “their first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader” (50). If a specific group does not have a leader to follow, they typically relate to ideas through symbols and clichés (Bernays 50). A propagandist must use these two defining traits of group thinking to effectively employ the use of propaganda. A propagandist must analyze his client, whether it is an individual or a company, and decide what message they want to relate to the public on behalf of the client. This message is tailored to the wants and needs of the public. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement because effective propaganda is an intersection of a propagandist’s client’s interests and the public’s interests (Bernays 45). This mutually beneficial message is then relayed to the public through the media or the leaders of specific groups. Effective propaganda is, essentially, an individual or corporation letting the public know that their ideas or commodities conform to the public’s desires.
Bernays, Edward. Propaganda. New York: H. Liveright, 1928. Retrieved from http://www.voltairenet.org/IMG/pdf/Bernays_Propaganda_in_english_.pdf