Number 315 December 23, 2005

This Week:

Quote of the Week
How Propaganda Works: Three Key Concepts
How Propaganda Works: "Branding"


The Propaganda Series continues!  This week I finish up "How Propaganda Works" (although it's never really finished, but it is for the purposes of this series).  Next week I hope to touch on the "Why" and the "Where," before completing the series with a little piece about all the millions of things that people can do--and are doing--to liberate not only themselves, but all of us, from what has become the deep-seated tyranny of modern Propaganda.  You'll be amazed at how many things people are doing!

OK, that's all the editor's note I have room for this week.  Welcome, new readers!

Until next week,


"Quote" of the Week:

Elsewhere in this issue of the Notes, I quote Edward L. Bernays, the "Father of Public Relations," as saying that "The important thing for the statesman of our age is not so much to know how to please the public but to know how to sway the public."  But the "Quote" of the Week is Bernays' explanation of how, exactly, a "statesman" would go about doing that.  Bernays says:

"In theory, this [swaying of the public] might be done by means of learned pamphlets explaining the intricacies of public questions.  In actual fact it can be done only by meeting the conditions of the public mind by creating circumstances which set up trains of thought, by dramatizing personalities, by establishing contact with the group leaders who control the opinions of the publics."

I added the emphasis in that quotation, since that comment about "creating circumstances which set up trains of thought" is a direct reference to working at the level of Deep Propaganda.  The willingness to go to that level--and not stop at simply trying to persuade people to buy a specific product or idea--is a large part of what made Bernays famous, and lies at the very heart of the social phenomenon that I call Propaganda.

How Propaganda Works: Three Key Concepts

Two weeks ago I talked about both the production and distribution of Overt Propaganda.  I said that the producers of Overt Propaganda are government officials, corporations, advertisers (who work for corporations, and are themselves corporations), and wealthy people (who hire corporations).  As far as distributing this Overt Propaganda, I said that this is done by whoever is in the business of distributing ideas--from the media to textbooks to church sermons--and that they may do this propaganda work consciously or unconsciously.  But I didn't talk about how any of this is done.  Now I will, with a great deal of help from the Father of Public Relations, Edward L. Bernays.  (Pretty much all the quotations this week, including the "Quote" of the Week, are from his 1928 book "Propaganda.")

Remember back in Part 1 of this series ("What Is Propaganda?"), I quoted political scientist Harold Lasswell as saying that "Propaganda in the broadest sense is the technique of influencing human action by the manipulation of representations."  I think he's got the basic idea right.

In essence, Propaganda has a "positive" and a "negative" form. The positive form is to get people to associate symbols (that is, "representations") of the propagandist (or their cause, or their product, or whatever) with positive emotions.  The negative form involves getting people to associate symbols of the enemy (or the competitor, or other products, or whatever) with negative emotions.  Pretty simple, right?  To understand this in a practical way, we have to understand three basic concepts: EMOTIONS, SYMBOLS, and ASSOCIATIONS.

The Three Key Concepts of Propaganda

Concept #1: EMOTIONS.  Here is Edward Bernays, page 73-74: "[T]he group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word.  In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits, and emotions." [Emphasis added by Nygaard]

Propagandists understand that most people make decisions on an emotional level.  That is, they feel "good" or "bad" about a candidate, or a product, or a cause, and that FEELING is what makes them donate, or vote, or purchase, or support, one thing rather than another.

Good propagandists never argue on a factual level unless and until they have "set up" their audience by getting them to have an emotional receptiveness to what they are going to say.

Here's how Bernays explains this, on page 121.  He's talking about one of the big issues of his day, which was how much of a tax to place on imports, which is known as a "tariff."  After listing a bunch of what we would now call "PR stunts" designed to draw public attention to the issue of tariffs, Bernays wrote, "In whatever ways [a political leader] dramatized the issue, the attention of the public would be attracted to the question before he addressed them personally.  Then, when he spoke to his millions of listeners on the radio, he would not be seeking to force an argument down the throats of a public thinking of other things and annoyed by another demand on its attention; on the contrary, he would be answering the spontaneous questions and expressing the emotional demands of a public already keyed to a certain pitch of interest in the subject."  And that "keying to a certain pitch of interest" will have been done by someone behind the scenes.  Someone like Ed Bernays.

Concept #2: SYMBOLS.  Here's Bernays (p. 74) again:  "In making up its mind, [the public's] first impulse is usually to follow the example of a trusted leader. ...But when the example of the leader is not at hand and the herd must think for itself it does so by means of clichés, pat words or images which stand for a whole group of ideas or experiences."

Lasswell says that symbols "may take spoken, written, pictorial or musical form."  Some of this is obvious, since everyone understands that a flag is meant to represent a country, or a certain jingle means McDonald's.  But the business of Propaganda is the manipulation of symbols, and that's all about "association."

Concept #3: ASSOCIATION.  There are two ways to get the public to associate certain feelings with your cause, product, or idea.  One is to try to actually make or actually do things that people will have positive feelings about, and then make sure the public knows what you make or do.  This is what a lot of PR professionals like to think they are doing, and some of them actually are doing this.  I don't see anything wrong with this.  I do it myself, every time I have a Nygaard Notes Pledge Drive.  I think if people know what I'm doing, they will feel good about it and want to support it.

There is another way to get people to make associations, and it's almost the opposite of telling people about what you do.  That other way is to get people to associate certain feelings with your cause, product, or idea by obscuring what you ACTUALLY make or do, then manipulating your symbol so that people associate it with whatever you want.  This sounds a little confusing, so let me go into it a little bit.

Here's how Bernays puts it, on page 119:  "It is not necessary for the politician to be the slave of the public's group prejudices, if he can learn how to mold the mind of the voters in conformity with his own ideas... The important thing for the statesman of our age is not so much to know how to please the public but to know how to sway the public."

Earlier in the book (pages 66-67) Bernays was referring to the difficulties that insurance companies had in the wake of the "insurance scandals" of the early 20th Century.  In that context, he said,

"The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, prompted by the most fundamental self-interest, initiated a conscious, directed effort to change the attitude of the public toward insurance companies in general, and toward itself in particular, to its profit and the public benefit.  It tried to make a majority movement of itself by getting the public to buy its policies.  It reached the public at every point of its corporate and separate existences.  To communities it gave health surveys and expert counsel.  To individuals it gave health creeds and advice.  Even the building in which the corporation was located was made a picturesque landmark to see and remember, in other words to carry on the associative process.  And so this company came to have a broad general acceptance. The number and amount of its policies grew constantly as its broad contacts with society increased."

This is what it is all about when corporations form charitable foundations, put their names on sports stadiums, sponsor the big parade, and so forth.  They are trying to increase their "broad contacts with society" so that they can "have a broad general acceptance" in the public mind.  They may or may not want to DO good, but the absolutely want to be ASSOCIATED with doing good.

Perhaps the best illustration of this "forced association" is the public relations strategy known as "branding," which I discuss in the following article.


How Propaganda Works: "Branding"

"Branding" is one of those things that seems kind of simple when you first think about it, but it's really quite complicated, as you'll see when you read the next paragraph, which was my first attempt to spell it out:

"Branding" involves avoiding any talk about what you make or do, and instead working to create a symbol of your product, then figuring out a way to get people to respond emotionally to the symbol.  That symbol then gets confused in the public's mind with the product itself (or the service itself, or the whatever-you-want itself).  Then, people can be made to have a positive relationship with the symbol, and you can go on doing whatever you want and, even if people don't like what you actually do, people will feel good about "you," because they are responding to the symbol that they think IS you.  Best example: Ronald Reagan.  Opinion polls during the Reagan presidency regularly showed a majority opposed to most of his policies, but people liked Reagan, himself.  So, they voted for the man--or really the image, the symbol, of the man--and then they got his policies.  He was a "brand," and people "bought" it, big-time.

Kind of confusing?  Well, here are some more thoughts on "branding:"

Al and Laura Ries, in their book "The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding," strip it down to this simple statement: "Quality of a product doesn't matter.  It's all about brands."

Edward L. Bernays says, on page 83, "Business realizes that its relationship to the public is not confined to the manufacture and sale of a  given product, but includes at the same time the selling of itself and of all those things for which it stands in the public mind."  [Emphasis added by Nygaard.]

When a corporation, or a government, crosses over from providing information about products or policies to  "selling ... all those things for which it stands," that is the point at which it has crossed over from traditional advertising into the realm of Propaganda.  In fact, this very crossing over is what defines what has been called "modern" public relations, which is just about 100 years old now.

Corporations play the branding game with the corporate name.  One way to do it is to make up names that evoke certain emotions.  Financial and health-care companies in particular like to do this.  Corporate names like "Thrivent" and "Integra" (financial) and "Guidant" (health) are all names that include sounds that remind people of "good" things like thriving and integrity and guidance.  Beyond the Propaganda purpose, they have no meaning, and they're not supposed to have meaning.  That is, no meaning in the sense of "I know that name, and I know what they do."  These names--these created associative names--are supposed to make you feel good.  Period.

Sometimes companies abandon names that are hopelessly associated with negative responses, and make up a (meaningless) name to which they can attach a positive meaning.  The best example of this is the tobacco giant "Phillip Morris," which recently changed its name to the association-free "The Atria Group."  Too many people associate cancer with Phillip Morris.  So, what to do?  Stop selling tobacco?  Heck, no!  Let's change our name!

Finally, think of your daily life: Do you "feel good"--like there must be happy kids around--when you see that special flowery handwriting that means "Disney?"  Are you inclined to gravitate toward the pop machine that has the familiar "Coca Cola" logo?  Or maybe you "feel" better when you see the red-white-and-blue Pepsi logo.  It's very subtle, but these things get  inside of most of us.  Emotions + Symbols + Association = Branding.

Propaganda in the Political Realm

The use of Propaganda techniques is easy to see in regular old advertising, since we all know that the point of advertising is to manipulate us.  (Don't we?)  But the practices of advertising, or "public relations," are increasingly used to manipulate political behavior as well.

Here's Ed Bernays, page 54: "...the manipulators of patriotic opinion made use of the mental clichés and the emotional habits of the public to produce mass reactions against the alleged atrocities, the terror, and the tyranny of the enemy." [Emphasis by Nygaard.] Following the recipe to a "T," here is George Bush, speaking in a major address in Philadelphia, the week before the recent election in Iraq: "[Having an election is] a remarkable transformation for a country that has virtually no experience with democracy, and which is struggling to overcome the legacy of one of the worst tyrannies the world has known."

One of the worst tyrannies the world has known?  That'll produce a mass reaction, one would think!  What we see here is that Saddam has become a symbol of tyranny, often associated with the greatest symbol of evil in the modern era: Hitler.  But one needn't be a defender of Saddam Hussein to notice that there are other heads of state who are or were guilty of crimes of equal or greater magnitude to those of Saddam--but who are or were strong allies of the United States--and yet are not symbols of tyranny in this country (if their names are even recognized).  I'm thinking here of Suharto in Indonesia, Marcos in the Philippines, Rios Montt in Guatemala, the Shah of Iran, Pinochet in Chile, and the list goes on.

There are numerous other concepts, personalities, and ideas in the political realm that have been successfully "branded."  That is, the symbol that represents them (a name, a photo, a word) "produces mass reactions" when presented to a public that really knows little about their actual underlying meaning.  "Big government" is bad.  Why?  "Free Trade" is good.  What is it?  "Iran" is dangerous.  Why?  Emotions + Symbols + Association = Branding.  The moment you add an ingredient--Emotions + THINKING + Symbols + Association--is the moment you have started to build a resistance to "branding."  It's not hard to do.  It just takes a little time and practice.