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.