Propaganda is always an incendiary subject. And rightly so! But pepper in the words Marketing, Public Relations (PR) and Advertising and suddenly you’ve a cocktail to inflame even the most rational consumer. Both involve a deep understanding of the public psyche and their inner most desires and feelings. And over the course of this blog, you’ll bear witness to human irrationality and the egotistical nature of some of our beliefs.

In general terms, public relations is a cradle term for managing a business’s relationship and communication with the general public. Maintaining the precious brand image and ensuring the general public maintain a positive view of the organisation. Achieving this is not easy. Accordingly, the history of public relations may unsettle the stomach appearing manipulative when written in cold text.

The Birth of Propaganda PR

The acclaim (or vitriol) of being the founder of public relations lies with Edward Bernays. Witnessing the use of propaganda to prey on people’s fears and incite hatred during World War 1 sparked an idea. He wondered if propaganda could be used for good coining the term “public relations”.

His allies lay with Corporations and Politicians who too were afraid that people would stop spending money leading to the loss of jobs, prosperity and profit. Consequently, he agreed to help major corporations like Proctor and Gamble and the Lehman brothers. The premise was simple - turn needs into desires.

Appealing to the Inner Self

At the heart of Bernay’s beliefs were that people made purchases as an expression of their inner self to others. Using this knowledge he sought to help corporations reach consumers by appearing to be just like them. In Bernays book, he speaks of engineering consent and stimulating inner desires before satiating them with consumer products. In other words, appealing to unrecognised longings.

All of this sounds quite pernicious. However, at the crux of Bernays beliefs was that people were emotional and not rational. They could, therefore, vote for the wrong person or want the wrong things. Enlightened despotism, his followers attest.

This kickstarted the process of the first real effort at mass consumer persuasion with the sale of products to the mass market. Bernay’s influences primarily stem from the work of his uncle - the infamous psychologist Sigmund Freud. Freud’s research found that people were driven by their unconscious mind and not the rational one. Bernays often spoke of his conviction that people were influenced by the “crowd”. They follow a herd and mob like mentality leaning towards those of similar orientation.

The Herd Mentality

Incidentally, this human herd mentality led to the formation of the Nazi’s. A civilised nation bound together to unleash their animalistic instincts on those outside their group. Anyone who wasn’t German or of Aryan race was deemed inferior. Jews and other minorities were treated as sub human deserving eradication. More can be found on how the Nazi’s used marketing practices to rise to power in one of our recent blogs. In this instance, the dangerous and irrational side of the human race rose to the fore.

“Intelligent men must realise that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.” -  Edward Bernays

The American Government saw this dangerous and irrational side of the human race. They felt it must be controlled turning to Freud to help control this animal within. Along with Freud came psychoanalysts to dissect the human personality. The government felt the necessity to control these innate tendencies fearing that if left alone America wouldn’t be able to maintain democracy. In essence, a fate similar to Germany may lie on the horizon.

Conscious Consumerism

Psychoanalysts weren’t just trying to teach people how to be model citizens but better consumers. The sense of “self” would be redirected into purchasing products to express your “specialness”. Demand for power, status, sex, riches and more could be achieved by purchasing a product/service. The previous alternative being the subjugation and exploitation of other human beings.

Corporations and Ad agencies began to employ psychoanalysts to understand and exploit this irrational consumer. Leaning heavily on Bernay’s theory provided a firm foundation. Research showing that people buy products to complement their self-image proved a platform for viable consumerism. Strangely, people find therapeutic value and can become a more secure person after buying a product. It satisfies a need or want inside us which sends a hit of dopamine to our brain. Which explains why women always like to boast of “retail therapy” (but never to their husbands).

Finding the Right Brand for you

Aligning brands to peoples sense of individuality and uniqueness didn’t just boost sales but generated loyal customers and a brand following. The 80’s brought the desire of the individual to the fore. Autonomous, powerful and wanting the best, a new aspirational consumer was born.

Adverts began to portray brands as rebels putting the “self and fulfilment at the heart of advertising messages - “You can be whoever you want to be”. Brands weren’t just selling products but identities and lifestyles. By buying a Rolex you could demonstrate your status as a rich and successful person. As a side note, in 2013, Abercrombie CEO got in trouble for not wanting “larger people” to shop in the store as only “cool” kids wear their clothes. A crude example serving as a demonstration of brands seeking to appeal to people of certain lifestyles chasing status and trademarks of their feelings of superiority.

When you bought a product you were also buying that brand’s identity and values. Penneys serve as a great brand which was able to change their identity from an expression of poverty to many to now coolness and trendiness personified. Jokes no longer circulate about “Oh she must have bought that at Penney’s”.

Similarly, corporations weren’t the only ones to latch onto our sense of self. Reading the public mind and giving them what they want also became a core agenda for politicians. Accordingly, they paid more attention to peoples inner feelings. Actions and promises would serve to keep the electorate happy no matter the triviality. For this reason, kissing the American flag and thanking God is worth gold to the American public.

The Cool Down

All of this might stir the anger of anti authoritarians. Politicians and corporations shouldn’t bear the brunt of this anger however. Ultimately, that lies with you. Next time you buy that status car or product espousing power and wealth, don’t blame marketing and PR campaigns. Instead, condemn your irrational and “monkey” brain.


 * The inspiration for this blog came from a BBC documentary “Century of the Self”. You can view it on Youtube by clicking the link.