One of the reasons — arguably the main reason — why the big transnational corporations are now running the world is because most people don’t believe they are. And, of the minority who do realize they live under corporate rule, some think it’s unavoidable and others that it’s even desirable.

This unawareness or acceptance of the New World Order is the greatest triumph of the public relations industry. Its propagandists, in the service of business leaders, have perfected the art of media-transmitted mind control. They have honed and refined the mass brainwashing techniques first devised by Edward L. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, more than a century ago.

Not many people today have ever heard of Bernays, but within the glass-and-marble towers of Burson-Marsteller, Hill & Knowlton, Edelman, and other big American PR agencies, he is revered as “the Father of Spin,” as the patron saint of mass persuasion.

Bernays got his start in moulding public opinion during the First World War, when he was asked by the U.S. government to popularize its belated decision to enter the war against Germany. He coined the slogan “Let’s Make the World Safe for Democracy,” and was credited with changing public sentiment in the U.S. from anti-war to pro-war, almost overnight.

In the post-war years, during the Roaring Twenties, Bernays was in great demand by business firms looking for mass marketing techniques to sell their products. One of his biggest clients in the 1920s was the tobacco industry. His first task was to popularize smoking by women, which he did by equating smoking with women’s liberation. If you were a woman who believed in equal rights with men, he told them, you should have the same right as men to smoke — even in public.

One of his major stunts was to organize what he called a “Torches of Liberty” Easter parade in New York in 1929, in which thousands of marching women all smoked (or at least waved) cigarettes as their symbol of women’s liberation — their “torches of liberty.” The sale of cigarettes to women massively increased in the years that followed.

Tobacco’s harmful effects on human lungs and heart were unknown at the time, of course, so Bernays was able to set up an advertising campaign jointly with the American Medical Association to “prove” that smoking was actually beneficial to people’s health. This campaign, which featured pro-smoking messages from physicians as well as movie stars and other celebrities, saturated magazine, radio and TV advertising for nearly 50 years.

Bernays was also the PR genius who popularized bacon as a breakfast food. Nobody had thought of eating these fatty pork strips first thing in the morning until Bernays launched his bacon-for-breakfast blitz.

During the next few decades, Bernays and his growing number of PR colleagues developed the principles and methods by which masses of people could be brainwashed through messages repeated over and over in the media. And it wasn’t just products that could be sold in this way. It was also ideas and concepts, no matter how abhorrent. 

Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, studied and adopted Edward L.Bernays’s techniques when he was asked to persuade the German people that they were members of a superior race that needed to be “purified.”

Bernays held the masses in contempt. He once described the public as “a herd that needs to be led,” adding that this herd instinct made people “susceptible to leadership.” But he always maintained that the best kind of leadership was unobtrusive — that the masses could best be led and manipulated if they weren’t aware of the processes used to control them. He didn’t believe that democracy was a workable political system, because in his view most people couldn’t think rationally and thus needed to be told what to think.

Here’s a paragraph from Bernays’s remarkably candid book, Propaganda:

Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power. We are governed, our minds moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. In almost every act of our lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

Of course, Bernays was himself pre-eminent among the select few entrusted with this task of moulding public opinion on behalf of the world’s rich and powerful élites.

The big PR firms that now create the desired benevolent image for business leaders and their products are the modern practitioners of Bernays’s methods.

This article is the first part in a two-part series on advertising and business propaganda.

Image: Flickr/990927

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Ed Finn

Ed Finn grew up in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he worked as a printer’s apprentice, reporter, columnist, and editor of that city’s daily newspaper, the Western Star. His career as a journalist...