Friday, June 21, 2013

"A Bulletproof Strategy"

Edward Bernays (1891-1995) was a pioneer in the field of “Public Relations”, a term he helped popularize, as a replacement for the word “propaganda” which bore the stenchy connotation of manipulating a citizenry and leading them into a war. 

(Pomerantz Warning:  Beware of a man peddling euphemisms.  “Public Relations.”  The guy’s already lying to you.) 

It is not a coincidence that Bernays was closely related (a nephew on both sides of the family) to the “Father of Psychoanalysis”, Sigmund Freud.  Along with the theories of Gustave LeBon (the originator of crowd psychology) and Wilfred Trotter (author of Instincts of the Herd in War and Peace) Bernays incorporated his uncle Sigmund’s psychoanalytic ideas in the service of selling things.  

Hypothesizes Bernays: “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?”

Bernays’ impressive clientele ranged from Proctor and Gamble to the United Fruit Company (where his efforts reputedly facilitated the successful overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatamala) to the presidential campaign of “Silent”, and not particular crowd-pleasing, Calvin Coolidge.

Though successful and respected, Bernays and his methods did have some notable detractors.  Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described Bernays and fellow Public Relationist Ivy Lee as “professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism and self-interest.” 

(What’s the matter Felix?  No fan of perception over reality?  Loosen up.  Somebody came up with Supreme Court.)

One of Bernays’s most famous P.R. campaigns was on behalf of the American Tobacco Company in the 1920’s.  Up till then, the women of America were either legally forbidden or, minimally, socially sanctioned against smoking in public. 

“Ladies”, the message was clear, did not smoke.

The American Tobacco Company, of course, wanted women them to.  But how do you swim against the tide of a deeply entrenched cultural taboo? 

Edward Bernays had the answer. 

Staging the 1929 New York City Easter Parade, Bernays included a float, atop of which were an assemblage of beautiful models holding lit Lucky Strike cigarettes.  But, in a resonating connection to the recent major advancement in Women’s Rights (the 19th Amendment legalizing women suffrage was approved in 1920), those cigarettes were labeled, touted and referred to prominently in the event’s news coverage as…

“Torches of Freedom.”

Cigarette sales subsequently skyrocketed.

You see how that works?

A product by itself is simply a commodity you are trying to sell.  But link that product to a passionately held principle, and it’s no longer just a product. 

It’s a Symbolic Representation. 

Now you are no longer a salesman flacking a tobacco product.  You are a Crusader.  Championing a Cause.

It’s not cigarettes.

It’s Women’s Rights.

Similarly, today…

It’s not guns.

It’s the protection insured by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Clever guy, that Bernays.  (And his super-savvy successors.)

Products can be regulated, limited, boycotted and banned. 

But how do you take on a Symbolic Representation?

1 comment:

Man said...

Very interesting. The same argument is playing out with the smoking ban and how far to extend it, with some shameless politicians re-branding it as the elite's attempt to curtail something the working class enjoy.
Then the argument shifts from - who's got shares in big tobacco? To - who would deny the working man his freedom?