Big business and public relations, then and now

Free speech in practice, cartoon

By Barry Healey in Australia:

The missionaries pushing the religion from hell!

13 April 2007

Free Market Missionaries: The Corporate Manipulation of Community Values

By Sharon Beder
Earthscan, 2006
260 pages, $56

Wollongong University academic Sharon Beder is almost a one-person industry exposing the pretensions of globalised capital.

With nine books to her credit since 1989, her work has become a standard of excellence for those probing into how authority is wielded by the great and powerful.

Her latest is an in-depth history of how corporations have orchestrated a multi-billion dollar propaganda assault to convince us that their interests, those of the big end of town, are everybody’s interests.

Beder describes this as the conscious manipulation of community values to suit private profit and she traces the origins of this PR juggernaut back to the 1920s.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society”, said Edward Bernays, the so-called father of modern public relations in 1928.

“Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

The first organisation assembled by capitalists for this purpose was the US National Association of Manufacturers, which campaigned against Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.

In 1939 a US senate investigation slammed NAM in a report entitled “Violations of Free Speech and Rights of Labor” — but that didn’t stop the free market crusaders.

By the 1940s, other organisations, cashed up by big business, set out to “educate” the US people about capitalism, or, as they politely renamed it, “free enterprise”.

In his book Propaganda, published in 1928, Bernays wrote that the “intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” and that the manipulators “constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power in our country.” Instead of propaganda, he coined the euphemism “public relations”: here.

5 thoughts on “Big business and public relations, then and now

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  5. Ignore those human rights abuses. Just keep on buying

    COLIN TODHUNTER describes how corporate and government PR helps hide capitalism’s crimes and distracts us from seeking emancipatory change

    THE FATHER of modern public relations and spin Edward Bernays was a cold, cynical manipulator of mass perception.

    He knew that, by shaping people’s desires in a certain way, governments and corporations could sell just about any notion to the masses and manipulate them at will.

    Whether it was whipping up fear about the bogeyman of communism or selling the “American Dream” through consumerism, Bernays and the public relations/advertising industry did exactly that.

    Bernays was an expert in stage-managing events to capture the popular imagination. Among his various accomplishments was to get women hooked on cigarettes by associating feminism and fashion with smoking.

    Calling cigarettes “torches of freedom,” he was instrumental in convincing women that cigarettes were trendy and that smoking symbolised emancipation.

    From getting people to change their diets to putting fluoride in drinking water, corporations knew who to turn to when they wanted to sell their dubious products.

    Thanks in large part to Bernays, politicians, the corporate media and the system’s opinion leaders learned to appeal to primitive impulses, such as fear, sex and narcissism, that have little bearing on issues beyond the narrow self-interests of a consumer society.

    The whole point of such a society is to distract people from the reality of the wider world and train them to desire and want new things that they don’t really need — or, for that matter, even want — while stripping them of their ability to be self-reliant and independent.

    The US government quickly learned that angels and demons could be manufactured from thin air and, from Guatemala and Congo to Vietnam, that wars and destabilisations could be built on packs of lies.

    Adam Curtis’s 2002 BBC documentary series The Century of the Self describes how Bernays propagandised on behalf of the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita Brands International) and the US government to help overthrow the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz.

    Arbenz wanted to nationalise the company’s lands, but Bernays successfully helped brand Arbenz a communist with links to the Soviet Union, which had no basis in reality. This set the stage for public support for a US-backed violent overthrow of Arbenz.

    Whether it has involved Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine or Libya, Bernays’s tactics of deception have been further developed to keep the masses docile in order to sell imperialism under the lie of a war on terror, humanitarian intervention or exporting freedom, while enriching corporate interests in the process.

    Millions are now locked into the pursuit of the Bernays’s model of consumerism. They are locked into addiction. Addicted to the pursuit of acquisition, of hedonism, of self-gratification. Addicted to the belief that there is an actual point to it all.

    In the US Declaration of Independence, there is the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Freedom and happiness — or their pursuit — are central but were subverted by the likes of Bernays.

    With his knowledge of psycho-analysis — Sigmund Freud was his uncle — Bernays knew it was relatively easy to manipulate desires and get people hooked on consuming.

    The “American Dream” of consumerism was built on craving and propaganda. And it is maintained by stripping the environment bare, by the unsustainable raping of nature to fuel profits, and is underpinned by perpetual war to grab resources.

    The deaths of millions of people killed by US-backed wars and death squads, covert ops and destabilisations are glossed over by countless Hollywood icons, commentators and politicians under the banner of championing freedom and democracy.

    Today’s globalised system of capitalism exists to facilitate the desires of a tiny minority of extremely wealthy people and these billionaires, with their media, think tanks and lobbying networks, have enormous influence over global policies.

    These so-called “wealth creators,” whose greed has bankrupted nations, leech off of the labour of ordinary people, which they stash away in tax havens and imposed a form of globalisation that results in devastating destruction and war for those who attempt to remain independent from them.

    Little wonder then that attempts to redress the balance have been brutally suppressed over the decades. From democratic leftist organisations or governments pursuing a socialist alternative, or just displaying independent tendencies, this class has used intelligence agencies, front groups, threats, co-opted leaders or military might to attempt to subvert or annihilate any threat to its global hegemony.

    From El Salvador and Chile to Egypt and India’s tribal belt, ordinary folk across the world have been subjected to policies that have resulted in oppression, poverty and conflict.

    But this is all passed off by politicians and corporate media as the way things must be. Anyone who stands up to this lie is ridiculed or treated much worse.

    Many of us know the truth of what “happiness” really is and the type of society necessary to achieve it — based on common ownership of natural assets (the commons), self-reliance, localisation, economic democracy and equality.

    Yet it is ordinary men and women who sign up to join the military and support this system on behalf of these immensely wealthy people.

    In part thanks to Bernays, such people have, however, been adept at manipulating the masses to rally around flag and nation, evoking an emotive misplaced sense of patriotism to pursue their militarism or justify their exploitation.

    In his book A People’s History of England, A L Morton documented how ordinary people, over many hundreds of years, set out to challenge these rulers and often paid with their lives. Nothing ever came for free and ordinary working people fought tooth and nail for any rights that they managed to obtain.

    Such a travesty then that ordinary people in the richer countries are today denied decent livelihoods because jobs have been sold to the lowest bidder in places such as China, Cambodia and Bangladesh — de facto colonial outposts for the US empire with its ready supply of cheap labour.

    The US economy has been hollowed out. Much of its manufacturing has been shipped abroad. For those who benefited, US workers can go to hell in a handcart as long as profits keep rolling in.

    It’s the ability to maximise profit by shifting capital around the world that matters to them, whether on the back of distorted free trade agreements that open the gates for plunder or through coercion and militarism, which merely tear them down.

    Bernays was a sophisticated operator in his time, but things have certainly moved on since his day.

    Today, there is a whole industry of public relations and think thank firms. Take companies like Strategic Communications Laboratories, APCO Worldwide, Cambridge Analytica, Hill and Knowlton etc, all of which have worked with governments and private corporations to shift people’s perception of the world and attempt to orchestrate the future for their clients’ benefits.

    But none of this must be exposed. If the propaganda is to remain effective, the public must remain comatose, emotionally malleable, strung out on consumerism and endlessly subjected to an echo chamber of empty slogans about patriotism, the bogeyman at the door and freedom and democracy.

    The system must promote a mass mindset that is immune to the lies because the alternative is rational analysis and emancipatory change.


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