The dictionary defines propaganda as 1) information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc., 2) the deliberate spreading of such information, rumors, etc. or 3) the particular doctrines or principles propagated by an organization or movement.
Propaganda was invented by Edward Louis Bernays (1891−1995), an Austrian-American pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, referred to in his obituary as “the father of public relations”.
He combined the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud. He felt this manipulation was necessary in society, which he regarded as irrational and dangerous as a result of the “herd instinct” (Trotter).
Working for the administration of Woodrow Wilson during World War I with the Committee on Public Information, Bernays was influential in promoting the idea that America’s war efforts were primarily aimed at “bringing democracy to all of Europe”.
Stunned by the degree to which the democracy slogan had swayed the public both at home and abroad, he wondered whether this propaganda model could be employed during peacetime. Due to negative implications surrounding the word propaganda because of its use by the Germans in World War I, he promoted the term “Public Relations”.
According to the BBC interview with Bernays’ daughter Anne, Bernays felt that the public’s democratic judgment was “not to be relied upon” and he feared that “they [the American public] could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing, so that they had to be guided from above.”
After Bernays published his seminal work Propaganda (1928), the US government, industries and advertisers continuously developed ways to sway public opinion.
Bernays refined and popularized the use of the press release, following its invention by PR man Ivy Lee, who had issued a press release after the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck.
One of Bernays’ most famous campaigns was the women’s cigarette smoking campaign in 1920s. Bernays helped the smoking industry overcome one of the biggest social taboos of the time: women smoking in public. Women were only allowed to smoke in designated areas, or not at all. Women caught violating this rule were arrested.
Bernays staged the 1929 Easter parade in New York City, showing models holding lit Lucky Strike cigarettes, or “Torches of Freedom”. After the historic public event, women started lighting up more than ever before. It was through Bernays that women’s smoking habits started to become socially acceptable. Bernays convinced industries that the news, not advertising, was the best medium to carry their message to an unsuspecting public.
One of Bernays’ favorite techniques for manipulating public opinion was the indirect use of “third party authorities” to plead his clients’ causes. “If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway”, he said.
In order to promote sales of bacon, for example, he conducted a survey of physicians and reported their recommendation that people eat heavy breakfasts. He sent the results of the survey to 5,000 physicians, along with publicity touting bacon and eggs as an ideal heavy breakfast and superior for health to the then traditional breakfast of tea (or coffee) and toast.
Today, these “third party authorities” are called “thought leaders”.
Bernays also drew upon his uncle Sigmund’s psychoanalytic ideas for the benefit of commerce in order to promote, by indirection, commodities as diverse as cigarettes, soap and books.