Crystallizing Public Opinion

by katystreet

By Edward Bernays.

Sandra lent me this book for my birthday. She said it’s interesting but, given the current political climate, depressing. I did not find it too depressing.

This book was written in 1937, before Bernays was as famous as he is today, though he was plenty famous at the time. The introduction, by Stuart Ewen, is fascinating in itself. Ewen met Bernays shortly before Bernays died. Bernays brainstorms with Ewen how he would make a book Ewen had recently written become a success; Ewen thinks perhaps Bernays put in a good word for his book as events played out similar to how Bernays envisioned them, though he has never been sure. Ewen also comments on how Bernays’ wife did much of Bernays work, though Bernays admits to never attributing it to her because it was unthinkable at the time that a woman could do such good work.

Bernays has the idea the public need to be guided from above, that the government is responsible for swaying public opinion. He oscillates between respect and disrespect for the average person. On one hand, they are to trotted along, on the other, they are complex and individual and this needs to be appreciated (in order to trot them along.)

Plenty of the book is examples of how public opinion was changed. Bernays was responsible for allowing women to smoke — a sign of freedom and equality, although in fact he was trying to improve tobacco sales. He came up with the idea of improving the sales of bacon by having newspapers report on how physicians believed a heavier breakfast was good for the health. His ideas are all incredibly simple and yet amazing inventive and powerful. Much of it has to do with pulling in third parties or tangential ideas. A hotel is grappling with a rumor that it is shutting down, so he suggests publicly renewing the contract of a well-respected, leading employee.

A lot of it revolves on how to best use newspapers and the importance of the newspaper as a tool. I suspect much of that has changed now that there are so many more options for newspaper, that they are figuring out a new business model, and there are many more options for news outside of newspapers. Bernays had it easier. Though I suspect he would find trolls genius.

Some quotes I took down:

“If we look back upon the developments of some such thing as the steam engine, we cannot fail to be struck by the extreme obviousness of each advance, and how obstinately it was refused a assimilation until the machine almost invented itself.”

“All papers feature big news. When there is no big news, real editing is needed to select the real news from the semi news. What you read on dull news days is what fixes your opinion of your country and of your compatriots. It is from the non-sensational news that you see the world and assess, rightly or wrongly, the true value of persons and events.

“Propaganda is a purposeful, directed effort to overcome censorship – the censorship of the group mind and the herd reaction. The average citizen is the world’s most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier between him and the facts.

“Few people are life members of one group and of one group only. The ordinary person is a very temporary member of a great number of groups. This is one of the most powerful forces making for progress in society because it makes for a receptivity and open-mindedness. The modification which results from the inconstancy of individual commitments may be accelerated and directed by conscious effort.”

“Abstract discussions and heavy fact are the groundwork of his involved theory, or analysis, but they cannot be given to the public until they are simplified and dramatized. The refinements of reason and the shading of emotion cannot reach a considerable public.