We’ve come a long way baby…or have we?

Public Relations and its subgenre Press Agentry/Publicity have not changed that much since the time of the Gladiators. The belief that PR utilizes ethics and has the public interest in mind is questionable. Evidence shows that the entire wheel of the world is based on consumerism, manipulation, and the assumption that the masses want nothing more than “Bread and Circuses, ” to quote Roman author, Juvenal (circa 100 AD).  If this is the case, than much historical and modern Public Relations is in violation of modern ethics according to Immanuel Kant and his system known as Kantian Ethics.  The simple basis of which is the premise that people should never be used as a means to an end.  People should not be manipulated into purchases, services, or lifestyle choices just because an industry has the need to make a buck.

In his writings, called the Satires I-XVI, Juvenal quips that the Public gave up their votes, political involvements, and their rights as citizens in broad complacency and were pacified by manipulative politicians who plied them with cheap, often free wheat and cheap, vulgar forms of entertainment such as the deadly Gladiator Spectacles.  In the political theories of the time, it was thought to be the best way to rise to power was by manipulating the public.  It was believed that if the masses were adequately satiated and distracted; they would not pay attention to the politics at hand.  By 140 AD the tactic worked flawlessly, and in it the unfortunate seeds of the fall of Rome were planted.  This, coming from a culture that largely invented the democratic process on the backs of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. This same theory of “bread and circuses” has appeared in Spanish modern literature as “pan y toros” or bread and bullfights and in Russian culture as “хлеба и зрелищ” or bread and spectacle.

Here in the United States a similar theory can be informally viewed as the heightened interest in Reality Television as opposed to political interest.  According to popular lore, derived from a Public Relations media campaign, more people voted in the 2008 American Idol finale than in any presidential election.  In that contest, Taylor Hicks received 64 million votes, which is more than any president had received up until that time.  However, a few things skew the statistic.  First of all, a voter engaging in the American Idol contest does not have to be of legal voting age and the voter can vote multiple times.  Nevertheless, the thought is daunting and public opinion still believes that Taylor Hicks still beat out any president in history.   The story goes to the fact that broad spectrums of people are simply more interested in cheap and unsophisticated entertainment than in public policy.  In the United States we are a culture that likes our food cheap and fast, our entertainment raw, and our porn online.

The crucial player in the development of the field of Modern Public Relations and Press Agentry/Publicity was Edward Bernays.  Bernays came to the United States from Austria in 1892 as an infant.  Raised in New York City, Bernays became a journalist. He was a brilliant and perceptive individual, a slick self-promoter, and a skilled trend creator/launcher.  He landed a position with Woodrow Wilson’s presidential administration and accompanied Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference.  It was there, in Paris, that he had his epiphany.  Watching the crowd frenzy around Wilson, and the “democracy for everyone” slogan, Bernays witnessed herd-mentality first hand.  He realized that this tactic could be utilized in peacetime as well, to affect change in many arenas of social structure.

Bernays studied the works of Wilfred Trotter, who drafted a book entitled “Instincts of the Herd In Peace and War,” along with the writings of Gustave leBon, known for his work with crowd psychology. Perhaps his most important studies in the field of psychology were those of Sigmund Freud.  “Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, conceptualized a model of public relations that emphasized the application of social science research and behavioral psychology to formulate campaigns and messages that could change people’s perceptions (read manipulate) and encourage certain behaviors….Bernays model essentially focused on advocacy and scientific persuasion.”  (Think, pg 72)

“Bernays used Freud’s ideas of primitive and sexual forces along with irrational emotions and fears that can be used to control the dangerous crowds (to develop a model) on how to control the masses by tapping into their inner selfish desires and revealing the “All Consuming Self “creating “Happiness Machines” and contributing to mass consumerism.” In his groundbreaking research, Bernays asked how could we use these ideas to manipulate people?   He found his answer in consumerism.

Bernays released two books detailing his ideas and these books became the foundation for modern Public Relations practices.  “Manipulating Public Opinion” and “Propaganda” both released in 1928.  The essence of his writing can be summed up as follows: manipulation of the public is a necessary part of democracy-very Plato. “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” (Propaganda)

Basically, after World War One, The United States was wealthy, steeped in industry and production, and had few outlets left who could afford its products and sustain its flourishing economy. Most foreign economies were left in ruins to rebuild from the ravages of war.  There was a overlaying concern in America due to increases in industry and production that overproduction and under consumerism was creating a stagnant market and economy.  The question of the day was: how do we get people to switch their consumer trend from a need-based reality to a desire-based reality.  Manipulating people at their core to focus on desire rather than need was at the time and still is the answer.

This fascinating and brilliant man was the first to equate cars to men’s sexuality and cigarettes to freedom and power.  He used product placement in film.  He used celebrities as selling tools by dressing them certain ways and having them tout products or services. He even went so far as to have medical professionals make altered and false claims in order to sell everything from bacon to drugs.  Many of his ideas and tactics are still considered relevant, except maybe for the smoking thing-but it still represents sexy rebellion even though we know it kills us.

Bernays ideas have been further elaborated on by Dr. G Clotaire Rapaille, an extremely successful marketing specialist with a master’s degree in political science and psychology and a doctorate in medical anthropology and a doctorate in psychology. Rapaille is a major proponent of reptilian brain theory: the section of the brain responsible for survival and reproduction also drives purchasing and consumerism.  His beliefs and tactics are utilized to market primarily luxury goods, services, and exclusive entertainment.

The primary purpose of modern entertainment is to sell more entertainment and products or services: all a manipulation tactic toward consumerism. Talk shows, magazines, tabloids, reality TV, fluff news, celebrity, and much social media are all aimed at making people feel inferior so they spend vast amounts of money, often in the form of credit, (as evidenced by the consumer debt driven Economic Crisis/Recession of 2008-2009) purchase their identities and ideals. The term “Keeping up with the Joneses,” from popular Arthur Momand comic strip from 1913 has morphed into “Keep up with the Kardashians” (a reality TV show which premièred in October 2007 based on the life of the Kardashian/Bruce Jenner family who have absolutely no claim to fame other than being the rich celebutante daughters of Robert Kardashian who was trial lawyer for the OJ Simpson murder trial).  Failing to “keep up” denotes a type of socio-economic-cultural inferiority, which in turn plays on irrational fears and desires encouraging further consumerism.  Celebrities and celebutants  hawk everything from perfume, espresso, cars, jewelry, clothing, to lifestyle choices and social activism.

Modern Public Relations claims its basis in transparency and the intent of building mutually beneficial relationships utilizing two-way communication to benefit both the consumer as well as the seller, as opposed to classic Press Agentry / Publicity rooted in one-way communication, utilizing distorted or even exaggerated messages, and manipulative tactics.  Press Agentry and Publicity models have been and still are often used in the fields of entertainment including sports, film, music, television, art, theater, and other entertainment related genres to hype events, products, and services. These media and entertainment formats are major drivers for consumerism from soda to clothing to vacation destinations and entire lifestyle choices.  Now, with the surgence of social media, direct contact with the consumer is easier than ever.  People can be studied, cultivated, manipulated, and molded by anyone at anytime in the split second it takes to type 160 characters into a Twitter account.  The so-called mutually beneficial relationships are questionable because, according to Bernays and Rapaille, people are driven primarily by their desires, irrational urges, fears and reptilian brain impulses of survival and reproduction as opposed to their actual needs.  People are constantly being manipulated into making choices based on their most primal urges and unconscious desires. Therefore, as a result of Public Relations, people are used as a means to an end. We haven’t really come along way baby.

“The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.”

– (Edward L. Bernays, “The Engineering of Consent”, 1947)

One Response to “We’ve come a long way baby…or have we?

Leave a Reply