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Public Relations - Propaganda as an Economic Branch

by Lukas Boehm Tuesday, Apr. 15, 2014 at 5:44 AM

"The borders between skillful PR, dull propaganda and lobbyism and corruption are flowing. The only possibility for protecting oneself is to be informed as extensively and independently as possible. This is easier said than done; information costs energy and time and assumes a basic education."


By Lukas Boehm

[This article published on March 12, 2014 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

The methodology of the modern advertising industry is one of the reasons why the free market can not fulfill its promise of prosperity for everyone. The industry has long evaded simple ethical principles.

Advertising is a gigantic business. In 2013 the German economy alone invested 30 billion euro in advertising. In 2012 the branch had nearly 350,000 employees. Sales only fell in 2009 in the course of the financial crisis.

The spectrum of offered services is broad and extends from classic product advertising to sophisticated image campaigns. Consciously identifying a brand with an image is so self-evident for us today that we hardly question it any more. We no longer buy products of a certain brand only because we are convinced they are better. If we are part of the target-group of brands, it is very likely that we are sympathetic to the brands. We want to rediscover ourselves in the pictures mediated by the firm, Beck’s for the cool twenty-somethings, Toffifee for the happy family and Hugo Boss for the coveted success types.

On closer examination, this is a heavy blow for the classic theory of the free market. This theory assumes that consumers make rational decisions. Advertising helps to push products and win consumers. These customers will turn away if the quality of products lags behind that of the competition irrespective of the advertising.

In reality, the advertising industry has long discovered that customers can be won and held very well through emotions and deception. In many areas as in the food industry for example, the quality (and necessity) that is often established through advertising and price is more decisive than the actual quality (and necessity). The bottled water industry carried out the most remarkable coup. Through a massive array of advertising, people in industrial countries are brought to buy water in plastic bottles. This borders on madness since the water in the bottles ultimately comes from a tap. The quality is often lower than the quality of water from the local tap since the water can be polluted by the industrial bottling process, [1] not to mention the waste of energy in the manufacture and transport of the bottles.

But what are now the consequences that demand and to a certain degree (and in certain branches) product independence can be created by marketing? This process is frequently described as “the game gets rigged” since good marketing is expensive.

The rule of the game that is changed with the help of advertising is that businesses compete for customers with each other in a free market. Therefore they automatically strive for the best product and offer the best service. Thus progress arises that benefits everyone at the end. In reality, businesses from certain branches compete nowadays in marketing, whether foods, medicines, cigarettes or luxury articles. The one who best sells himself realizes the most profit. Meanwhile it is almost a standard that a corporation creates two different brands to market the same product more effectively to different target groups. [2] They will quickly sell out when new businesses defy the media superiority of the old-established and gain new market shares (see for example bionade).

The progress and growth extolled by the free market occur in the advertising branch. Firms like Coca-Cola or Gillette are already represented on the market with full developed products and depend far more on classical marketing for maintaining their dominant market role than automobile companies.

However the main problem remains, many varieties of advertising used by modern PR-agents work against the forces of the free market that are positive for society and support actors who strive for a power concentration in the hands of a few. To reach this goal (or to strengthen this state), limiting oneself to individual businesses or markets is obviously not enough. Ideas are involved.

The best-known book of the man called the “father of public relations” was titled “Propaganda.” In this 1928 work, the author Edward Bernays explained:

“The conscious and goal-directed manipulation of behavior patterns of the majority is an essential element of democratic societies. Organizations that work secretly guide the social interactions. They are the real governments in our country.” [3] Remarkably Bernays did not see anything negative in this hidden rule.

“The members of the shadow cabinet govern us on account of their innate leadership qualities; their ability to give urgently needed impulses to society and because of their key positions in society. Whether we like it or not, the fact is we depend on a relatively small group of persons who understand most courses and social dynamics of the multitude in nearly all aspects of daily life whether in the economy or politics, our social conduct or our ethical attitudes. They steer public opinion, strengthen old social forces and consider new ways of leading and holding together the world.” [4]

Whoever supports this opinion represented by Ayn Rand that some people are simply objectively better suited to rule, should be glad that Bernays’ theory on control of the majority enjoys its greatest popularity almost 90 years after its publication. The methods and campaigns on influencing public opinion developed in the book have been refined over the years but not fundamentally changed. The staging, the direct and indirect influencing of the mass media and the subtle deception, are always central.

In the 1920s Bernays was commissioned by the Beech-Nut Packing Company to increase the sales of bacon. Hew did this after being assured by the Beech-Nuts firm doctor that a “heavy” breakfast was better than a light one. Then 5000 letters were sent to American doctors in his name in which they were asked whether more food for breakfast was better than less. Not long afterwards newspapers all over the United States appeared with headlines like “4500 physicians urge heavy breakfast to improve the health of the American people.” [5] In their articles, many of these newspapers recommended bacon and eggs known today as the “American breakfast.”

Presenting dubious studies to the public that are then often reduced to a sensational headline by the mass media belongs to the big talk of corporations. Often only these headlines remain for many readers but that is enough. In the long run a certain picture is burned into the subconscious of people. A good example for that is the Tea Party movement and the denial of climate change in the US. In the 1980s no scientist doubted the human contribution to global warming. However the industry began financing “scientists” in the scope of an unparalleled PR-campaign when the theme became a threat to industry. So the picture of academic disagreement created out of thin air was concocted. [6]

In the meantime the question of global warming is treated in the US like a question of faith. In practice this means politics is not under any constraints on account of the absent public pressure and lobbyists have free rein in stifling in the bud every initiative for lowering emissions.

However the game is functioning differently. When Iraq attacked Kuwait in 1990, there were high-ranking advocates in Kuwait and the US for an intervention. A PR-agency brought a 15-year old girl to testify under tears to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus that Iraqi soldiers took infants from incubators and let them die. In only one month the Bush administration appealed to this story five times and so gained the necessary public support for a war. When the lie was exposed, the second Gulf war had ended.

The borders between skillful PR, dull propaganda and lobbyism and corruption are generally flowing. The only possibility for protecting oneself against this is to be informed as extensively and independently as possible. This is easier said than done; information costs energy and time and assumes a basic education. Therefore it does not seem the manipulation of the majority by persons with “innate leadership qualities” or the “ability to give urgently needed impulses to society” will end.

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