The “Secret” History of Advertising


In October of 1922 an Italian politician held a secret meeting with an American government official. The Italian wanted to know if an upcoming action he had planned would receive the tacit support of the United States. The diplomat assured him that the American government would support his move.

The Italian, a former socialist and pacifist who had actively campaigned against World War 1, organized his forces and led what became known as the March on Rome. Intimidating the then King of Italy, that politician had himself installed as Prime Minister, ruling the country for over 20 years. His supporters, who proudly called themselves fascists, referred to their leader as “Il Duce” but his full name was Benito Mussolini.

Across the Alps in Germany, a young corporal who had been gassed and nearly killed during the fighting in World War I saw Mussolini’s move as inspirational and decided to do the same thing in Germany. In November 1923, less than a year after Mussolini’s coup d’etat, the German corporal led what became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Unlike Mussolini’s move however, the attempted march on the capital failed and the leader of the attempted coup, Adolf Hitler, was imprisoned.

The rather comfortable settings of his imprisonment gave Hitler plenty of time to think and he soon organized his beliefs into a two-volume book called Mein Kampf in German or “My Struggle” in the English translation. While a lot of people today have heard of this book, very few people have actually read it.

Amongst other things, Hitler was utterly convinced that propaganda was one of the most effective tools in existence, and that during the war (WW1) the British and Americans had used it very effectively while the Germans had not. Volume 1 of Mein Kampf was published in 1925 and chapter 6 dealt with this subject exclusively:

Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. For the intellectual classes, or what are called the intellectual classes to-day, propaganda is not suited, but only scientific exposition. Propaganda has as little to do with science as an advertisement poster has to do with art.

The purpose of propaganda is not the personal instruction of the individual, but rather to attract public attention to certain things, the importance of which can be brought home to the masses only by this means.

Here the art of propaganda consists in putting a matter so clearly and forcibly before the minds of the people as to create a general conviction regarding the reality of a certain fact, the necessity of certain things and the just character of something that is essential.

All propaganda must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed. Thus its purely intellectual level will have to be that of the lowest mental common denominator among the public it is desired to reach.

Ten years later, Hitler realized his political ambitions and achieved complete power in Germany. One of the now-ruling Nazi Party’s first moves was to establish the “Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda”, headed by Joseph Goebbels. Some of Gobbels’ statements have become (in)famous, often related to what is known as the “Big Lie” technique:

If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.

But neither Hitler nor Goebbels invented the modern “science” of propaganda. And despite the evil use to which Nazi propaganda was put, Hitler had been correct in his assessment of how the British and Americans had used this “weapon” during World War 1. To understand that, we need to rewind the clock back to that fateful meeting in October of 1922.

Although largely unknown today, the American official who gave Mussolini the green light to seize power was the Ambassador to Italy at the time, Richard Washburn Child. He was such a fan of Mussolini that he began working for the fascist leader directly and wrote Il Duce’s official autobiography in 1928. Child also wrote several pro-Mussolini articles in mainstream American magazines and supported him until his (Child’s) death in 1935.

But before his appointment as an ambassador to Italy, Child had a long career, almost none of which is mentioned in the Wikipedia article or indeed other biographies. Only this brief line is mentioned:

During World War I, he worked first as a correspondent in Europe and Russia, then for the U.S. Treasury, writing propaganda.

The man he was worked with for years was Frank Vanderlip, whose online biographies are even shorter than Child’s. Vanderlip was an influential banker and one of the small group of men who successfully created the Federal Reserve (central bank of the United States). Vanderlip, along with Child, were loyal foot soldiers in the “propaganda as a weapon” effort during World War 1, participants in the actions that would enrage a future Adolf Hitler.

In 1917, Vanderlip gave an influential speech, which was later written down and published as a short book called “How To Win The War”. From page 12:

This war is not won. It is going to be a good many months before it is won by a military decision. It is going to mean a vast amount of preparation. We have got to drill an army of soldiers, but we have got to drill a larger army; an army of many, many millions; drill them to economy, drill them to self-sacrifice.

And Child was well trained by his mentor Vanderlip. And although Child’s (later) open support of Mussolini is well known and documented (he wrote an entire book about it), I am more interested in his role as a propagandist during World War I. For that, I turn to a much earlier book, written in 1916 called Potential Russia in which he is advocating for foreign investment in then-Czarist Russia. From page 6:

And whether we would prefer to believe it or not, war teaches man that he is willing to die for a bit of colored ribbon, if he believes, rightly or wrongly, that that bit of ribbon represents the good of his kind.

Mind you, Child is not condemning war. On the contrary, he thought it was quite a good thing and his only lament was that industry had been destroyed during the fighting. But the passage which caught my attention comes from page 2:

I was with Lord Robert Cecil in the British Foreign Office when the news of the execution in Belgium of Miss Cavell came in, and later I discussed with prominent Englishmen the effect which the execution would have upon the sympathies and opinions of the world.

Very few people today probably remember who Edith Cavell was but it is incontrovertible that she was a nurse working in Belgium during the time it was militarily occupied by Germany and that she was a British spy. From her Wikipedia entry:

In the months and years following Cavell’s death, countless newspaper articles, pamphlets, images, and books publicized her story. She became an iconic propaganda figure for military recruitment in Britain to help increase favorable sentiment towards the Allies in the United States. She was a popular icon because of her sex, her nursing profession, and her apparently heroic approach to death. Her execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity.

News reports shortly following Cavell’s execution were found to be only true in part. Even the American Journal of Nursing repeated the fictional account of Cavell’s execution in which she fainted and fell because of her refusal to wear a blindfold in front of the firing squad. Allegedly, while she lay unconscious, the German commanding officer shot her dead with a revolver. Numerous accounts like these stimulated international outrage and general anti-German sentiments.

Along with the invasion of Belgium, and the sinking of the Lusitania, Cavell’s execution was widely publicised in both Britain and North America by Wellington House, the British War Propaganda Bureau.

Although we know about it now, Wellington House or the British War Propaganda Bureau was kept secret from the public until 1935. By far their most effective propaganda campaign was the Bryce Committee Report, in which a theoretically “impartial” inquiry into German “atrocities” in Belgium produced a widely disseminated document that turned public sentiment worldwide against Germany. It was a masterful piece of manipulation. From Wikipedia:

The Report was widely accepted throughout the world, translated into more than 30 languages and widely circulated by British propaganda services, especially in the USA, where it was reprinted and circulated in most of the US national newspapers, including the New York Times.

On 27 May 1915 it was reported that every New York newspaper had reprinted the Bryce Report. Charles Masterman, head of the British War Propaganda Bureau at Wellington House, had 41,000 copies shipped to the US.

The Committee on Public Information urged US newspapers not to publish stories that might undermine the Bryce Report.

More or less, as much as it would pain anyone to say it, Hitler’s analysis of World War 1 propaganda was largely correct.

For those of us living in 2011, all of the above is rather old hat, familiar as we are with the propaganda lies that started the Viet Nam War (in earnest), the lies that started the Persian Gulf War in 1990, the lies that started the 2003 Iraqi invasion and many, many others. But back in 1917, these were new things and part of a new “science”. To understand where it all came from we need to find where all of this began, and that’s the Committee on Public Information.

For a variety of complicated reasons, World War 1 began on June 28, 1914 when Archduke Ferdinand was shot and killed in Bosnia. This quickly led all of the major European powers (including the then Austro-Hungarian Empire) to mobilize their forces and begin fighting. By 1917 it was a virtual stalemate although millions of soldiers had been killed. The “Entente” or “Allied Powers” desperately wanted the United States to enter the war.

The “problem” is that in 1916 the American president Woodrow Wilson had run for re-election and only narrowly won, defeating Charles Evans Hughes by a razor thin margin. In fact, Wilson’s 1916 campaign was entitled “He Kept Us Out of War” referring to the ongoing fighting in Europe. But for a variety of reasons, Wilson and others wanted America to enter the fighting and so created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) in 1917 to completely reverse and manipulate public sentiment on the issue.

From Wikipedia:

The committee used newsprint, posters, radio, telegraph, cable and movies to broadcast its message. It recruited about 75,000 “Four Minute Men,” volunteers who spoke about the war at social events for an ideal length of four minutes, considering that the average human attention span was judged at the time to be four minutes. It was estimated that by the end of the war, they had made more than 7.5 million speeches to 314 million people in 5,200 communities.

Using literally every single medium available at the time, public sentiment had deliberately been manipulated and now most Americans were in favor of sending troops to Europe. And indeed the Americans entered the fighting, the “Central Powers” (including Germany) were then defeated, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up and Transylvania given to Romania and an embittered young soldier named Adolf Hitler began planning his revenge.

The CPI was the first instance of the organized use of modern propaganda techniques and these were taught to a variety of men, including the aforementioned Frank Vanderlip and Richard Washburn Child. But who invented this “science” in the first place?

The credit for this largely goes to two men, Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays. Although the two men came from very different backgrounds, it is quite interesting to note that they were both fluent speakers of German and both worked in journalism. And it is they who crafted the modern science of marketing and propaganda.

Lippman was a journalist but in his mind he saw the role of newspapers and other media as “intelligence work”. And although he was a sharp critic of George Creel (the head of the CPI), the two men were both firmly in agreement about what propaganda was for. In 1921, Lippmann wrote his seminal book on the topic, entitled Public Opinion, in which he argues that it is the “duty” of a small group of elites to shape public opinion (aka propaganda):

Now the peculiar virtue of functional democracy is supposed to be that men vote candidly according to their own interests, which it is assumed they know by daily experience. They can do that within the self-contained group. But in its external relations the group as a whole, or its representative, is dealing with matters that transcend immediate experience. The shop does not arrive spontaneously at a view of the whole situation. Therefore, the public opinions of a shop about its rights and duties in the industry and in society, are matters of education or propaganda, not the automatic product of shop-consciousness.

In the above passage he is comparing a small set of workers in a “shop” or factory with the general public in a representative democracy.

The lesson is, I think, a fairly clear one. In the absence of institutions and education by which the environment is so successfully reported that the realities of public life stand out sharply against self-centered opinion, the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality.

That “specialized class” are those who create propaganda. He then ties this into his profession and experience of being a newspaper reporter:

But the body of the news, though unchecked as a whole by the disinterested reader, consists of items about which some readers have very definite preconceptions. Those items are the data of his judgment, and news which men read without this personal criterion, they judge by some other standard than their standard of accuracy. They are dealing here with a subject matter which to them is indistinguishable from fiction. The canon of truth cannot be applied.

After a long passage describing how not all news can be covered or reported, he continues:

This is the underlying reason for the existence of the press agent. The enormous discretion as to what facts and what impressions shall be reported is steadily convincing every organized group of people that whether it wishes to secure publicity or to avoid it, the exercise of discretion cannot be left to the reporter. It is safer to hire a press agent who stands between the group and the newspapers. Having hired him, the temptation to exploit his strategic position is very great.

“Shortly before the war,” says Mr. Frank Cobb, “the newspapers of New York took a census of the press agents who were regularly employed and regularly accredited and found that there were about twelve hundred of them. How many there are now (1919) I do not pretend to know, but what I do know is that many of the direct channels to news have been closed and the information for the public is first filtered through publicity agents.

Were reporting the simple recovery of obvious facts, the press agent would be little more than a clerk. But since, in respect to most of the big topics of news, the facts are not simple, and not at all obvious, but subject to choice and opinion, it is natural that everyone should wish to make his own choice of facts for the newspapers to print. The publicity man does that. And in doing it, he certainly saves the reporter much trouble.

The development of the publicity man is a clear sign that the facts of modern life do not spontaneously take a shape in which they can be known. They must be given a shape by somebody, and since in the daily routine reporters cannot give a shape to facts, and since there is little disinterested organization of intelligence, the need for some formulation is being met by the interested parties.

The “publicity man” is today known as an advertising agent (or agency), a “public relations” person (or firm) or, in some parts, as a marketer. And it was indeed Edward Bernays who nearly single-handedly invented the job of “publicity man”.

Bernays was born in Vienna very near his very famous uncle, Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology. Bernays moved to America in 1892 and learned English and was instrumental in the machinations of Wilson’s Committee on Public Information. Although Freud’s works are well-known now, it was Bernays who helped publicize them in the United States and translate them into English for the first time.

After the war, Bernays founded his own advertising agency (calling himself a “Public Relations Counselor”) and taught the first course in America on the subject in 1923. In that same year he wrote a seminal book called Crystallizing Public Opinion, outlining many of his beliefs and techniques, after first establishing his own history:

World War I gave emphasis to the development of planned techniques in professional public relations. The Committee on Public Information focused attention on the importance of ideas as weapons. I was a staff member of the organization.

In 1919 I had returned from the Peace Conference in Paris, bringing back with me the conviction I had gained there of the potential usefulness of wartime publicity practices in peacetime activities.

He then goes on to list some of the practical “peacetime” applications of these weapons:

A large packing house was faced with the problem of increasing the sale of its particular brand of bacon. It already dominated the market in its field; the problem was therefore one of increasing the consumption of bacon generally for its dominance of the market would naturally continue.

The public relations counsel, realizing that hearty breakfasts were dietetically sound, suggested that a physician undertake a survey to make this medical truth articulate. He realized that the demand for bacon as a breakfast food would naturally be increased by the wide dissemination of this truth. This is exactly what happened.

From Wikipedia:

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 a heavy breakfast.

Meanwhile heart disease is the leading cause of death in America (and Romania) and the American Heart Association (today) most definitely recommends against eating a lot of bacon. Nonetheless, Bernays’ techniques continue to work today as bacon is considered a “staple” breakfast food in America.

Interestingly enough, Bernays played a role in his capacity as advisor to Wilson at the treaty talks after the war (World War I) in the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the decision to give Transylvania to Romania. From pages 27-28 of Crystallizing Public Opinion:

What happened with Romania is another instance. Romania wanted to plead its case before the American people. It wanted to tell Americans that it was an ancient and established country. The original technique was the issuance of treatises, historically correct and ethnologically accurate. Their facts were for the large part ignored.

The public relations counsel, called in on the case of Romania, advised them to make these studies into interesting stories of news value. The public read these stories with avidity and Romania became part of America’s popular knowledge with consequent valuable results for Romania.

Valuable indeed! Despite the bold utterances of the men on that frigid day in December 1918, the very fact that I am writing to you from a Romanian city and not a Hungarian one is due to men like Bernays using advanced marketing techniques to manipulate public opinion.

Although Bernays considered what he did (public relations/propaganda) to be different than advertising, he made most of his money from marketing the products of some of the largest companies in the world, including the hideously evil United Fruit Company (for information on how the United States illegally and covertly spent 2.7 million dollars on this campaign, see here). By 1924 he was even hired to help manage the presidential campaign of Calvin Coolidge.

In fact, despite the fact that Bernays was Jewish, his techniques were openly admired and copied by Joseph Goebbels to implement Hitler’s dreams of using propaganda as a weapon. From Bernays’ autobiography, referring to a meeting in 1933 (the year Goebbels was appointed Minister of Propaganda):

Karl von Wiegand, foreign correspondent of the Hearst newspapers, an old hand at interpreting Europe and just returned from Germany, was telling us about Goebbels and his propaganda plans to consolidate Nazi power. Goebbels had shown Wiegand his propaganda library, the best Wiegand had ever seen. Goebbels, said Wiegand, was using my book Crystallizing Public Opinion as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany.

And therefore, following a chain from Sigmund Freud codifying and deciphering the drives of human nature to governments wanting to manipulate public opinion to using this power as a weapon of war to combining their findings and experiences to sell products (and policies) ever and ever more effectively, we come now to the modern world in which our lives are completely saturated with marketing of one form or another.

Everything from elections to apples to water is branded, marketed, pushed, broadcast and printed using “guerilla” and “stealth” (both military terms) techniques or by way of “viral” (infection) campaigns. And even if you turn off your radio, your television and computer and never read another magazine or newspaper or watch a movie in the theater, you still cannot escape. The public space itself is inundated with advertisements, from billboards to signs plastered all over the birthplace of Vlad Tepes.

Whether used for “good” or “evil”, the genie is out of the bottle. Mass media is here and those with the money to manipulate it are constantly refining the science of how to influence you and your opinions, to get you to vote for (or support) some political party or eat some food you don’t need or spend way too much money buying some clothes or shoes. Your emotions are deliberately being fucked with in an extremely sophisticated way for the sole purpose of selling you something that those in power think you’re too stupid to otherwise figure out on your own.

Bernays, for all of his wealth and success at enabling his political and commercial masters, seemed to have something of a conscience. In the lengthy preface to the 1965 reprint of his book Crystallizing Public Opinion he went into considerable detail to defend his practices against a host of critics who felt that manipulating people was both anti-democratic and evil.

But in 2011, while the term “propaganda” has negative connotations, advertising is now one of the most cherished and beloved components of modern society and Bernays would have nothing to apologize for. An enormous amount of time (and money) is spent on praising and watching solely the advertisements themselves, with prizes being given away to the best campaigns and entire television shows and (short) film festivals being dedicated to watching advertisements. Many people dream of working for an advertising agency or coming up with a slogan or campaign and countless millions of people spend their free time and money deliberately watching advertising!

And every government, big or small, right down to the primarie here in Unicorn City has their own public relations manager, usually called the “spokesperson” (Rom: portavoz), whose sole job is to manipulate, spin and otherwise market the government’s position and image.

And so, in a world where candy bars are a stand in for patriotism, where shitty carbonated drinks are a stand in for urban renewal, where misery pimping is an “honorable” calling and a great fund-raising technique, where advertising and marketing is worshiped and celebrated for its own sake, where nearly every blog and website is sponsored by someone and chock full of epilepsy-inducing ads, where horrendously unhealthy diets are seen as “cool” and traditional foods and drinks abandoned due to aggressive marketing, there’s not much room left for a dinosaur like me who writes 4,000 word essays on his day off for no money at all. But so it goes.

Now quit reading this and go drink a fucking Coke!

:)

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