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Friday, April 10, 2009

Edward Bernays and the Control of People

I recently watched a documentary series on Youtube called "Century of the Self," produced and directed by Adam Curtis and shown on BBC in 2002. There are over 24 or 26 parts, of four episodes, posted on Youtube. I hope to get an actual recording of this.

This documentary explains the roots of modern consumerism and culture. It is attributed to one person: Edward Bernays. He was the master of persuasion and manipulation - simple because he knew how to manipulate the desires of the crowd by catering to the natural desires of people.

Bernays founded the first every Public Relations committee during the Woodrow Wilson Administration. He was the father of the public relations business. But he thought of the term in place of what it really was: propaganda. Thus, the connection is made with what a public relations firm was before: a deception machine.

What Bernays did was to start the modern trend of associating products with people's inner desires. Before, people based their consumption on need. Bernays changed advertising to focus on people's wants. He gave the corporations the tools by which they could control people's consumption habits.

Bernays was also the nephew of psychologist Sigmund Freud. He believed that Freud's ideas on irrational underlying drives in the subconscious can be harnessed to help sell consumer goods. He first experimented on this by teaching women to smoke. Before that time, there was a taboo against women smoking. At a New York Easter parade, he had planted young women hiding cigarettes and told them to light them and smoke at a certain time in the parade. He also gave the term "torches of freedom" to the cigarettes, and portrayed them as a symbol of women's being able to challenge male power. Bernays banked on women's subconscious desire to be equal with men to get them to smoke cigarettes.

Bernays was a master of associating consumer products with inner desires. He was the one who claimed to have started the advertising culture of banking on people's desires and creating need from want. He knew how to make the right associations: cars as a symbol of male power; clothes as an expression of personality; and the purchase of products to make one feel good rather than fulfill real needs. He basically stimulated consumerism.

That's why when we see the ads of the 30s, 40s, 50s and since those time to today, consumerism became accepted as a sign of democratic progress. Bernays successfully blurred the difference between democracy and consumerism. He gave the idea that if you were not a prosperous consumer, you were not democratic! Clearly, he gave one of the most twisted legacies of the world.

But what people don't know is how Bernays really thought. He hated people. He believed in Freud's theories - and opinions - that people were naturally irrational and destructive. Thus, to placate them and control them, they had to be made into willing consumers. Consumerism was most likely meant by Bernays to control them. He believed that people should be controlled.

Thus, Bernays is another symbol of the corruption of the world. Thanks to his efforts, the control of the world went to the corporations. In ancient until early modern times, empires were created by states. Not anymore. The new empires of today are corporations. They are now contributing to poverty and marginalization the world over. They help cause people to become obese and unhealthy, and thus lead them to the medical industry which is also dominated by corporations. They help pollute the environment. Clearly, what America called Russia then, the "evil empire," should be attached to the corporations.

The corporations depend on people who are consumers, and dare not question the meaning of their lives. People who think on their own are a threat to these corporations. The corporations thus state that consumerist prosperity is good for people, and make them not want to lose it. This is how it was in the 1950s. In the 1980s until today, corporations continue to cater to human irrational desires to keep them sated and submissive.

And this is related to one of the greatest sins of humanity: controlling other people. Readers of my "Good Old Days... Not" post will recall that I stated that people like the old days because they could control other people. Controlling other people was even considered a value at the time. You could tell them what tastes they should have, what clothes they should wear, what friends they should choose, who they should marry, you could dictate others' lives. I said, that's the reason why people miss the old days... because in the old days, they could control other people.

This was the work of Edward Bernays. He believed that people should be controlled... and it seems he was not alone. For centuries, men have always tried to control other people. The ancient emperors use force and torture. Religious and cult leaders use religious belief. Some authorities use guilt to stay people's actions. Certainly, the governments of the time believed that people should be controlled. This was a time where people were not respected as people, but as mere elements of a political constituency. If something (including people) offended them, this was eliminated.

Bernays certainly isn't the first in history to use innate desires to control people. But he was the most effective. While those in the French Revolution, Russian Revolution and Holocaust catered to people's inner desires of hatred, Bernays catered to the desire for prosperity. But this was mainly for keeping people from controlling themselves. His beliefs reflect that some people can just never appreciate the freedom that other people have, and want it taken away. It is again human selfishness at work.

Now I know why my grandparents had those stories, of one controlling the other to the point that they become unhappy and probably would want to kill each other. They lived in the Bernays age, wherein control of other people was seen as a way to prevent disorder and destruction, albeit the wrong way. My grandparents also thought that being married allowed one to control the other; they couldn't be any more twisted. Today, one partner controlling the other is considered a dysfunction, and it also wrong. Besides. controlling another person is wrong.

I was able to skim through Bernays' book Propaganda, which stated that an ideal society should not allow people to control themselves. He believed that humans are naturally irrational, and will lead to war and chaos if they practice according to their own will. He proposed that a ruling group or class should determine what people should wear, what people should be, what taste they should have. But in modern terms, this meant suppressing true freedom. Yet it is happening with the corporations controlling culture through advertising.

Bernays was a genius. But he was a misguided genius. He was dead wrong in his beliefs. Humans have rationality as well as irrationality. They can control themselves, and they don't need to control others. Bernays' belief that people should be controlled is his undoing. It's time to leave Bernays' legacy behind and move on to the future of responsible individualism, and moving on to refine our behavior under sound Christian and ethical principles. Bernays is a symbol of the old wrong culture; let's bury him forever.

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