The Birth of Spin
Deciding What You'll Swallow
excerpted from the book
Trust Us We're Experts
by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam Publisher, 2001, paper
Science and the Intelligent Few"
... [Edward] Bernays developed his "science" of
public relations in the 1920s-a decade that also saw the beginnings
of mass production, mass communications, mass consumerism, and
a belief in technological progress as a quasi-religion. All of
these trends shared a faith in the notion that society's problems
can be engineered away, that democracy is dangerous, and that
important decisions should be left in the hands of experts. In
addition to psychoanalytic theory, Bernays drew heavily from the
ideas of nineteenth-century French social philosopher Gustave
Le Bon, a vocal
critic of democracy who fretted that "the divine right
of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings."
Stuart Ewen, a historian and author of PR: A Social History of
Spin, notes that Le Bon feared "that the mob at any moment
could seize society and destroy all he held sacred. Le Bon starts
to examine the social psychology of the crowd. For him the crowd
is not driven by rational argument, but by its spinal cord. It
responds solely to emotional appeals and is incapable of thought
or reason. Somebody interested in leading the crowd needs to appeal
not to logic but to unconscious motivation." For Bernays
in particular, Ewen notes, Le Bon's ideas "are applied to
virtually everybody. Almost no one is seen as capable of rational
thought. The most efficient way to win hearts and minds is through
emotional appeals. By the 1920s, Le Bonian social psychology is
used to design organizations that constantly take the temperature
of public feelings. Survey research, polling and focus groups
are all built around the science of how to lead the public mind."
Ewen interviewed Bernays near the end of his life and was
struck by his "unabashedly hierarchical view of society.
Repeatedly, he maintained that, while most people respond to their
world instinctively, without thought, there exist an 'intelligent
few' who have been charged with the responsibility of contemplating
and influencing the tide of history.... He expressed little respect
for the average person's ability to think out, understand, or
act upon the world in which they live.... Throughout our conversation,
Bernays conveyed his hallucination of democracy: a highly educated
class of opinion-molding tacticians are continuously at work,
analyzing the social terrain and adjusting the mental scenery
from which the public mind, with its limited intellect, derives
Expanding on Freud's theories about the unconscious motives
for human behavior, Bernays believed that people are not merely
unconscious but herd-like in their thinking, "subject to
the passions of the pack in [their] mob violence and the passions
of the herd in [their] panics.... The - average citizen is the
world's most efficient censor. His own mind is the greatest barrier
between him and the facts. His own 'logic-proof compartments,'
his own absolutism, are the obstacles which prevent him from seeing
in terms of experience and thought rather than in terms of group
Fortunately, Bernays added, being herd-like also made people
"remarkably susceptible to leadership." He saw public
relations as an applied science, like engineering, through which
society's leaders could bring order out of chaos and muddle. "If
we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind,"
he argued, it would be possible to "control and regiment
the masses according to our will without their knowing it....
Theory and practice have combined with sufficient success to permit
us to know that in certain cases we can effect some change in
public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy by operating a certain
mechanism, just as the motorist can regulate the speed of his
car by manipulating the flow of gasoline."
To exercise this type of control was not just an option, it
was a duty: "It is certain that the power of public opinion
is constantly increasing and will keep on increasing. It is equally
certain that it is more and more being influenced, changed, stirred
by impulses from below.... The duty of the higher strata of society-the
cultivated, the learned, the expert, the intellectual-is therefore
clear. They must inject moral and spiritual motives into public
opinion." A public relations counselor could accomplish this,
Bernays said, because his special training and insight into human
nature "permits him to step out of his own group to look
at a particular problem with the eyes of an impartial observer
and to utilize his knowledge of the individual and the group mind
to project his clients' point of view."
Of course, the mind of Edward Bernays had its own share of
"logic-proof compartments." To begin with, there is
the obvious contradiction in his notion that a public relations
consultant can simultaneously be both an "impartial observer"
and a special pleader for his client.
The Experts Speak
One of the striking historical facts about the Great Depression
is the complete failure of society's economic and political experts
to see it coming, or to deal with it sensibly once it arrived.
Fourteen days before the crash, Irving Fisher had predicted, "In
a few months I expect to see the stock market much higher than
today" Fisher, America's most distinguished and famous professor
of economics at Yale University, was so overconfident that he
personally lost a fortune equivalent to $140 million in today's
dollars when the market collapsed. John Maynard Keynes, the most
famous British economist, lost the equivalent of £1 million.
The headline in the New York Journal on the day after Black Thursday
was "Experts Predict Rising Market." The Harvard Economic
Society responded to the news by telling its subscribers, "A
severe depression such as 1920-21 is outside the range of probability.
We are not facing a protracted liquidation."
As it became apparent that the Depression was more than a
temporary downturn, President Hoover appointed Edward Bernays
to his three-member Presidential Emergency Committee for Employment.
"It was really a public relations committee," Bernays
recalled in his memoirs. Hoover's refusal to countenance "socialist"
ideas such as social security and public works programs left the
committee with few options. "We encouraged various ways of
spreading employment: through reduced daily and weekly schedules,
shorter shifts, alternating shifts and rotation of days off....
We urged employers to find personnel willing to go on furlough
without pay; to disclose duplication of wage earners in the same
family, as a measure of spreading wages; to maintain lists for
preferential employment and to determine the adequacy of part-time
wages." In the end, however, Bernays realized, "these
efforts were all ineffective. Particularly unsound was the share-the-work
idea, which put the onus of sacrifice on the shoulders of the
wage earner instead of the employer." Advertisers and businesses
offered empty slogans such as "Be patriotic and spend money,"
"Spend ten cents more each day and help drive hard times
away," or "Help the jobless by doing your Christmas
shopping now." As the economy careened into deeper and deeper
trouble, newspapers resorted
to desperate cheerleading. "Optimism Gains as U.S. Speeds
Jobless Relief," read one headline. "Hoover's Drive
to Aid Jobless Shows Results," read another. "President
Declares Voluntary Cooperation of Industry Will Solve Problem."
In 1932, Bernays joined Hoover's doomed campaign for reelection.
He helped line up experts to sing Hoover's praises, including
a pair of Yale economists who predicted that the economy was now
on a "sound foundation" and "the run of the dollar
had been stopped." He formed a "Non-Partisan Fact-Finding
Committee," which issued a poll showing Hoover trouncing
his opponent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Outside the circle of
businessmen and their sycophants, however, no one believed a word
of it. The election of Roosevelt brought new experts into power,
with new and grandiose ideas about what could and should be done
to secure the general welfare. For Hoover and the old guard, it
was the end of an era and everything that they believed in, but
for Bernays and the propaganda industry, business was booming
like never before.
Deciding What You'll Swallow
Hard Science and Liquid Truth
The power that science wields in modern society is a reflection
of its ability to create knowledge that is as close to infallible
as any product of human endeavor. Reasonable people may disagree
in their opinions about Shakespeare or religion, but they do not
disagree with the laws of thermodynamics. This is because the
theories of science, especially the hard sciences, have been developed
through methodologies that require verification by multiple, independent
researchers using clearly defined, replicable experiments. If
the experiments do not bear out a hypothesis, the hypothesis must
be rejected or modified.
The very prestige that science enjoys, however, has also given
rise to a variety of scientific pretenders-disciplines such as
phrenology or eugenics that merely claim to be scientific. The
renowned philosopher of science Karl Popper gave a great deal
of consideration to this problem and coined the term "pseudoscience"
to help separate the wheat from the chaff. The difference between
science and pseudoscience, he concluded, is that genuinely scientific
theories are "falsifiable"-that is, they are formulated
in such a way that if they are wrong, they can be proven false
through experiments. By contrast, pseudosciences are formulated
so vaguely that they can never be proven or disproven. "The
difference between a science and a pseudoscience is that scientific
statements can be proved wrong and pseudoscientific statements
cannot," says Robert Youngson in his book Scientific Blunders:
A Brief History of How Wrong Scientists Can Sometimes Be. "By
this criterion you will find that a surprising number of seemingly
scientific assertions-perhaps even many in which you devoutly
believe-are complete nonsense. Rather surprisingly this is not
to assert that all pseudoscientific claims are untrue. Some of
them may be true, but you can never know this, so they are not
entitled to claim the cast-iron assurance and reliance that you
can have, and place, in scientific facts."
... although Americans still give ritual lip-service to democracy,
the concept has lost much of its meaning. In fact, it has become
boring and irrelevant in most people's lives. Our political process
functions formally the way we think it should-campaigns happen,
votes are cast, someone ends up taking an oath of office- but
the ugly truth, as we all know, is that the campaign promises
are empty rhetoric, based not on what the candidates believe but
on what their expert pollsters have told them we want to hear.
If you ask the managers of these ever-more-expensive propaganda
campaigns why they have vulgarized the democratic process, they
will frequently tell you that the problem is not with them but
with the voters, who are too "irrational," "ignorant,"
or "apathetic" to respond to any other kind of appeal.(Like
Clotaire Rapaille) they have come to the conclusion that there
are words they must not use, concepts they dare not utter. Apparently
people today are less hungry for serious talk and less capable
of comprehending it than the half-literate voters a century and
a half ago who turned out in multitudes and sat for hours listening
to the debates between Abraham Lincoln and William Douglas.
"The minute you begin to view the public as something
that doesn't operate rationally, your job as a publicist or journalist
changes," Ewen observes. "The pivotal moment was when
those who provided the public with its intelligence no longer
believed the public had any intelligence.'' It is disturbing to
see how frequently this ideology, which corrodes democratic values
in an acid bath of cynicism, surfaces today among the political
insiders who claim to govern in the name of democracy and popular
sovereignty. "On issue after issue, the public is belittled
as self-indulgent or misinformed, incapable of grasping the larger
complexities known to the policymakers and the circles of experts
surrounding them," observed author William Greider in Who
Will Tell the People, his 1992 study of the Washington political
establishment. "The public's side of the argument is said
to be 'emotional' whereas those who govern are said to be making
'rational' or 'responsible' choices. In the masculine culture
of management, 'emotion' is assigned a position of weakness whereas
'facts' are hard and potent. The reality, of course, is that the
ability to define what is or isn't 'rational' is itself loaded
with political self-interest.... For elites, the politics of governing
is seen as a continuing struggle to manage public 'emotions' so
that they do not overwhelm sound public policy."'