Thursday, March 29, 2012

PR As Surfing

Does PR and mass marketing lead – or follow?

 In my last article, I talked about Edward Bernays and the modern PR industry’s first major campaign – also touted as the first great success of modern mass marketing techniques --selling women cigarettes .  

 But did a generation of women really begin sucking in volatilized tar because of Bernay’s use of advanced techniques – namely Uncle Siggy’s psychological theories of oral sexuality?    In fact, did the success attributed to the campaign have anything – fundamentally -- to do with public relations “know-how” and strategizing per se

Was Bernays just exploiting already existing trends –pretending to create them?

One has to keep in mind that Bernays made big money from humungous tobacco companies.   He wasn’t selling the public – he was selling the companies.  – so it was obviously  to his advantage to pretend that he created the wave, rather than just surfed it. 

Maybe, just as many young people would have been smoking Luckies and Chesterfields in the Roaring Twenties  without  the extra bucks spent on the “campaigns” that made Bernays rich.      

Yes,  Bernays was first and foremost selling himself  --and a certain magical expertise. In addition, he was preaching to the corporate choir.  Then, as today, the 1% believed that consumers –the public – the mob – were a dumb, if not dangerous collective that could—and should be controlled and directed . 
Bernays wrote: "In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion without anything".

So, according to this, ordinary people can’t possible know anything from data – facts –and draw really valid conclusions.  Of course, neither can “experts” – nor company CEOs.    Since somebody has to decide – it should be the ruling class. 

Every society demands unity and needs direction.     We could of course just randomly choose some people to choose for us.    We do that with juries.   And it works pretty well.  Or—we could even try real, elective democracy—you know, the kind where success doesn’t depend on money. How then could the corporate elites justify their cars and homes and offshore accounts?  How then could Bernays have become rich?

Think of a ship lost at sea without charts.  Some of the crew and passengers think east is the best bet. Some think west. Some think north.  Some think south.  Should the captain let crew and passengers decide?  If he does he must give up authority.  Rather than do that (and all other choices being equal) he pretends he knows.  He cleverly chooses the direction that most people are likely to support.  Naturally, since he is Captain, he needs extra water and food.   In the end, he is most likely to survive.

So our corporate masters take advantage of our cognitive dissonance and ambivalence. They are no better informed than anyone else – and certainly not more worthy -- but they prosper.

When trends reversed themselves in the 70s and smoking was seen to be unhealthy, Bernays said he wouldn’t have undertaken the campaign if he had known.  But tobacco smoking had been regarded as unhealthy as early as the 17th Century.  Scientifically, links to cancer and other diseases were known as early as the late 19th Century.  And in the 20s, cigarettes were also called “coffin nails.  So, for a man who was selling know-how and expertise, like Bernays,  his 1972 claim was disingenuous. 

But, hey, people wanted to smoke – so why not?  They were going to do it anyway.

What we are saying is that PR and mass marketing do not “create” trends from nothing – rather they exploit them.   We are like jockeys.  Our horses want to run. And there is only one way to go. But we urge them on to win, not for them – but for ourselves. 

In the end, there are consequences.


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