The History of Propaganda

by Patricia Engler on September 2, 2020
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It’s no secret that propaganda, which persuades using anything but logic, riddles mainstream classrooms and culture with messages that attack the Bible, promote evolutionary origins, or otherwise market unbiblical ideas. By looking back at where modern propaganda techniques originated, we can become more aware of how propagandists operate—and how to think critically about their messages. Here’s the story behind modern propaganda.

When you encounter the words “bacon and eggs,” what are the first thoughts that come to mind?

If (besides words like crunchy, delicious, or cholesterol) you answered breakfast, you might have a journalist named Edward Bernays to thank.

Born in 1891, Bernays was the close nephew of Sigmund Freud, the rather notorious psychologist whose unbiblical (and largely unscientific) conjectures drove people to think about how unconscious processes may affect human conduct. Bernays, fascinated by Freud’s ideas, wondered if he could exploit others’ unconscious processes to influence public behavior—and ultimately culture.

In World War I, the US Committee on Public Information hired Bernays to garner public war support. Meanwhile, the government channeled findings from psychology and sociology to develop new ways of shaping popular opinion about the war. These efforts produced an arsenal of techniques honed to manipulate public beliefs and behaviour through propaganda.

Like I’ve mentioned in previous posts, propaganda is a form of communication that persuades by appealing to something besides logic. According to one psychologist’s 1943 definition, “propaganda is a process which deliberately attempts through persuasion-techniques to secure from the propagandee, before he can deliberate freely, the responses desired by the propagandist.”1

Bernays noticed that wartime propaganda techniques included harnessing the influence of authority figures, generating clichés, and creating emotional appeals. Could these same techniques apply to manipulating people’s behaviour after the war? Bernays believed so. Rebranding propaganda with the term “public relations,” he offered his powers of persuasion to the marketing world. And his methods largely succeeded.

Persuading the Public

Take breakfast, for instance. In the 1920s, the Beech-Nut Packing Company recruited Bernays to stoke consumers’ appetite for bacon. Bernays’ research team discovered that at the time, most Americans preferred a light breakfast—coffee, orange juice, and perhaps toast. Recognizing the power of authority figures, Bernays recruited a doctor to ask 5,000 other physicians whether they agreed that a heavier breakfast (say, bacon and eggs) provided more energy. Bernays publicized the results in newspapers, demand for bacon rose, and the campaign became a sizzling success.2

Unfortunately, not all Bernays’ culture-shaping efforts were so benign. To increase tobacco consumption among women, for instance, Bernays linked smoking with women’s rights by dubbing cigarettes “torches of freedom!” In his influential book entitled Propaganda, Bernays concluded, .

Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. . . . We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.3

Bernays recognized the potential for propaganda to promote evil as well as good. But he didn’t necessarily realize this would play out in his lifetime. After World War II, Bernays was shocked to learn that Hitler’s propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, had relied on Bernays’ techniques to drive the Nazi campaign against the Jews.4

Propaganda and Education

While many propaganda messages we encounter endorse fairly neutral5 products (like breakfast foods), other propaganda promotes unbiblical messages that undermine the gospel and society—like the idea that all humans are evolutionary by-products rather than persons created in God’s image. Types of propaganda I’ve seen promoting this message include textbook pictures that make apes look humanlike, museum displays that make humans look ape-like, and classes where authoritative professors assert statements like, “Intelligent design is a whacked-out tea-party movement,” and, “There is not a single piece of evidence against evolution.”

Schools, in fact, are such strategic centers for disseminating propaganda that Bernays wrote, “The normal school should provide for the training of the educator to make him realize that his is a twofold job: education as a teacher and education as a propagandist.”6 That’s why it’s so important for students—and all Christians—to be armed with biblical, critical thinking tools. By being able to recognize and respond to propaganda, we can avoid falling not only for dubious marketing gimmicks (bacon, anyone?) but also for glossy lies that contradict sound doctrine.

For more on how to think critically about any faith-challenging message, stay tuned for future blog articles and my new video series, CT (Critical Thinking) Scan, available now on the AiG Canada YouTube channel and the AiG Canada Facebook page.

Footnotes

  1. E. H. Henderson, “Toward a definition of propaganda,” Journal of Social Psychology 18 (1943): 71–87.
  2. You can watch Bernays himself telling the story of this campaign in the following video: https://www.prmuseum.org/video-and-audio?rq=bernays%20bacon.
  3. Edward Bernays, Propaganda (New York: Horace Liveright, 1928), 9. https://archive.org/details/BernaysPropaganda/page/n3/mode/2up.
  4. Edward Bernays, Biography of an Idea: The Founding Principles of Public Relations (New York: Open Road Media, 2015).
  5. Granted, even products that seem neutral may involve less than ethical manufacture and distribution processes, or lead to other unintended consequences.
  6. Bernays, Propaganda, 60.

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