Hilter Skilter, Béarnaise, Gwobbles and the origins of propaganda in American-style capitalism.


Reading this thread at Joe Dunman’s Twitter account led me to a feeling of déjà vu.

As it turns out, almost exactly three years ago in this space, I took to the airwaves to correct an error about the career of Joseph Goebbels.

That’s right; I was wrong. Goebbels got his ideas for propaganda from American advertising, not the other way around.

June 5, 2017

Recently I posted this on social media.

I’m eternally amazed by chain restaurant envy, which always seemed to me an inevitable result of Goebbels-scale national advertising and perception of price point (the latter is skewed, but real enough in many cases). But is it cultural, too? I don’t know the answer, but is it a fair question?

Among the responses was this.

Using the Goebbels example is just histrionic.

I replied:

I don’t think so. It’s the basis of saturation advertising, in the sense of constant repetition. We’re exposed to ads every day, hundreds and maybe thousands of times. I believe numerous studies have been devoted to the ongoing subliminal effects even when we think we’re tuning it out. Goebbels preached these very qualities in his propaganda dissemination.

In essence, I was arguing that from the techniques of Goebbels, post-war capitalism derived its operational handbook for mass marketing.

I was mistaken.

In fact, Goebbels found inspiration for his propaganda techniques in pre-war capitalism. Big lies and mass-marketing in the service of profit made Goebbels, and not the other way around.

Meet Edward Bernays. You’ll want to click through and read the entire essay.

The manipulation of the American mind: Edward Bernays and the birth of public relations, by Richard Gunderman (The Conversation)

“The most interesting man in the world.” “Reach out and touch someone.” “Finger-lickin’ good.” Such advertising slogans have become fixtures of American culture, and each year millions now tune into the Super Bowl as much for the ads as for the football.

While no single person can claim exclusive credit for the ascendancy of advertising in American life, no one deserves credit more than a man most of us have never heard of: Edward Bernays … often referred to as “the father of public relations,” Bernays in 1928 published his seminal work, Propaganda, in which he argued that public relations is not a gimmick but a necessity:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. 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, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of … It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

It turns out that Bernays had an international readership.

Bernays’ ideas sold a lot more than cigarettes and Dixie cups.

Even though Bernays saw the power of propaganda during war and used it to sell products during peacetime, he couldn’t have imagined that his writings on public relations would become a tool of the Third Reich.

In the 1920s, Joseph Goebbels became an avid admirer of Bernays and his writings – despite the fact that Bernays was a Jew. When Goebbels became the minister of propaganda for the Third Reich, he sought to exploit Bernays’ ideas to the fullest extent possible. For example, he created a “Fuhrer cult” around Adolph Hitler.

In 2017, we’re exposed to advertising (or marketing, or branding) cues thousands of time each day. Whether overt or subliminal, these messages influence actions we blithely regard as “free.”

But are they?

Goebbels may have been less concerned with profits, though the result is largely the same.

Its underlying purpose, in large part, is to make money. By convincing people that they want something they do not need, Bernays sought to turn citizens and neighbors into consumers who use their purchasing power to propel themselves down the road to happiness.

Without a moral compass, however, such a transformation promotes a patronizing and ultimately cynical view of human nature and human possibilities, one as likely to destroy lives as to build them up.

Another Bernays citation is here.

He disseminated propaganda for the Government during World War I and tried to brighten Calvin Coolidge’s dour image during the 1924 campaign by importing Al Jolson and 40 other Broadway performers to the White House. A master at concealing base drives behind exalted rhetoric, Bernays in 1928 provided this defense of political work: ”Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can fight for productive ends and help to bring order out of chaos.” As if to mock this rosy view, Joseph Goebbels became an attentive student of Bernays’s theories five years later.

And another.

It is known that Goebbels studied the way advertising companies worked in America. A great deal of his written work was made up of short sentences – as the above indicate. Everything was kept simple so that there could be no misunderstanding as to its meaning.

Finally, this.

Goebbels “took his cue from the model of commercial advertising”.

For Goebbels, “commercial advertising was overtly cited as the model to follow. Whether it was a matter of simplification, constant repetition of memorable slogans, or concentration of propaganda material in regular campaigns, the principles of mass advertising could easily be applied to political propaganda.”

Strictly speaking, I was mistaken to assert that mass-market, saturation advertising for McDonald’s, Budweiser or Ford derived from Goebbels.

Under the circumstances, I’m perfectly happy to concede my error.