Edward Bernays

EDWARD L. BERNAYS/Image: Wikipedia

“The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.”—Edward L. Bernays, “The Engineering of Consent”, 1947

Edward L. Bernays, regarded as the early 20th-century pioneer of propaganda techniques and arch-designer of the consumer society, deemed propaganda necessary—but not as an evil, to prevent chaos and cacophony in the realm of easily divided public opinion (a potential Tower of Babble, so to speak), especially with regard to governance, commerce and marketing.

Even a cursory read of Propaganda, his definitive 1928 work on the subject, will suggest, even now, so many decades since its publication, concepts and techniques of clear relevance to recruiting not only voters and consumers, but also to the recruitment and persuasion of clients and job candidates. (After the overview of his work that follows, the application of his techniques to recruiting will be explored in detail.)

A nephew of Sigmund, Bernays incorporated psychoanalytic concepts, mob psychology, behavioral modification principles and other deep psychological theories and techniques into his counsel, publications and methods.  Single-handedly, he brought the works and theories of Freud to the U.S., popularized and then cashed in on them, as Freud’s nephew. Working for the administration of Woodrow Wilson during World War I with the Committee on Public Information, Bernays was a primary influence on the adoption of the World War I rallying cry of “bringing democracy to all of Europe”, which is readily recognizable as a precursor of the subsequent popular propaganda shibboleth “making the world safe for democracy”.

Bernays, as an agent of the American Tobacco Company, was also responsible for the staged event and slogan that got American women to start smoking: an Easter Parade in which recruited suffragette debutantes lit up in public under his rallying cry “Torches of Freedom”. (For a truly amazing history of that smoking campaign and of Bernays’ behind-the-scenes one-man role in shaping not only 20th-century U.S. politics and culture, but also that of Nazi Germany, watch the incredible BBC documentary “The Century of the Self”. It’s an eye-opening shocker that includes details of a clandestine battle between Bernays’ propaganda and Gallup polls, in a battle for supremacy and access to the minds and behavior of Americans.)

Invisible Government and the Tower of Babble

Chief among his written works was that short but seminal Propaganda (easily read in about an hour), still a useful handbook of persuasion and manipulation techniques of propaganda—a tool, the application of which, he saw as required to prevent the kind of exhausting, contentious, unending, confusing and distracting weighing of arguments, evidence and opinions that would, he thought, surely plague efforts to reach any consensus about anything, e.g., the selection of products, policies and presidents.

Such divides and fractures in public opinion and the daunting individual costs entailed by individual citizen-consumers or their groups to research and resolve them (“Is red meat good or bad for me?”, “Do we need Iraqi oil?”), warranted and was responsible for the existence of an “invisible government” guiding, shaping and manipulating public opinion. In his words, “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Although this claim had and has sinister, evidently unintended overtones, the original 17th-century concept of propaganda, as Bernays reported it was milder: “..the word was applied to a congregation or society of cardinals for the care and oversight of foreign missions which was instituted at Rome in the year 1627. It was applied also to the College of the Propaganda at Rome that was founded by Pope Urban VIII, for the education of the missionary priests.”

Ultimately, given the pejorative connotation that German propagandizing gave the term during WW I, “propaganda” lost favor with Bernays, and was replaced by the far less menacing concept of governmental and corporate “public relations”.

A Propaganda Primer for Recruiters

Here are the most prominent propaganda and recruiting PR techniques he advanced, gleaned from that book, and given my spin and take:

  • Replace supply-side push, with demand-side pull: Conventional old-fashioned aggressive promotion and advertising pushed the product, e.g., toasters and cars—or in recruiting, pushed candidates, clients and jobs. Bernays espoused replacing that please-buy-this hard “supply-side push” approach with a softer kind of “demand-side pull” strategy.

In one example he provides—the marketing of pianos, the goal is to replace the overbearing, pleading supply-push “Uncle Sam Wants You!” kind of ad, e.g., “YOU buy a Mozart piano now. It is cheap. The best artists use it. It will last for years” (Bernays’ example) with a subtler demand-pull campaign of staged events and endorsements that create a demand based on a mosaic of positive associations, “third-party advocacy”—including celebrity endorsements, cross-marketed imagery—connecting pianos with fine tapestries and other elegant furniture, the creation of desire and the illusion of autonomous consumer judgment. As Bernays put it, “Please buy it!” evolves into “Please let me buy it!”

In its applications and like most of the rest of Bernays’ methods, this technique depends, as he described it, on “swaying” the public more than on pleasing or cajoling and wheedling it.

Applied to recruiting, this approach means switching from pushing a client, candidate or job to pulling them, e.g., by making the client want the job rather than merely (urging them to) consider it,  and by making alluring something associated with the job—for example the prestige of the company, as bait, rather than directly pushing the job itself. Although this difference can often be quite subtle, it is also very real.

  • Sell associations, not essences: There are two prominent ways of selling cars, soaps and presidential or job candidates. The first is to promote the “product” itself by focusing on its essential, defining qualities, e.g., automotive, cleaning or legislative horsepower. The second is to sell or sabotage by Pavlovian association, e.g., having a seductive scantily-clad nymphet sidle up to a car or a married presidential candidate outside his hotel door.

The former approach can be called “essence-based” (my term, not Bernays’), the latter, “association-based” (again, my term, although these concepts are implicit in what Bernays said). In the realm of recruiting, this means, for example, promoting a job or company by emphasizing its hip image more than its defining core products and services. In the case of a candidate, the hire may, in some quarters and states, be facilitated by an association-rich round of decent golf or posturing and posing with a ten-gallon hat.

  • Stress the 3rd-party validation, not the product or service itself: A variation on the essence-association dichotomy, presentation of and greater emphasis on validation of a product, candidate, company, etc., rather than on the person or thing itself can work. In practical terms, this can involve a greater emphasis on a candidate’s references and (family) connections than on his core skills, experience, etc.  It worked in the recruitment and selection of at least one recent former U.S. president; it can work for you.
  • Target the group, not the aggregate: Bernays advocates using propaganda to convert an aggregate—a large population of disconnected, often competing individuals, into a group—a cohesive, very large unit comprising individuals immersed in a shared, collaborative, positive identity, e.g., a registered political party’s voters organized as a group of members, rather than an aggregate of unorganized, isolated “independents”.

For example, the aggregate approach to selling toothpaste is illustrated by an ad campaign that warns each and every individual housewife of the perils of tooth decay or which promises a whiter smile to millions of consumers disconnected from each other. The group approach might, instead, create a “Mother’s for Dental Health” campaign, with various sponsorships and events, with which moms could not only identify, but also through which they could identify with and support each other and their children.

This seems to be the approach that Apple has used in its recruitment process, during which disconnected applicants are made to feel they are part of a team, not a crowd, as they are greeted by the applause of Apple staffers. Create and target the group, sell the company or the candidate as “a part of”, rather than “apart from”.

  • Sell autonomy: In his example of marketing pianos through demand-pull rather than product-push, Bernays illustrates the technique of making the target to be swayed imagine that the choice made is purely autonomous, not pressured or forced, thereby allaying any concerns about having been manipulated, while allowing some self-congratulation for having such “great judgment” and the wherewithal to implement it. Distilled to its basics, this could be called the “lead the horse to water” technique, through which the horse imagines the choice to drink is free, independent, uninfluenced, unmanipulated and unguided.

As I see this, the application of this technique is tantamount to selling autonomy—something always in demand in highly individualistic cultures such as America’s. The way a recruiter can apply this is to present a candidate or company teasers and triggers—anything that will stimulate an interest, guide it, but not clinch the deal without the ostensibly free, unpredictable choice of the target candidate or client, culminating in the eureka moment in which the horse decides that drinking is not only a great idea, but also its own. Examples of autonomy-focused recruiting teasers and triggers include the use of phrases such as “Of course, ultimately it is your call” or “If you could beef up your resume with more details about that project, their HR manager might push your candidacy harder.”

  • Blend “continuous interpretation” and “high-spotting”: These are two complementary techniques that Bernays identified as highly effective. The first, which Bernays somewhat awkwardly labeled “continuous interpretation” means seamlessly integrating all aspects of a propaganda campaign, e.g., posters, banners, uniforms, Internet and hard-copy news, endorsements, press releases, rumors, staged events, documentaries, ads, music, buttons and other give-aways—to name but a few, for the primary purpose of coherent, consistent and clear branding and promotion.

The second, “high-spotting”, involves creating a dramatic spike in the terrain of the overall campaign—much like the 1920s filming of an oil gusher on a flat Texas oil field to promote oil, emerging from a jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier to rally the troops and secure oil, or scary allusions to terrorism that may “come in the form of a mushroom cloud”.

Utilization of these techniques in recruiting could take the form of first presenting the company and job coherently and comprehensively to the candidate, in terms of the dovetailing of its success with its cutting-edge policies, such as allowing use of social media, job flexibility and social-environmental conscience. This should be followed by some high-spotting, e.g., by revealing an upcoming product launch that is going to grab huge market share. Like a good one-two-punch combination, that could easily be enough to floor the candidate.

  • Sell the problem, not the solution: A favored technique of political manipulation, selling the problem rather than the solution has a long history. If, for example, political opposition of radical groups can be squelched and crushed by draconian laws, don’t try to sell the laws. Just burn the Reichstag (my illustration, not from Bernays’ Propaganda, which was published before that dark, “false-flag” propaganda Meisterwerk, five years later). That problem—the loss of a governmental center and symbol—sold the “solution”, namely, dictatorial laws.

Much lighter, less heavy-handed applications include Bernays’ discussion of luggage sales, the problem being how to boost them. Instead of selling the direct solution, which is an explicit, direct campaign to induce luggage purchases, Bernays suggested strategies that included support for railway company training programs to improve porter handling of baggage or easing of public transportation size, number and weight restrictions . By selling the “problem” as a training or luggage bulk issue, the ultimate solution, viz., increased sales, could more easily be implemented. It was this that Bernays was describing when he said in that passage, “the correct approach to a problem may be indirect”.

In the matrix of recruiting, this technique could be applied by characterizing a company’s budget constraints or unusual quarterly one-time pay-downs as the “problem” to be sold to, i.e., acknowledged by, a candidate, in order to persuade him to accept the “solution” of a starting salary lower than hoped for or expected.

  • Find and promote the “common denominator”: To harmoniously align and integrate potentially competing interests, find what Bernays called a “common denominator” that will unite and reconcile them. For example—mine, early feminism was very successful because it provided an umbrella under which otherwise diametrically opposed female ideologies and attitudes could find shelter and wield as a battle shield. Two otherwise antagonistic groups—those women who really liked men and those who didn’t so much could agree that women should have the same sexual freedoms as men and also that they should not be “objectified” as “sex objects” (thereby making sex with then-chauvinist males both more and less likely, respectively). Hence, a potential schism in the feminist movement was prevented, or at least delayed. The common denominator here? The rights and freedom of women—specifically, a freedom to (choose, which men already had) and a freedom from (“degradation”, by men).

In the arena of marketing, the same harmonization of opposites was entertainingly and paradoxically achieved by a Chinese budget-clothing line I used to buy called “New Classic”, which, of course, appealed to both the trendy and the traditional, normally at opposite ends of the catwalk.

This principle could be applied to recruiting by smoothing over any conflicts of interest between candidate and employer, such as optimal salary, by emphasizing shared values, e.g., employee stockholding, profit sharing or progressive work-life balance policies.

These illustrations are among the primary propaganda techniques Bernays discussed in Propaganda. Others await you and your application of them should you choose to give it a read. Softening his lessons by use of the euphemism and recruiter-friendly term “public relations”, which, as noted, he introduced to cloak propaganda in an attractive, if not better-fitting mantle, Bernays repeatedly declared his hope and expectation that propaganda would serve positive, democratic and honest ends. He disavowed the kind of Machiavellian duplicity and cynicism that the term “propaganda” has come to suggest, and, in Propaganda, repeatedly stated the caveat that no one should propagandize for evil, dishonest or dangerous ends. However, he shared Freud’s deep pessimism about human nature, seen as wild, irrational, dangerous and in need of perpetual vigilant control, and to that extent had little faith in democracy without top-down mind control.

Alas, as history has all too amply demonstrated, his efforts to stage an effective propaganda campaign for those cautions against abuse and on behalf of virtue were doomed to be blunted by something more powerful and irresistible than good intentions. …

…the human capacity to advance the science of propaganda faster than its morality.



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