20th Century Machiavelli

Edward Burnays, the 20th Century Machiavelli. Edward Burnays is the man who invented modern public relations. Few people have had a larger impact on society in their lifetimes, but I bet you’ve never heard of him. In fact, Burnays and his PR firm had a hand in everything from popularizing cigarettes for women, all the way to convincing Americans that Central America was a Communist breeding ground. 

Edward Burnays literally wrote the how to book on Propaganda, and that book would become Joseph Goebbels’ handbook while he helped orchestrate the Holocaust and the Nazi rise in Germany. As mentioned above, Burnays was himself a master of Propaganda, and he sold his talents to the highest bidder throughout his life.  Most significant of all his actions, he wrote books that would serve as how-to handbooks for furthering the agendas of the greediest corporations and most bloodthirsty regimes the world over. But Burnays is not a simple subject. He by no means invented propaganda, he merely put it into words, and he was appalled at the knowledge that his book had been used in the Holocaust. It wouldn’t be fair to call Burnays an evil man, but he was certain dangerous. Burnays is a man who changed the world with a dangerous idea. 

Writers propose two guiding principles to summarize the Burnays philosophy. First, modern society is ungovernable. Vast as it is, it is a force too strong for any entity to guide or coerce. The public must, and can only be controlled through manipulation. Burnays said: “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.” (Burnays, Propaganda) In other words, if you control the people who set the agenda, you control the world. Burnays is simultaneously suggesting that it is better to exert control indirectly and from the shadows.

Second, the people can be made to behave as you want them to behave by manipulating the subconscious of the public mind. This can be done with symbols and signs. ”If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without them knowing it.” (Burnays, Propaganda) This ties back into the first principle; influence the trend setters and influencers, and through them infect the zeitgeist, which consequently allows you to tap into, and influence social trends. I know very little about propaganda, so I will not spend much more time describing it. For more I suggest you consult Burnay’s short book titled “Crystallizing Public Opinion.”

It seems to me that today, we take a lot of Burnays’ ideas as a given. We’re all rather suspicious of our governments and of big corporations. Most of us understand that there is no Illuminati pulling strings bellow the surface, but we know that all large corporate, social and government entities are always conspiring to influence the way you think. More than ever, we are bombarded with information and opinion. Every entity int the world is competing for your attention; competing to influence you, and we’re largely aware of this. But, when Burnays was trying to make a name for himself, his ideas were fringe. He was not initially taken seriously, and it’s easy to see why. People who speak this way, like he does in the quotes I listed above, do not seem to live by the same ethics as you or I, and he would have sounded quite strange to most in his own time. We’re used to finding reference to these propaganda ideas while reading Orwell, where they are presented as morally ambiguous. Burnays, on the other hand, was happy to provide you with a cheatsheet to manipulate entire populations.

Burnays has often been compared to Niccolo Machiavelli, the famous Italian diplomat from the Renaissance Era, who famously wrote The Prince. The Prince is a book which imparts principles and lessons to princes, monarchs, and rulers, but it has been found to offer useful lessons more broadly to individuals of all backgrounds. Machiavelli’s book, just like Burnays’ writings, suggests the necessity that those who would lead should arm themselves with a different set of ethics from those encouraged among the majority. Being loved and moral was seemingly replaced by Machiavelli with being feared and utilitarian. The Prince was a suitable handbook for a 16th century Italian politician, but would provide incomplete knowledge to the 21st century’s political wannabe. Burnays however, might indeed be a one stop shop for learning how to win hearts and minds in the 21st century, using modern communication technology.

Unlike Machiavelli, Burnays had a significant impact on the world during his lifetime. I used to think Machiavelli must have been an important man in his lifetime, due to the renown he possesses today, but the reality is, Machiavelli was just another diplomat in his lifetime. He would be no more remembered than any of his brethren were it not for the writings he left us. He achieved his highest fame after his death, whereas Burnays was wildly influential in his time, and lays forgotten today. 

Burnays was born in Vienna, but came to America with his family when he was still a baby. He came from an important family, with many famous members. Freud was his uncle, and apparently, they got along very well, since Burnays attributed Freud as the inspiration for many insights that he gained conversing with his uncle over walks, when Burnays and his family vacationed in Vienna. But this could have been more PR propaganda on his part, trying to ennoble his ideas by associating them to his famous uncle.

His first job was in publishing. Burnays worked as a publisher for a medical journal, and became extremely bored extremely quickly. He one day decided to publish the script to a play related to the suffering of syphilitic patients. Though unorthodox for a medical journal, Burnays promoted the importance of the play, and it’s potential to discourage the youth from engaging in loose sexual behaviour. The publishing of the play from its unorthodox source became a story of its own, being described by a number of important newspapers. The hubbub he had inadvertently created encouraged Burnays to seek out a theatre producer and convinced him to produce the play. The theatre man had previously refused to produce the play, thinking it was not very good, but Burnays argued that the play was so hot in the news, the producer could only benefit from performing it! Burnays ensured that the audiences of the first performances were filled with doctors and social workers. The early attendants further promoted the play in medical circles through their editorials and speeches following their viewing. The play became a hit, and would even be performed at the White House. Burnays never forgot this experience, and it helped him understand that the key to realizing a personal cause, is to turn it into a public one. 

He coined the term public relations, and in 1915, he opened a PR firm. One of his great endeavours was to promote cigarette use in America. Hired in 1928, he used women’s aspirations for a better life to achieve his goal. In those days, it was considered unladylike to smoke, and this prevented women from smoking in public. If women can’t smoke in public, they smoke less, and might never even take on the habit to begin with. Ads had attempted to sell smoking to women by advertising the cigarette as a weight loss tool, and by promoting smoking as a sexy act, but nothing had worked until Burnays thought to ride the social wave that he was observing gain momentum; first-wave feminism. The world was changing, and the role of women in society was undergoing its largest change in millenia. Burnays noticed, and since his job was to sell cigarettes to women, he rebranded cigarettes as tools for women’s empowerment. Cigarettes were now Torches of Freedom, and Burnays organized a large protest, a Smoke-Out, where women were asked to leave their homes and offices one afternoon, and to smoke all together in the streets. As a result of Burnays’ approach, the women’s portion of cigarette sales increased from 5% in 1921, to 12% in 1929, and further to 18.1% in 1935. Burnays said he did not invent the issue, he simply observed that women wanted to smoke in public, and he helped crystallize public opinion about it. He manufactured consent. 

Burnays looked to marketing products in a big picture way, the way leaders look to furthering the interests of nations. He did not waste time on seasonal ad campaigns. He wouldn’t be interested in Christmas sales. He was interested in making the world a friendlier place to the products he sold. 

Burnays might have had his most important challenge when it came to representing United Fruit, the prototypical Banana Republic, in Central America. Here Burnays would wage a literal war of ideas. When the leader of Guatemala decided to nationalize the properties of the monopolistic fruit giant that held the country in a vice grip, Samuel Zemurray, the company owner, also known as Sam the Banana-Man, hired Burnays as a sort of ideological hitman. Burnays was hired to help United Fruit regain it’s Central American holdings, and he went about it by transforming the interests of Zemurray’s Banana Republic (prolonged, undisputed, dominance in Guatemala), into a national interest for the United States government. Despite the fact that the Guatemalan President who had enacted the seizure of the United Fruit property, counted Theodore Roosevelt – the most American of Americans – among his influences, Burnays managed to convince the American government that the Guatemalan leader  was a Communist, and that the country was slipping into the political sphere of the USSR. You can guess what happened next. 

I don’t know if Burnays is a good or a bad man. He was reportedly distressed to find out that his ideas were used by Goebbels and the Nazis, but then, to some in the world, the United Fruit Company was also evil, and Burnays ruthlessly protected their interests. But his ideas have not only been used for bad causes. Today, charities, social movements for positive change, non-profits, politicians that you like, they all use these principles to futher goals that we approve of. I don’t know what’s the net result of Burnays having existed. Is the world better off, or worse off? The fact is, Burnays’ ideas reverberate still today. Terms he coined, that he elucidated, are foundational in the way that we understand the functioning of our society.

Nowadays, when we use words like propaganda, it is to defame someone – it has become a pejorative. We have reserved that word for referring to those who would do us harm, but in doing so we let more ourselves be unconsciously swayed by sources of information which we think of as benign. We are constantly bombarded by political, social and corporate marketing that simply shouldn’t be called anything else than propaganda, since it presents information selectively with the intent of swaying us to a specific opinion.  As the old saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter; well, it often seems to me that when messages and branding come from our own sources, we call them influential, and when they come from other tribes, we call them problematic.  The war of ideas is ongoing, and we are all soldiers allied to one side or another, though this fact is hidden from us by the quality of our storytelling, (a euphemism for propaganda).

However far our culture has matured, and learned to identify the modern predators who seek to assault our minds, PR firms, marketing agencies, have all the while continued to refine their techniques. At this moment, the quality and competence of the world’s marketing agencies is at an all time high. The war of ideas has been waged since the dawn of time. It has been fought with clubs, swords, book burnings, terror, genocide, and economic policy, but none of these methods can match up to the power of propaganda disseminated through modern means of communication. Be wary, and consider your beliefs. Not all your thoughts are your own. 

Edward Burnays

Inspiration for piece came from an except contained in the book titled ”The Fish that Swallowed the Whale”, by Rich Cohen. For more on this book, and on Sam the Banana-Man, self made banana tycoon, click here.

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