Review & Audio Reading of Edward Bernays Essay, “The Engineering of Consent”

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This is a summary and review of Edward Bernays 1947 Essay titled, “The Engineering of Consent.” An audio reading of the entire essay is included at the bottom of the review. Bernays also published a book with the same title in 1955. The book is based on the essay, and is basically an instruction manual for the massive propaganda apparatus that’s currently in place in the United States. You can currently get a first edition copy of it online for just under $2,000. A review of the book in its entirety is coming soon. The essay is a good warm up.

First Edition Bernays

Select Quotes

“Newsworthy events, involving people, usually do not happen by accident. They are planned deliberately to accomplish a purpose, to influence our ideas and actions.

“The public’s attitudes, assumptions, ideas, or prejudices result from definite influences. One must try to find out what they are in any situation in which one is working.’

“Primarily, however, the engineer of consent must create news. News is not an inanimate thing. It is an overt act that makes news, and news in turn shapes the attitudes and actions of people.”

“The United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.”

Here is a quick overview of the process of engineering consent as described in the essay.

  1. Control and master the use of the mass communications system
  2. Identify and influence group leaders who have the most influence over the largest number of people.
  3. Plan Your Campaign
    1. Select a clear overall goal.
      1. Know your destination, what you want to accomplish with absolutely clarity
    2. Determine if the goal is realistic
    3. Adjust your goal if the research calls for it.
    4. Remain flexible in how you reach your destination
  4. Studying The Public
    1. Values & Techniques of Research
    2. Understand their conscious and sub-conscious motives
  5. Selection of Themes, Strategy, & Organization.
  6. Selection of Tactics

Understanding Bernays

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Edward Bernays was often referred to by his peers as a modern Machiavelli. His book “Crystallizing Public Opinion” was used by the Nazis as a propaganda playbook during World War II. He believed that it was up to the “intelligent few” to lead to mindless herd around by the nose.

It helps to have this understanding of Bernays when reading any of his material because he starts all of his material the same way….with spin. He rationalizes that what he does is an expression of democracy and freedom.

These frequent rationalizations serve multiple purposes. One is to defend himself from his many critics of the day. Another is to make basic motivational appeals to themes that every American cherishes in an attempt to associate himself with those beloved themes. And a third is to convince the reader that there’s nothing wrong with mass manipulation because everyone is allowed to do it. In reference to the third one, he fails to mention how tightly controlled the system of mass communication is at the highest levels. His access to the minds of the American public via the system of communications far exceeded that of the average American.

Bernays believed in the democratic way of life but only for the “intelligent few” who are capable of reasoning. He believed that the majority of people aren’t intelligent enough to make wise decisions for themselves. He believed that the masses are an unthinking herd that elites like himself must make decisions for while leading the herd to believe that they made the decisions themselves.

How do Bernays and other social engineers get the public to accept these decisions as though the decisions were their own? Through a process called, “The Engineering of Consent.”

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The engineering of consent is a broad social engineering process. The purpose is to shape the beliefs, attitudes and actions of the public to the will of the government, or client. If the client is not the government, it is a wealthy elitist or a large corporation.

Control of The System of Mass Communication

In the essay, Bernays gives an overview of this process of engineering consent. He starts with a discussion of the communication apparatus in the United States, referring to it as;

“the world’s most effective apparatus for the transmission of ideas.”

Naturally, the transmission of ideas is important to a propagandist. The more people that can be reached the better. And the system of mass communication in the United States enables the social engineer to rapidly transmit ideas to nearly everyone from a centralized location. Bernays says the communication system can reach anyone in the country no matter how isolated they are. Considering that he wrote this in 1947, it’s scary to think how quickly ideas, or ideologies, can be transmitted to the masses today.

Two quotes capture his enthusiasm for how easily he can transmit his ideas to the public.

“The United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.”

“Words hammer continually at the eyes and ears of Americans.”

Bernays saw this as a good thing. If everyone could be reached from a centralized location, through the various forms of media, then society could be completely controlled from behind the scenes.

To him, the various forms of media were control mechanisms. If you can control the information that people receive you can shape their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes at will. You and I see a television, he sees a mechanism for mass control of society. The same is true for the cinema, the newspaper, the public speaker, the billboard, the teacher, and any other vehicle that information passes through.

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To Bernays, this “enormous amplifying system” is access to the public mind. This is where the engineering of consent starts, with control over the communication system. Control is gained either overtly with pressure and threats, or through subtle manipulation.

“Leadership Through Communication”

The title of this section is deceiving. It looks like a masters course you might take at a business school. What Bernays is referring to in this section is manipulating the masses through group leaders. There are many groups and sub-groups in society. We’re all part of many different groups based on a variety of factors. One person might be a Braves fan, an animal advocate, a republican, a catholic, a book lover, a family man, and a million other things.

Each group has as different set of appeals and interest in common. Some crossover and some conflict. When Bernays talks about leadership through communication, he’s talking about identifying and influencing the leaders who have the most influence over the most groups. Bernays often used shady, manipulative tactics to influence leaders. For example, he opened many front organization. On the surface, these organizations claimed to exist for the purpose of a general good. In reality, these organizations were serving hidden special interests under the guise of a general good.

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The Engineering Approach

After laying the preliminary ground work, Bernays goes on to discuss his engineering approach.

Governments and elites rule either with force, or manipulation. Bernays engineering approach is his way of ruling through manipulation. If the government wants the population to consent to a movement, an ideology, an action, a transformed way of life, or anything else that, at the present moment, they aren’t likely to accept…then consent must be engineered.

Bernays does a lot of rationalization in this part of the essay. At one point he refers to the engineering of consent as;

“the very essence of the democratic process.”

I can only image that when he wrote this he had no idea that one day his personal papers would be released and we’d understand his role in “engineering” the overthrow of a democratically elected Guatemalan president. Don’t let Bernays fool you in this section. Bernays had many critics during his day. These rationalizations are directed their way. To critics Bernays was more of a despot than an advocate of democracy.

 

“The Importance of Engineering Consent”

Bernays says a number of things to take note of in this section. Remember, Bernays was a close adviser to presidents, and the wealthiest of businessmen. He also worked in foreign relations, and was an active proponent of world government. He had the ears of the most powerful people in the world. They sought and took his advice. So, when he says things like,

“it (the engineering of consent) affects almost every aspect of our daily lives.”

he’s not just guessing. He’s advising the people who have the power to affect every aspect of our daily lives.

In this section he admits that his manipulation tactics can be subverted.

“The techniques can be subverted; demagogues can utilize the techniques for anti-democratic purposes….”

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He also touches on how you can rule from the shadows because of advances in communication technology.

“It is clear that a leader in democracy need not always posses the personal qualities of a Daniel Webster or Henry Clay. He need not be visible or even audible to his audiences. He may lead indirectly, simply by effectively using today’s means of making contact with the eyes and ears of those audiences.”

Bernays then goes on to provide an example of an organization that engineered consent. The example he uses is the WWI Committee on Public Information, which he was part of. The way he describes that committees efforts makes them sound nothing short of heroic. At one point he even says,

“It (the committee) helped win that war.”

The only problem with his example is that nearly everyone else remembers the Committee On Public Information differently. Walter Lippman, a prominent member of the committee with Bernays, believed the techniques they used during the war were a threat to the democratic way of life. Another committee member, Will Irwin, admitted that the committee frequently lied saying,

“We never told the whole truth—-not by any manner of means.” Irwin said.

Congress harshly criticized the committee because of its questionable manipulation tactics. Some of the information the committee provided the public in order to sway public opinion was exposed as lies. The manipulative actions of the Committee on Public Information contributed to the anti-propaganda movement that emerged shortly after World War I. The public believed that they were manipulated by the British and their own government before and during the war. Popular opinion, which Bernays usually held in such high esteem, did not think so highly of his Committee On Public Information.

So, while Bernays story of heroism sounds nice, it’s complete fantasy.

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A Professional Perspective

The tactics used by the Committee on Public Information were very effective in manipulating the public during WWI. This is part of why the public was so angry about it. Bernays took these tactics, systematized into the engineering of consent process, and applied them to the business world after the war. Bernays and other members of the committee spread out all over the country, working with big business and government agencies. They established, through the country, what Bernays ultimately coined as, “The Engineering of Consent.”

Bernays does not cover the details above in this essay. That information comes from his other materials. Here he discusses how popular the new profession of public relations becomes after the war. Bernays uses the word propaganda interchangeably with the phrase public relations in his other works.

Planning A Campaign

Bernays may be a despot, but he’s planning skills are admirable. Goals must be defined clearly. You must know where you want to go and what you want to accomplish. During the planning phase, you will determine if your goal is attainable. The key thing here is have a clear destination to move towards.

Study The Public

Once you have your goals, you study the public. Most people do base level research. Bernays did mass data collection like research. He would have field day with all the data we provide social networks like Facebook.

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Some of the things Bernays studies are; how they communicate, who influences them, what motives them on a deep subconscious level, where his target gets their ideas, who influences their thought processes, what basic assumptions they operate on, what motivates them to action, and anything else that will help him understand what makes them tick. Some notable quotes from this section are;

“What ideas are people ready to absorb? What are they ready to do, given an effective stimulant?”

“The public’s attitudes, assumptions, ideas, or prejudices result from definite influences. One must try to find out what they are in any situation in which one is working.’

“To influence the public, the engineer of consent works with and through group leaders and opinion molders on every level.”

 

Values & Techniques of Research

The main takeaway here is the importance of surveying the public. You have to get a feel for what’s going on out in the field if you are to manipulate the field. Bernays basically suggests contacting the leader of every group and sub-group that you can think of.

Speaking on public opinion research, Bernays says;

“It (public opinion research) should disclose the realities of the objective situation in which the engineer of consent has to work. Completed it provides a blueprint for action and clarifies the question of who does what, where, when, and why…….It will disclose subconscious and conscious motivations in public thought, and the action, words, and pictures that effect these motivations.”

Once this knowledge is gained, you then make adjustments to other areas of your plan based on what you learned.

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Themes & Strategies

Bernays provides a good description of what themes are strategies are to the consent engineer.

“These themes contain the ideas to be conveyed; they channel the lines of approach to the public; and they must be expressed through whatever media are used. The themes are every present but intangible–comparable to what in fiction is called the “story line.”

“To be successful, the themes must appeal to the motives of the public. Motives are the activation of both conscious and subconscious pressures created by the force of desires.”

When it comes to themes, Bernays identified a cause to attach whatever idea, ideology, or product he was engineering consent for. His goal was then to turn his client’s idea, product, or ideology into a symbol for that cause. Once established in the minds of the target, the symbol then becomes a motivational trigger for that target group.

After establishing the themes, the social engineer determines strategy. Bernays briefly covers a few strategies in the essay. In the book based on the essay, strategy is discussed in far more detail.

And last but not least, tactics are chosen.

Tactics

Bernays describes tactics as:

“How the themes are to be disseminated over the idea carriers, the networks of communication.”

Bernays talks about something very important in this section. He emphasizes that tactics shouldn’t be thought of in segmental approaches. He’s referring to compartmentalization. Tactics in and of themselves are not the point. It’s how they work with all the other parts that’s important. This is a holistic approach that enables the propagandis to remain flexible to changing conditions.

Here is what Bernays has to say about selecting activities;

“Emphasis on the consent engineer’s activities will be on the written and spoken word, geared to the media and designed for the audiences he is addressing.”

“He  must familiarize himself with all media and know how to supply them with material suitable in quantity and quality.”

“Primarily, however, the engineer of consent must create news. News is not an inanimate thing. It is an overt act that makes news, and news in turn shapes the attitudes and actions of people.”

Bernays talks a lot about propaganda of the deed in this section. Propaganda of the deed, as Bernays uses the term in his other works, is the staging of events for the purpose of creating news. People are more influenced by real events, by drama that leaves an emotional imprint. By staging and dramatizing an event, it gives those who are there a real experience, and it makes an impact on those whom the message is transmitted to through the various forms of media. The reason is because the story is dramatized in the media as well. So it creates a domino effect. Someone in the target group witnesses an event on the news, and is inspired to take action of their own.

One of the most important parts of the staged event is to create a symbol that connects with the feeling of oppression or desire in the target group. When this is done, the symbol acts as a motivational trigger for members of the target group. This trigger can then be exploited by the social engineers at will.

In Conclusion

Bernays process of engineering consent is highly effective and can be beneficial if used transparently, and with benevolent intent. There is no reason to use it covertly like Bernays famously did. Unfortunately, the powers that be are highly skilled at using this system to shape national and world events. The best defense we have is to understand how it works.

 

 

 

 

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