The invisible profession

Although there are a lot of people who make big bucks as professional propagandists, using the identifiable tools of the trade, I’ve never heard anyone identify him/herself  as a propagandist. I’ve never seen a job listing or classified ad saying “Wanted — skilled propagandist.” It’s a profession that hides in plain sight and relies on secrecy to be effective.

Propagandists have job titles such as ad designer, ad copy writer, public relations consultant/agent, media relations professional, political consultant, talk show host and political pundit. Unlike journalists, they have no obligation to be objective. Indeed, their function isn’t to accurately inform, but to influence or persuade. Propaganda can only be effective to the degree that it’s invisible to its target audience, because nobody likes to know  that they’re being manipulated. I think it’s highly probable that the average American couldn’t identify even one propaganda technique, and that’s the way the influence industries want it.

I’m not saying that everybody in advertising and public relations is a propagandist, but the propaganda industries have developed expertise in using  behavioral science to manipulate behavior on a mass scale, without their machinations being apparent to the public at large. As a psychologist, it disturbs me greatly to see that our society’s primary systematic application of the principles of psychology has been as a tool for commercial and political persuasion, and for the manipulation of mass behavior in the service of commerce.

Edward Bernays, who is generally recognized as the “father of public relations,” wrote a 1928 book titled Propaganda, in which he wrote about “regimenting the public mind.” He asked “Is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?” and answered in the affirmative. His teachings were a blueprint for the influence industries, which have gradually made the techniques of unconscious influence (as detailed in my last post) so commonplace that they’re invisible to the average citizen/consumer. Although Bernays name isn’t widely known outside of the advertising, public relations and political consultancy industries, he was one of LIFE magazine’s “100 Most Important People of the Twentieth Century.” Talk about invisibility. . . .

Many people in the influence industries are specialists in the social sciences and use polling, interviews, focus groups, statistical analysis, and other proven techniques to constantly refine their ability to influence behavior on a mass scale. In aggregate they are social engineers, working to enable corporate agendas. Not only do influence peddlers utilize the classic techniques of propaganda, but they also use rhetorical devices (i.e. metaphor, euphemism, hyperbole) strategically to hammer home their persuasive messages. They craft presentations that combine propaganda techniques such as transfer with combinations of verbal and visual metaphors that effectively influence mass behavior. Propaganda wouldn’t be a highly profitable enterprise if it didn’t work.

Heuristics are mental shortcuts we all use to make decisions. Professional persuaders exploit them to sell goods and services. Examples are stereotyping (if this is the case, then that should follow), social consensus (everybody’s doing it), scarcity (“this offer is limited”), and the price-value heuristic (if it costs more, it must be better).

Edward Bernays was the nephew and confidante of Sigmund Freud, and his uncle’s teachings about unconscious influence had a great influence on the profession he founded. After his academic career ended, Dr. J.B. Watson – known as the “father of Behaviorism” – worked for a Madison Avenue advertising firm. Influence peddlers use behavior modification techniques along with propaganda and other psychotechnologies of influence.

The propaganda technique of transfer relies on classical – or Pavlovian – conditioning, where a conditioning stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (i.e. a bell is rung whenever food is presented), creating a conditioned response. In Pavlov’s experiments, dogs were conditioned to salivate when a bell was rung. Professional persuaders also use operant conditioning, where reinforcers (rewards) are systematically given or withheld in order  to shape behavior. An example is “call in the next ten minutes and shipping is free.” I’ve written about behavior modification in more detail in previous posts.

We’re bombarded daily with messages from propagandists and other professional persuaders. We’ve been systematically conditioned by experts to confuse manipulative messages with factual information. The key to removing infotoxins from your mental environment is education. As Bob Marley put it, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/ None but ourselves can free our minds.”

 

 

 

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