Edward Bernays The most important man you’ve never heard of
The founding father of Public Relations Edward Bernays was the first but definitely not the last to use symbolism and indirect methods of selling that appeal to subconscious desires and emotions. He was also one of the first people to use figures of authority to sell products, essentially getting a well-respected person to be associated with your product, will make your product more desirable. This is still widely used today and known as “Influencer Marketing”. Bernays most notable campaign is unsurprisingly a morally dubious one. Bernays was employed by the American Tobacco Company to remove the stigma of women smoking. He identified that slim figures were becoming more fashionable in women so he marketed cigarettes as a way to lose weight. Preying on potential insecurities, Bernays came up with the slogan “Reach for a lucky instead of a sweet” to help popularise the notion that cigarettes were a healthier alternative and a means to lose weight. Unfortunately, it did not stop there, Bernays reached out to photographers, newspapers, and magazines to encourage the idea that being thin was the new fashion. He was willing to offer medical experts enormous sums of money to advocate cigarettes as a health product. The campaign was successful but there was still a stigma around women smoking outdoors. Bernays paid leading suffragettes to smoke cigarettes during the Easter Sunday Parade in New York under the guise that female smoking was a cultural challenge against the conservative patriarchy. Photographers were hired by Bernays to make sure that there were high-quality photos for the newspapers. Once pictures were in the papers the “Torches of Freedom” Campaign sparked a cultural debate that spread across America. The women’s walk was seen as a protest for equality and sparked discussion throughout the nation. Feminist Ruth Hale, advocated for women to smoke as a means of emancipating themselves from cultural chains. “Women! Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!” she said. In 1923 women only purchased 5% of cigarettes sold. In 1929 that percentage was 12%, in 1935; 18.1%, peaking in 1965 at 33.3%, and remaining at this level until 1977.
In the 1920s The United Fruit Company had huge holdings of land and railroads across Central America, which it used export bananas from Central America to the United States. By 1930 it was the largest landowner and employer in Guatemala for several years. The company virtually owned Puerto Barrios, Guatemala’s only port with access to the Atlantic. By 1950 the company’s annual profits stood at 65 million dollars, twice the revenue of the Guatemalan government. 22 years on from the “Torches of freedom campaign”, the democratically elected President Jacobo Árbenz Guzman promised social reform that included the redistribution of unused agrarian land to the poor, a policy that made United Fruit feel threatened. Furthermore, Árbenz supported a strike of UFC workers in 1951, which eventually forced the company to rehire a number of laid-off workers. Between 1952 and 1954, Guatemala confiscated 1.5 million acres and redistributed it one hundred thousand poor families, including – in March 1953, 210,000 acres belonging to United Fruit. The company was offered compensation at the rate of 2.99 US dollars to the acre, twice what it had paid when buying the property.
Despite this reasonable offer United Fruit responded with an intensive lobbying campaign against Árbenz in the United States and it was Bernays who was going to be the mastermind behind it. Bernays orchestrated a campaign whereby universities, lawyers, the media and the US government would all condemn Arbenz redistribution as not just immoral but illegal. Within weeks The New York Times and other leading newspapers had all published articles describing the threat of Communism in Guatemala.
The Guatemalan government responded by saying that the company was
the main obstacle to progress in the country. American historians Schlesinger and Kinzer, wrote
in 1999 “to
the Guatemalans it appeared that their country was being mercilessly exploited
by foreign interests which took huge profits without making any contributions
to the nation’s welfare.”But in the context of the Cold War
anything resembling the policies of the USSR was regarded as an immediate
threat to, not just America, but to freedom itself.
In 1953 200,000 acres of uncultivated company land was expropriated under Árbenz’s agrarian reform law, a move that resulted in even more lobbying in Washington, particularly by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who the company had close ties with. Bernays had begun a public relations campaign to discredit the Guatemalan government; spending over a half a million dollars to convince both lawmakers and members of the public in the US that Árbenz needed to be overthrown.
United Fruit distributed an anonymous Report on Guatemala to every member of Congress and they published a Guatemala Newsletter and sent it to 250 journalists every week, some of whom used it as a source for their reporting. Bernays formed close relationships with many journalists such as The NewYork Times reporters Will Lissner and Walter Winchell. Eventually like Bernays planned, the communism fearing President Eisenhower gave the CIA the green light to act. The CIA initiated Operation PBSUCCESS where they backed military force as well as a psychological warfare campaign to portray military defeat as a foregone conclusion. During the coup itself, Bernays was the primary supplier of information for the international newswires; United Press International, the International News Service and Associated Press. Following the coup, Bernays promoted the image of Guatemala’s new US installed dictator Carlos Castillo Armas. In effect what happened in 1954 is America toppled a democratically elected government to protect the financial interests of the United Fruit Company and installed a dictator. Under the guise of defending democracy, the US ended one in the name of corporate interests.
In the modern day marketing techniques are much more advanced and invasive. In the early 2000s, Andrew Pole, a mathematical genius was working as a statistician for Target, an American retailer. He was asked by the marketing department “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that?”Expecting and new parents are a retailer’s paradise. Most shoppers won’t buy everything they need at one store. Instead, they buy food at the supermarket and toys at the toy store and so on. The problem was shoppers only visit Target when they need specific items they associate with Target, such as cleaning supplies or new socks. But Target sells everything from food to furniture, so one of the company’s main goals is convincing customers that the only store they need is Target. But it’s an incredibly difficult message to get across because once consumers’ shopping habits are ingrained; it’s incredibly difficult to change them.
There are, however, some pivotal movements in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly much likelier to change. One of those moments is around the birth of a child. Parents are overrun and exhausted. It is in those moments when spending habits and brand loyalties are up for grabs. Because birth records are usually public, retailers were bombarding new parents with discounts and offers. Target needed to reach them earlier before any other retailers even know a baby is on the way. Specifically, Target wanted to send specially designed ads to expecting mums specifically in their second trimester, which is when mothers tend to start making baby-related purchases.
Pole used statistical analysis to identify 25 products that when purchased together indicate that a woman is very likely to be pregnant. Target used this information to send relevant discounts to expecting mothers so they would start shopping at target for all of their baby-related purcahses. Pole’s formula was combined with Target’s customer tracking technology with frightening effectiveness but it is one story that has made this campaign notorious.
The year is 2001 a father has walked into a Target just outside Minneapolis, holding coupons sent to his daughter, and he’s angry, and demands to see the manager. “My daughter got this in the mail!” he says enraged. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?” Needless to say, the manager apologises on behalf of Target for the coupons. And a few days later the manager rang the father to apologise again. But this time the father’s belligerent tone had vanished. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”
Now if this level of technological intrusion does not bother you think about what else this could be used for. I have recently cut out processed meat and alcohol from my diet. A few weeks into quitting processed meat I received discounts on sausages at the self-service. A few weeks later, vouchers for beer and cider. And which evil global corporation is trying to keep me hooked on these well-known carcinogens? The Cooperative of all places, so much for an ethical brand. If the cooperative’s algorithms can identify which spending habits I’m changing, and attempt to disrupt this change, when this technology is in its infancy, what does the future hold? If general artificial intelligence surpasses the brightest of human minds like some experts state it will then these algorithms could become a much bigger issue than we could ever possibly conceive.
Big Data: the new means of control
Whilst previous methods of social engineering have been undoubtedly effective, we are now in the midst of profound change and whilst it is obvious that change is happening, its implications and direction is not nearly enough discussed. Target’s use of data and algorithms is effective and to be honest, creepy. But that data that Target used only consisted of basic demographic information like gender and location and spending habits from one shop. With the advent of the internet data can be collected from a wide range of sources to build a more detailed picture. Data on your personal habits, core beliefs and potential psychological weaknesses such as addiction or insecurity are being harvested with every click, like and share. This data is being used to form an emotional grappling hook to control the way you think about products, people and even politics. Simply agreeing to accept “cookies” when you log onto a website gives the website your data, including your internet history. Liking a post on FaceBook signals to advertisers you are more susceptible to buying one of their products, and so you will be targeted with adverts of that product. If you log onto someone’s FaceBook or YouTube account who has interests different from your own you will find the adverts also differ dramatically.
In 2015, Facebook announced that a mysterious company called
Global Science Research harvested data through a Facebook app called
thisisyourdigitallife. GSR offered users a small cash incentive to complete a
survey on the condition they consented to share their personal details through
Facebook. 270,000 people downloaded the app and inadvertently handed over
information on its users, which included data on their likes and location to
another mysterious company called Cambridge Analytica This data enabled researchers to build
detailed psychological profiles on millions of users. Cambridge Analytica uses
this data to tailor political adverts to incredibly small groups of people,
already knowing they would be responsive. If you thought Bernays and Target
could be persuasive imagine if they could have personalised adverts using
information from your detailed psychological dossier. Whistleblower Chris
Wylie, a former employee at Cambridge Analytica, explained how the scheme worked:
“Imagine I go and ask you: I say, ‘Hey, if I
give you a dollar, two dollars, could you fill up this survey for me, just do
it on this app’, and you say, ‘Fine’.”
“I don’t just capture what your
responses are, I capture all of the information about you from Facebook, but
also this app then crawls through your social network and captures all that
data also. By you filling out my survey, I capture 300 records on average. And so that means that, all of a sudden, I only need to engage
50,000, 70,000, 100,000 people to get a really big data set really quickly, and
it’s scaled really quickly. We were able
to get upwards of 50 million-plus Facebook records in the span of a couple of
He added that “almost none” of the individuals knew about how their data was used.
It is only recently with the exposure of the Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit Referendum and Trump’s election, that this use of big data and invasions of privacy are being covered by the mainstream media. Data has become a currency, traded between faceless corporations to be used against you. Data harvesting technologies have become the contemporary source of power and the data can be used, when interpreted and marketing correctly, as a means of control to alter how we consume but also, more worryingly, how we vote. The implications of this are frightening; in the digital age, it is they who control data who have economic and political power. I will leave you with this alarming quote from master manipulator, Edward Bernays, in his Magnum Opus Propaganda.
“There are invisible rulers who control the
destinies of millions. It is not generally realized to what extent the words
and actions of our most influential public men are dictated by shrewd persons
operating behind the scenes.”