The Science of Persuasion

Last week, I discussed WWI as the great testbed for the techniques of manipulation. It was, at that point, the most successful use of propaganda in history, using forms of deception still effective a century later when, in September 2002, the US and UK prepared the ground to seize Iraq with a $200m ‘PR blitz’ of domestic and foreign audiences; particularly ‘sceptical Arab populations.’[1] In this article, I’ll cover the post-war rise of PR through to the beginnings of the WWII.

Modern Public Relations rose like a poppy from the battlefields of the Great War. George Creel’s vast programme ‘released into the American private sector a demobbed army of public relations experts’ and, by the end of the war, companies such as AT&T, Swift, Bethlehem Steel, and Du Pont, as well as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), had established PR operations. Business, conscious of being ‘a small minority highly vulnerable to political attack’, valued the practical application of scientific persuasion and ‘regimenting the public mind’.[2] WWI had demonstrated that,

…wars are fought with words and ideas as well as with arms and bullets. Businessmen, private institutions, great universities –– all kinds of groups –– became conditioned to the fact that they needed the public; that the great public could now perhaps be harnessed to their cause as it had been harnessed during the war to the national cause, and that the same methods could do the job.[3]

The techniques for which the war provided such a splendid test bed were refined as PR professionals became students of the psyche, particularly Freudian psychology. In so doing, they largely abandoned the Progressives’ original belief in a reasonable public and instead aimed their efforts at manipulating the ‘crowd’. In this they followed the French philosopher and polymath, Gustave Le Bon, who argued that, while an individual person might be civilised, educated, and reasonable in isolation, in a crowd they become an unreasoning barbarian.[4] Danny Baker, for instance, supports Millwall.



Edward Bernays

Symbolic imagery became the currency of a new form of communication that appealed to the psyche, emotions, and instincts. The ‘Father of Public Relations,’ Edward Bernays, was moulded by his experiences in the Creel Committee and also by his heritage: he was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Yet while Freud ‘sought to liberate people from their subconscious drives and desires,’ Bernays wanted only to exploit them for his clients.[5] Nor was Bernays shy; speaking and writing with his characteristic brio of the need to ‘manipulate the public mind’ and using, with almost gleeful abandon, a word that among intellectuals had become virtually profane, ‘propaganda’.

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.[6]


NAM ‘This is America’ poster, circa. 1925

As the Twenties began to roar, the PR industry grew in size, if not stature. The war vastlyexpanded America’s productive base and created a demand for consumer goods after several years of relative austerity. In the afterglow of its recent triumph, PR shared the general economic trajectory, supplying experts in advertising, marketing, fundraising, and boosting generally. While most PR still boosted individual products and companies, post-war corporate propaganda began the process of fusing business values with ‘traditional’ American values –  transmuting ‘private advantage into the public good.’[7] PR trumpeted the abstract tenets of the ‘American Way’ – individualism, independence, freedom, and social harmony – and made fashionable consumption, the crucial economic motor, their durable incarnation.[8]

The effect on public opinion was substantial. ‘So profoundly pro-business was the national temper and so successful were business efforts in keeping the favor of the public,’ that no other group could withstand them.[9] The ‘business of the United States is business’ proclaimed President Coolidge joyously. Jeremiads on the stump against ‘industrial feudalism’ by firebrands likes Upton Sinclair seemed distant indeed, as the major presidential candidates proclaimed ‘their faith [in] Wall Street and the self-regulating economy’ to maintain good times for all.[10] This was in 1927.


The Great Crash

The Wall Street crash in November 1929, and the Great Depression that followed, shattered the American economy. Between 1929 and 1933 US Gross National Product (GNP) fell from $103.1bn to $55.6bn. 100,000 businesses failed and there were 23,000 suicides during a single year.[11] For a time, capitalism itself was thrown into question.[12] Popular discontent was high and a ‘series of coordinated actions took place on a nationwide basis’ lead by political radicals including the Communist and Socialist Parties.[13] Despite repression and concerted state violence, however, for a remarkable period advocacy of  government ownership, socialism, and even communism became respectable in mainstream American discourse.[14] When Franklin Roosevelt entered office  in 1933, one of his closest advisors warned that they faced either an ‘orderly revolution’ – the New Deal – or the ‘violent and disorderly overthrow of the whole capitalist structure.’[15]

The New Deal heralded a move from 1920s laissez faire economics to increased government intervention, and modernization, curbing some of the Depression’s triggers, notably currency speculation.[16] Facing trenchant business animosity, Roosevelt’s publicity team introduced many of the modern techniques of political PR.[17] In doing so they deployed publicity against the failed ‘religion of private enterprise’.[18]


NAM billboard, circa. 1937

The business press reported this with characteristic candour and, by 1934, the captains of industry realized the renewed threat to their estate. Several organisations, including the NAM[19] set their muscle to the task of disseminating ‘sound American doctrines to the public’.[20] The PR industry counselled them to sell ‘the American way of life to the American people’; a statement that is intelligible only when one interprets the ‘American way of life’ as business’s way of life.[21]

During the next thirteen years, the NAM spent more than $15 million on leaflets, school films, article reprints and short movies seen by millionin order to fight  the ‘newly realized political power of the masses’ and their ‘many strange and bewildering doctrines’ that were such a ‘hazard to industrialists’. In the words of the NAM’s president, they blanketed every media in order to ‘[pound their] message home with relentless determination’: the centrality of business to American life and the ‘unabashed assertion of the profit motive in U.S. Civilization.’[22]

Major concerns, such as Ford, Du Pont, and General Motors (GM), sponsored network radio programmes with messages designed to improve their image. Radio had begun operating in the 1920s with a mix of profit and non-profit broadcasters but, by the end of the decade, two major networks – National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBC) – had begun operations, and radio commercialized rapidly. The number of homes with radios reached 30% by 1928, doubling between 1930 and 1940.

NAMThe use of radio was extensive and effective. The NAM’ radio series, ‘The American Family Robinson’ – described by Variety as a ‘thinly veiled attack on the policies of the Roosevelt administration’ was being broadcast by 207 stations within 6 months of its inception and, by the late 30s almost 300 small non-network stations carried it. According to the NAM’s PR director, the programme was ‘industry’s effective answer to the Utopian promises of theorists and demagogues at present reaching such vast audiences via the radio.’ To take another example, from 1934 to 1936, a group of conservative business leaders calling themselves the  ‘Crusaders’ fought the New Deal on a programme broadcast on 79 CBS stations. This was backed by the executives of General Foods, Du Pont, General Motors, Nabisco, Heinz, Sun Oil, Weirton Steel, and Standard Oil of Indiana.

In 1939, the US Senate’s  La Follette Commission reviewed business’s assault on popular opinion. It condemned the activities of the NAM in particular as a ‘propaganda which in technique has relied upon indirection of meaning, and in presentation of secrecy and deception.’[23]  1939 marked a major moment in the history of PR. Though it had decried Roosevelt’s plans as but a shade off communism and  fascism, business still recognised the authentic face of tyranny, and so it called a brief ceasefire in its war on the American public, in order to direct its might against the Axis Powers.[24] Next week, this story of PR comes to World War II.



[1] Tim Reid, ‘America Plans PR Blitz on Saddam,’ in the Times (London), September 17th 2002. They chose September because, as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card put it, in marketing ‘you don’t introduce new products in August’ (quoted in William Schneider ‘Marketing Iraq: Why now?’ Cable News Network, 12th September 2002, available at ).

[2] The description of business is from V. O. Key (1964) “Politics, Parties & Pressure Groups,” p. 91.

[3] Edward Bernays (1952) “Public Relations,” p. 78.

[4] Gustave Le Bon (1895) “The Crowd. A Study of the Popular Mind”.

[5] Larry Tye (1998) “The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & the Birth of Public Relations,” p. 97 and Chapter Nine.

[6] Edward Bernays (1928) “Propaganda”, p. 9.

[7] Borrowing a phrase from V.O. Key.

[8] Elizabeth Fones-Wolf (1994) “Selling Free Enterprise,” p 16.

[9] Cochrane and Miller, (1961) “The Age of Enterprise: A Social History of Industrial America”, pp. 343-44.

[10] Quoted in Fones-Wolf (1994), p 16.

[11] Ewen 1996, p. 233; C N Trueman “Wall Street Crash of 1929 and its aftermath,” The History Learning Site, 22 May 2015, available at

[12] Eric Hobsbawn in “The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991” (1994 p. 87) observed that, while economies have always had their heady ups and chilly downs, the crash was genuinely ‘system-endangering’. The reaction to the crash was all the more intense because the Soviet Union, derided and vilified for its decision to break free from capitalism [at least western capitalism], appeared utterly immune from the slump.

[13] The Communists organized Unemployed councils and, in Chicago in March 1930 alone, they distributed 200,000 leaflets, 50,000 stickers, and 50,000 shop papers (Meyer Weinberg (2003) “A Short History of American Capitalism” p. 219).

[14] During one demonstration in 1930 in New York City, ‘Hundreds of policemen and detectives, swinging nightsticks, blackjacks and bare fists, rushed into the crowd, hitting… all with whom they came in contact. … A score of men with bloody heads and faces sprawled over the square with police pummelling them.’ At Ford plants in Highland Park and Dearborn, near Detroit, Communists led 3,000-strong march of unemployed people. Police responded with tear gas and machine guns against the unarmed marchers (who responded by throwing stones), killing four and wounding many more. According to the executive committee of the Detroit American Civil Liberties League, ‘most of the injuries received by the paraders consisted of gunshot wounds in their sides and backs.’ (Weinberg, p. 219-220). Alex Carey (1995) “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, p. 24.

[15] Rexford G. Tugwell, quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 237. The New Deal was praised by many as a return to Progressivism and the re-emergence of a ‘disinterested’ class. The Supreme Court judge, Felix Frankfurter, for example, wrote that it had put ‘more intelligent and more purposeful and more disinterested men in the service of government than there has been for at least half a century’ (quoted in Judis (2000) “The Paradox of American Democracy, Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust,” p. 17).

[16] Stuart Ewen (1996), “PR! A Social History of Spin,” pp 238-239.

[17] Scott M. Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power,”p. 526.

[18] Ewen (1996), p. 246.

[19] National Association of Manufacturers.

[20] ‘NAM Historical Highlights’ available at

[21] Fones-Wolf (1999).

[22] Cutlip (1994): 107; Fones-Wolf (1999). ‘Many strange and bewildering doctrines’ was the phrase used by the DuPont family to described the various socialistic and radical ideologies being expressed (Ibid). To ‘blanket’ the media and ‘pound home’ the message are the words of  President of the NAM, speaking to a meeting of business leaders in 1935 (Rippa, 1958, p. 60, quoted in Carey, p. 24). Jackall & Hirota (2000) “Image Makers,” p. 47.

[23] US Congress 1939, p. 218, quoted in Carey, p. 24.

[24] Carey, p. 27.

One thought on “The Science of Persuasion

  1. Pingback: Let Truth and Falsehood Grapple | David Traynier

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s