Selling America to the Americans

Last week, I sketched the outlines of Public Relations’s development during the period from World War One through to the beginning of the next global conflict, World War Two. Rapid economic growth during the 1920s saw PR flourish. Business, seeing the importance of thought control in formally democratic societies, drew upon and expanded the techniques developed by the American and British propagandists who marketed the ‘Great’ War. Then, when the US economy collapsed in 1929, PR was deployed in order to maintain popular consent for the corporate capitalist system and forestall the perceived threat of revolution.

This project was still in motion when World War II came. As the nation pulled together pressure for social and economic reform faded behind ‘national’ priorities. ‘War and war only,’ wrote the philosopher Walter Benjamin, ‘can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system.’[i] For business, the fortunes of war were mixed. The wartime ‘miracle of production’ ‘symbolized one of the finest hours of the free enterprise system’, restoring to it a measure of prestige.[ii] Profits rose, business control over the economy broadened, and the Marshall Plan opened European markets and was a lever against left-leaning governments.[iii] Nonetheless, business fretted that the ‘miracle’ came at a price.

Since the government had regulated so much wartime production, business feared that success had strengthened relations between government and labour unions and promoted continued interventionism. They also feared that the American public was once again prey to ‘strange and bewildering doctrines’ about mutualism, cooperation, and industrial democracy. Surveys conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation and the Psychological Corporation found that people neither ‘feared nor understood State Socialism’ and neither craved nor understood the system business likes to call ‘free enterprise’. One prominent captain of industry of the time, W. W. Suitt stated publicly that,

the thinking of the general public must turn from acceptance of controls, restrictions and regulations placed as a war-time exigency on business as well as individuals, to a demand on the part of the voter for a return to a system where a work economy can function –– where business can seek its own level in a free competitive enterprise.[iv]

this-is-americaAs the President of Sun Oil, J. Howard Pew put it at the time, business must not ‘let the praise now being showered on industry blind us to the fact that our American way of life barely survived the onslaught against it in the thirties’.[v] Nor had the danger passed as, emboldened, the working class  might extend its influence beyond pay and conditions to assail the sacred domains of pricing and investment.[vi] Note that, once again, the ‘American way of life’ was under potential threat from the American people.

These fears of business highlight one of the late Alex Carey’s most telling insights: because modern wars require broad-based support, wartime propaganda has little choice but to valorise the ‘humane, egalitarian, democratic character of the home society in a way that no elite or business interest has any intention of allowing actually to come about.’[vii] The proposition has become only more absurd in the present day, when humanitarianism and ‘bringing democracy to the world’ can be taken seriously only when facts are scratched from the page.  Back in 1946, the hollow promise of a ‘world made safe for democracy’ would be followed by a PR campaign to ensure that such elevated notions never penetrated those realms properly reserved to the Captains of Industry. A year before war’s end, business began to prepare for the next war, its gaze fixed once more on the enduring foe.

When international hostilities closed, business assessed that its position had indeed declined. Following the rash of strikes during 1945-46, business writer Whiting Williams warned of industrial unrest that threatened ‘nothing less than a catastrophic civil war.’[viii]  According to the sociologist, Robert Lynd, the ‘old liberal enterprise system’ had to ‘fight for its life’. PR firms eagerly stoked these anxieties – one grim prognosis giving the  ‘present economic system, and the men who run it… three years — maybe five at the outside — to resell our so-far preferred way of life as against competing systems…’[ix] Business would have to act quickly, while the afterglow of the war remained. As the War Advertising Council concluded, because the nation’s wartime information mechanism had been ‘powered almost entirely by American business’, with the war over ‘business could ill-afford to abandon the powerful advantage spawned by the image of this “unselfish” contribution to the war effort.’[x]

9eced8de366d0cd8ab3dc94e073bc17b--free-poster-team-usaTo achieve the required reconversion of thought, business found itself with remarkable new resources. To manage war-time PR, Roosevelt had created the Office of War Information (OWI), a less innovative scion of the CPI. In peacetime this released 100,000 cutting-edge practitioners into Civvy Street. A new generation of firms emerged, including modern day giants Edelman and Burson-Marsteller. PR technique was being studied on campuses throughout the nation and the number of academic articles and professional journals increased markedly.[xi] By 1949, there were 500 independent PR firms, many with annual turnovers exceeding half a million dollars as well as 4,000 corporations with dedicated departments.[xii] The foundation, in 1948, of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) symbolized this growth.[xiii]

Likewise, the means of propagating the faith were improving. Radio continued as one of the best carriers of the corporate message with the 1940 census revealing that it reached almost 83% of American families.[xiv] In 1954, Herbert Muschel introduced the first PR newswire service, providing the beginnings of a news service that gave PR offices access to newsrooms across the globe.[xv]

Then there was the medium of the 20th Century, which with ‘skilful use’ could reach into the ‘hearts and minds of… 134,000,000 people…’[xvi] In the early fifties, business began to shift its institutional advertising out of radio and into television. The importance of advertising to American television should not be understated. As Michael Dawson argues,

In reality, television in America has always been permitted to operate as a subsidiary institution of modern corporate marketing. Marketers pay for the lion’s share of the U.S. television system, which is devoted almost entirely to transmitting sales communications. Under such arrangements, as every television veteran knows, the programs are merely lead-ins to the advertisements, which are the raison d’etre for the whole institution.[xvii]

Or, as a French TV executive put it in 2005, the function of television is to sell ‘human brain time’ to advertisers.[xviii]

More than ever, corporate PR after World War II drove at a broadly political object, rather than the narrow commercial considerations of shilling for this or that product or company.[xix] The prominent businessman, Vernon Scott spoke of ‘the greatest ideological war of all times,’ against government economic planning. General Floods’ PR supremo amplified this, warning that if PR did not win over ‘men’s minds and men’s loyalties’ people would continue to expect government to ‘keep an eye on business’.[xx] The Psychological Corporation’s Henry C. Link restated the familiar strategy that business should downplay ‘free enterprise’ in favour of the ‘freedom of all individuals under free enterprise; from capitalism to the much broader concept: Americanism.’[xxi]  PRSA President Howard Chase urged business to identify with simple goals, such as better education, health and nutrition, housing, and social security. Likewise, Edward Bernays pressed business to lead ‘the fields of racial relations, housing, and education’ and the head of the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson held that business must develop a ‘permanent and complete social policy’.[xxii] Absent from this was the citizen in a democracy, only the consumer in the market.

In sum, businessmen[xxiii] and their PR swamis advocated using corporate propaganda to push welfare capitalism in order to forestall a welfare state. Taking a lead in social policy would challenge what one Fortune editorial consultant called ‘the curious assumption’ that it should rest with government. Government’s accretion of competence in social policy severely compromised the rights of private business and so the ‘principle of private initiative in social matters’ should be reaffirmed.[xxiv]

Business, Opinion Research Inc. counselled, should also roll back the grassroots ‘collectivist and authoritarian ideology’ of government as a necessary safeguard against miscreant business. [xxv] For example, in 1947 business lobbying managed to pass the Taft-Hartley Act, which significantly reversed the business regulation introduced by the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act of 1935. The act, passed over President Truman’s veto, was itself drafted by corporate lobbyists.[xxvi] I won’t belabour the obvious parallel with Brexit, the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, and the malign caperings of Liam Fox. Suffice to say, business seizes any opportunity to free itself of red tape, even when that tape is fire retardant.

The rollback required a dual PR strategy. Firstly, it had to undermine New Deal interventionist assumptions and welfare state programmes. Corporations instructed  America that ‘prosperity could only be achieved through reliance on individual initiative, the protection of personal liberty, and increasing productivity.’ Radio programmes, for instance, editorialized on the importance of profits in the ‘American Free Enterprise System’ and the  threats to ‘our’ ‘American Way of Life’ and the ‘freedom of the individual’ augured by a  ‘Welfare State’. [xxvii]  Business spent $100m a year on an ‘almost overwhelming propaganda of doctrine’, which saturated the media with ‘advertising calculated to sell ideas rather than merchandise’.[xxviii] By the mid-50s, 20 years of institutional broadcasting and associated PR combined with other PR activities helped business achieve the status of a respected institution in American society.

marrycommy1The strategy’s second component boosted corporate social policies as an alternative to the New Deal. This was helped by international politics. The rise of the Soviet Union and the second ‘Red Scare’ – personified by the incendiary scheming of J. Edgar Hoover[xxix] – allowed a pogrom against ‘New Deal liberals’ and collectivists. Hoover, a 20th Century Matthew Hopkins, even managed in 1953 to secure the ‘burning of all books in American Information Service libraries throughout the world that were offensive to him; from books suspected of being “soft” on communism to detective stories by pro-communist authors’.[xxx] Such was the appetite for expunging  ‘communist fellow travellers’ business also used the ‘Red Menace’ to lobby for a ‘war economy’ and the massive funding of the new ‘military industrial complex’ ­– an analysis echoed in government planning documents of the time.[xxxi] This had the advantage of maintaining state intervention but ensuring that it intervened in favour of business.[xxxii] Corporate PR, therefore, portrayed massive corporate welfare as a patriotic, necessary defence and decried New Deal programmes – social welfare ­– as communism cloaked.[xxxiii] Again, how little has changed. The 2008 financial crisis (widely and wrongly referred to as a ‘recession’) shows how much business welcomes state intervention in its favour.

The corporate assault on ‘communist’ social Keynesianism in favour of military or commercial Keynesianism continued throughout the 1950s. The New Deal was significantly reversed, mostly notably price controls, health insurance legislation, and government house-building.[xxxiv] While the economy grew, this welfare capitalism model reigned unchallenged.[xxxv] Business advertised itself as reformed, with class divisions finally healed. In 1951, Fortune celebrated a ‘permanent revolution’ in capital-labour relations, with ‘left-wing ideologies’ routed.[xxxvi] It was finally ‘the end of history’.

Next week. PR, marketing, and democracy in the modern era.



[i] Walter Benjamin (1936) “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” available at

[ii] Seymour Melman (1974) “The Permanent War Economy, American Capitalism in Decline,” p 15.

[iii] Meyer Weinberg (2003) “A Short History of American Capitalism,” p. 245. One of the conditions of the Economic Recovery Plan was the exclusion of left-leaning elements from the governments of recipient nations and the introduction of capitalist policies.

[iv] W. W. Suitt, quoted in Stuart Ewen (1996) “PR! A Social History of Spin”, p. 345. The scale of federal wartime expenditures had been immense and far exceeded total spending on all New Deal programs of the 1930s. Between 1939 and mid-1945, the size of the armed forces, as measured by active-duty personnel, grew more than 36 times and annual military spending grew almost 60 times The U.S. Treasury became the dominant source of capital investment during the war and, between 1940 and 1943, supplied almost 70%  of industrial investment, in contrast to 5% in 1940. None of this diminished the economic power of private industry, which in 1945 controlled 66.5% of all industrial assets as compared to 65.4% in 1939 (Robert Higgs, “Private Profit, Public Risk: Institutional Antecedents of the Modern Military Procurement System in the Rearmament Program of 1940-41,” p. 188 quoted in Weinberg 2003, p 229).

[v] Quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 342.

[vi] Elizabeth Fones-Wolf  (1992) “Selling Free Enterprise: the Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-1960,” p. 2.

[vii] Alex Carey (1995) “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy. Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty,” p. 137.

[viii] Quoted in Fones-Wolf (1992), pp. 16, 32.

[ix] Fones-Wolf (1992) p. 37.

[x] War Advertising Council, quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 346. 1942 also saw the formation of the War Advertising Council, which used domestic PR to combat absenteeism, promote rationing, sell war bonds and so forth (Scott Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History,”  p. 528).

[xi] Cutlip (1994) p. 528; Larry Tye (1998) “The Father of Spin. Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Spin,” p. 103. In 1946, there were only 26 institutions in the in the whole of the US that offered courses on PR. By 1964, there were 300, with 14 offering bachelor degrees (Cutlip 1994, p. 529).

[xii] Fortune (May 1949), pp. 68-69, quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 356.

[xiii] Cutlip (1994) pp. 528-29

[xiv] Elizabeth Fones-Wolf ‘Creating a Favorable Business Climate: Corporations and radio broadcasting, 1934 to 1954,’ in Harvard Business History Review Vol. 73, No. 2; Pg. 221-255 Summer 1999.

[xv] Cutlip (1994), p. 529.

[xvi] Quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 386.

[xvii] Michael Dawson (2003) “The Consumer Trap”, p. 103.  Dawson was writing before the advent of pay television services such as Netflix but his point still stands for broadcast media.

[xviii] Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant, TF1, described the purpose of his company thus ‘There are many ways of talking about television. But from a business perspective, let’s be realistic: fundamentally speaking, the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product … If an advertising message is to register, the viewer’s brain needs to be made available.’

The object of our programmes is to make it available: that is to say to entertain the viewer, to relax him and prepare him between the adverts. What we sell to Coca-Cola is an availability of human brain time.’ Cited in Ignacio Ramonet, ‘Final edition for the press’, in  Le Monde Diplomatique (English Edition), January 2005  available at

[xix] A parenthetical note of caution here. While the 20th Century saw large-scale, explicitly political campaigns by business to shore up the stability of the corporate system, one should be wary of reading a political intent into everyday advertising. This is where I would agree with Dawson argue that writers like Stuart Ewen (and before him Herbert Marcuse) over-egg the pudding: ‘While most owners and managers of big businesses are undoubtedly opposed to the growth of coherent class struggle from below and often take or condone strong action to prevent and combat it, while ads do generally reinforce market values and can and perhaps should be read politically, and while advertising and marketing certainly have tremendous political side effects and implications, the truth remains that the vast majority of corporate advertisements are neither intentionally motivated by politics nor dedicated to directly political ends’ (2003, p. 98). Individual adverts are, 999 times out of a thousand, simply small acts of class coercion designed to affect our private behaviour.

[xx] Ewen (1996) pp. 357-58.

[xxi] Quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 360.

[xxii] Ewen (1996), p. 362.

[xxiii] And in those days it was men.

[xxiv] Russell Davenport, quoted in Ewen (1996) p. 363.

[xxv] Quoted in Ewen (1996), p. 359. Meanwhile, business was also setting about the dismantling the governmental infrastructure that allowed it to regulate ‘miscreant business’.

[xxvi] John B. Judis (2000) “The Paradox of American Democracy, Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of Public Trust,” p. 11.

[xxvii] Fones-Wolf (1999).

[xxviii] $100 million figure from MacDougall 1952, quoted in Carey; Key, V. O. (1961) “Public Opinion and American Democracy,” pp. 106-7.

[xxix] Aided by the House Un-American Activities Committee  and the less notorious Senate Internal Security Committee.

[xxx] Ewen (1996) p. 365; Carey (1995), pp. 64-74.

[xxxi] According to Seymour Melman (1974 p. 16.) from the onset of the Cold War ‘methods of military containment, nuclear and nonnuclear, were given high priority by American planners. The concept of a “permanent war economy” formulated in 1944 was soon made a reality.’   The principal government planning document of the time, widely regarded to have shaped American post-war planning for decades was National Security Council Memorandum 68 (April 14th 1950, declassified in 1975), ‘United States Objectives and Programs for National Security’ (NSC 68), written by an ad hoc committee under the direction of Paul Nitze (Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, Vol. I, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1977, pp. 234-292; the basic concept of the military industrial complex was developed by Dwight D. Eisenhower (then only  a General) in a 1946 memo to War Department. In the memo he argued that WWII had ‘demonstrated more convincingly than ever before the strength our nation can best derive from the integration of all our national resources in time of war’ and that ‘civilian resources which by conversion or redirection constitute our main support in time of emergency be associated closely with the activities of the Army in time of peace.’ (quoted in Melman (1970) “Pentagon Capitalism,”, p. 231); As President, Eisenhower later coined the term in his ‘Farewell Address’ on January 17, 1961 . Perhaps contritely, Eisenhower warned that, ‘Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defence; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.… We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications… we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.’ (reproduced in Melman 1970 pp. 235-239, my emphasis); During this period, US military spending rose enormously. According to Hogan (1998) during the first two decades of the Cold War the US federal government funnelled $776bn into national defence, approximately 60% of the entire federal budget.

[xxxii] Melman (1974, p 16) ‘The ideological consensus that evolved from World War II transformed the justification for military spending from a time-limited economic effort to achieve a political goal (winning World War II) to a sustaining means for governmental control of the economy.’

[xxxiii] Melman (1974, p. 17), for example, notes that the war economy required the support of the American people and that, by the 1950s a ‘cross-society political consensus had developed… Businessmen, industrial workers, engineers, government employees, intellectuals all joined in the confident assessment that war economy on a sustained basis was not only viable but economically desirable.’

[xxxiv] Carey (1994), p. 34; Ewen (1996) pp. 366-369.

[xxxv] As Meyer Weinberg (2003 p. 247) describes, ‘Rearmament was welcomed by many large enterprises… Many lucrative contracts were awarded without bidding. There being no civilian market for most defence goods, defence producers did not constitute competition to non-defence producers. Political connections were critical…Increasing federal support for research and development (R & D) contained commercial subsidies in disguise… whether financed by government or business. In one way or another, federal patronage through research subventions or outright purchase proved decisive to the future of numerous critical products. This was especially the case in the electronic revolution after World War II.’

[xxxvi] Fones-Wolf (1994, p. 68) observes that many historians have accepted that the introduction of welfare capitalism ended the conflict between capital and labour. However, as she observes, while unions made concessions, especially in the area of managerial prerogatives, ‘the fight for economic security  continued to galvanize workers for serious struggle’ and only the ‘threat of strong union action brought increased wages and benefits’.


One thought on “Selling America to the Americans

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

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