I'm David Torcivia.
I'm Daniel Forkner.
And this is Ashes Ashes, a podcast about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky the end of the world.
[0:13] We learn from all this maybe we can stop that the world might be broken but it doesn't have to be.
[0:19] This week we've got a really exciting show covering a topic that literally dictates the world and culture we live in today, but we're going to wait a minute before we dig right into that and instead start with little bit of history lesson and to begin that maybe a little bit of a song.
[0:40] Thanks for that, David.
[0:43] Always happy to provide a little bit of musical accompaniment.
[0:46] So in Latin America during the 30s and early 40s, FDR’s “good neighbor policy” promised to avoid military aggression and interference with Latin American domestic affairs, and his calls for freedom and an end to oppression and tyranny gave many Latin Americans hope, but it was hope that did not translate into reality for the majority of people.
And the story of United Fruit - an American company - highlights this contradiction between the expression of American ideals like freedom, and the forces that govern people's lives.
[1:21] Maybe you’ve heard this jingle before; it's considered one of the most famous in all of advertising history. This is a song for Chiquita banana which of course is a product of United Fruit.
[1:30] And it was in Guatemala - which borders the Southern tip of Mexico - that United Fruit thrived. The country was perfect: it had lush vegetation, ample rain for growing bananas, and most importantly: a brutal dictator that restricted the freedoms and rights of the people, ensuring a vast supply of cheap labor.
[1:51] Wow that really does sound perfect; I know where I'm taking my vacation.
[1:55] The dictator, General Jorge Ubico, ran a regime that benefitting landowners. One of the policies under the General made it possible to legally kill any peasant who worked less than 100 days a year for a landowner.
[2:10] Quite literally a Utopia.
[2:12] United Fruit, which owned 70% of all private land, profited handsomely from this arrangement.
But eventually, this oppression exploded into massive demonstrations in 1944 which forced the resignation of the dictator and led to the democratic election of a people's hero, who was succeeded in 1951 by Jacobo Arbenz.
And these democratically elected presidents sought to increase the freedoms of the people. But this meant going head to head with United Fruit. They introduced labor rights, and challenged the company's rail monopoly. But the big blow came when Arbenz signed a decree in 1952. United Fruit owned huge swaths of land at the time that were completely unused, the decree expropriated this unused land, divided it up, and gave it to thousands of peasants to live on and farm.
[3:11] You know what that sounds like? Maybe a little bit of Communism going on right there, which if I'm remembering my history correctly this is what 50s? 1952? That seems like exactly the time when the Cold War was just getting started and heating up.
[3:27] Yeah that's right David and the Cold War was really a war between capitalism and communism; so intense that almost any struggle around the world could be framed within this ideological framework. And United Fruit would use this to its advantage to fight back against the social reform threatening its profits.
The company had hired a man in the 40s to help sell more bananas, but they realized around this time they could use his skills to help them in the struggle against Arbenz. This man's specialty was not in direct advertising, but in manipulating perceptions to indirectly change the world to better suit corporate interests. This was a man who once increased sales for a harinet company by influencing women to wear their hair a different way.
In the case of United Fruit, this man knew that if you could align the interests of the company with the interests of the United States government, the reforms of Arbenz could be undone, and full-fledged exploitation could resume. The strategy he designed to do this would associate Arbenz with communism, and convince the American public that this represented a threat to American security. He created a fake newspaper that flooded journalists with press releases about the communist infiltration of Guatemala. He distributed an anonymous report on Guatemala to every member of congress. And he convinced publishers to reject articles that were sympathetic to Arbenz, among other things.
[4:54] This goes way past simple advertising now right?
I mean he's literally creating a fake newspaper in order to push this idea and then it seems almost like wholescale control of the media, so he’s sending off things specifically to Congress people; providing pre-written material to journalists in order to push a story...
This is very intensive manipulation and something that I think maybe people suspect might be happening now, but this was 1950s I had no idea things were so sophisticated in terms of media manipulation at the time.
[5:27] Yeah and you mentioned earlier David how Arbenz’s Land Reform policies sounded a little bit like communism, but the fact was that President Roosevelt was one of Arbenz’s heroes and a lot of his policies were inspired by the New Deal.
[5:40] So this is somebody who just wants to help the common man, give a little bit back to the people that elected him, and then somebody in America - the owners of this fruit company, and then this man they hired to influence public perception - came in and said “you know what this is wrong. We want to go back to the dictatorship exploitative ways where it's legal to kill peasants if they're not doing the work for us, and we’re going to convince everybody that this is the proper correct thing to do”
[6:07] Well this strategy was so effective - and remember that the United States was fighting just a couple years earlier for freedom and democracy abroad during World War II, and this was a democratically elected leader, but nonetheless - the US president and the CIA were convinced that something drastic had to be done.
And so first the United states criticized Guatemala internationally so they could ban weapon sales to the country, and the CIA flew a man named Castillo Armas to Florida. They had identified him as someone they could trust to replace Arbenz and restore United Fruit's property.
The CIA trained Armas, gave him an army and lots of guns, and then in 1954 Armas marched into Guatemala accompanied by a naval blockade, a campaign of psychological warfare against Guatemalan citizens, some bombing, and the general threat of a US military invasion. Armas took over, and all the while, the United Fruit's hired man acted as the source of information for international news, controlling the narrative.
And once Armas was in power, he immediately imposed a totalitarian police state. Unions and political parties were outlawed; books were banned; newspapers closed; banana workers stripped of their rights, and many who had supported Arbenz and his policies were killed.
Most importantly, land that had been given to peasants was taken, and handed over to United Fruit.
[7:37] Okay wait, I think we need to take a moment and stop and reflect on all these things you just told us.
You're saying - really short version - there was a dictator that people said “this is enough we're getting rid of this guy and electing a democratically elected leader.” That leader said “Thank you, we’re going to return power to the people, return property to the people, and prosper together”
United Fruit said “wait a second, this is cutting into my profits, help me US Government.” The US Government, after being prodded by this public relations man United Food hired, got the CIA to hire a puppet, gave him an army, moved into Guatemala, blocked off everything, did bomb the country, threatened a full-scale US military invasion, took over the country with this puppet leader installed by the CIA, and then he immediately created a new dictatorship killing people, banning books, closing newspapers… I mean this is like a hilarious…
I mean not hilarious for the people of Guatemala at the time but looking at it like such a ridiculous dystopian 1984esque moment and this is something that the government was doing literally 7 or 8 years after fighting World War II? In the name of freedom and democracy like you said?
That's crazy. This is like the plot of a movie it's so ridiculous.
[8:48] Well the good news… this did increase value for a lot of shareholders.
[8:53] Oh yeah we can't lose sight of that.
[8:56] But but yeah, and Guatemala was honestly never the same. And David I suspect that we will have shows in the future about the CIA and on Western imperialism in our modern times.
[9:08] But that's not the focus of this show. What we're actually here to talk about is the man that United Fruit hired, and his ideas that are still with us today.
[9:17] So who was this man United Fruit hired to pull off this coup really.
He’s a public relations genius. A man who almost single-handedly invented this field, whose ideas are with us today, whose techniques have changed culture and our society, often times for the worse. This man, nephew of Sigmund Freud of all people, was named Edward Bernays.
Now what kind of man would willingly pull off a coup for a fruit company you might be asking. And that’s what we’re going to delve into a little, the psychology and thinking behind this man, someone who loved the word propaganda so much he quite literally wrote the book on it: Propaganda. Now this was a man as you might guess from somebody who's pulling off a coup for a fruit company that had very little respect for the masses, for the people. In fact you might go so far as to call it contempt.
He felt that these masses – the people - were incapable of governing themselves, of finding direction in their lives. They were primitive raw emotions and power and nothing more, and instead that society, culture, and the world at large needed to be led by what he called the Invisible Government.
As Illuminati as that sounds, it wasn't actually a real government, but the fact that he understood that a few people – these thought leaders we might call them now – are able to shape public opinion, to directly the energy of these public forces, and with that tool shape society and culture as a whole.
And he used these tools and techniques and thoughts to create the industry known as public relations, and to a large extent advertising.
[10:43] Bernays started his career as a press agent for an opera singer, but when the US entered World War I, the government hired him to promote war interests to the public. And he did such a good job of this that Woodrow Wilson invited him to the peace conference in Paris after the war ended.
When Edward Bernays got there he was so surprised to see how President Wilson was portrayed in Paris as this hero of the people - the crowds just went crazy for him - and it made Bernays wonder: if people could be swayed in such a significant way during war, when emotions were high and so much was on the line, could they be influenced in similar ways during peace?
[11:22] And thus the field a propaganda, of public relations, of advertising, was really born.
Now Bernays had a number of core concepts of how this field works. Let's take a moment to explore some of these and give you examples of him really putting these ideas into place.
One of the main components of this is that advertising and public relations isn't about just telling someone to buy. That's the simplistic understanding of advertising, of selling things. Where it used to be “I have this product, it's better than the other product, you should buy it.”
That was it; you would tell somebody this thing, you said “go buy this go buy this go buy this. Join the Army. Buy war bonds,” and that would be the end of the relationship between the advertiser and the potential consumer, and that was the old way of thinking.
Bernays realized you're far more effective at selling products if you make those products indispensable to the individual. So no longer are you trying to sell them this thing, but the consumer is begging to buy them. He did that by adjusting culture.
[12:26] Mozart Pianos hired Bernays to increase their sales.
And like you mentioned he knew that the right approach was not to just create advertisements that said “buy more pianos.” If you really wanted to increase sales you had to change culture; you had to change habits and perceptions so that the idea of owning a piano became second nature to the consumer.
[12:48] How is that even possible to do?
[12:50] He did this by first organizing an exhibition in which different styles of music rooms were designed by well-known interior designers, and they would be decorated with fancy tapestry and fancy furniture, and then he invited important influencers in different artistic fields to this exhibition - so maybe this would be like a famous musician to sit in this room – and these images of these elaborately decorated music rooms with these famous musicians and other artists would then be broadcasted to the public so that the image of these rooms could be raised into the public consciousness.
Then what he would do is get together a bunch of the most famous architects in the country or in the world, persuade them to include a music room into their blueprints with maybe even a little nook in the corner measured out perfectly for a piano. Once these major players were on board with this idea, the less influential but more numerous architects would then imitate these people so that ultimately at the end of this campaign every house that was being built would naturally have this music room.
So by selling the music room as a necessary part of the modern home, and a natural way to impress and host visitors, the piano became a necessity. You can't have a music room without having a piano in it right? That doesn't make any sense.
It was no longer the manufacturer that had to approach dealers and consumers and say “hey please buy this piano.” But now it was the reverse: consumers were coming to the manufacture saying “please sell me a piano.”
[14:22] I think that last point that you made there; no longer “let me sell you a piano,” but “please sell me a piano” is really the important concept to take away from this, and what Edward Bernays was really pushing here. The idea that by shifting culture; by changing what is expected and standard in our world and our society, then you can use this to manipulate people to do certain actions. In this case buy a piano.
That shift in thinking changed everything, and it continues to stay with us today which we’ll explore more in a little bit. It was such an enormous paradigm shift that it's taking people decades to realize that this was even happening to them, and even still now we're still trying to keep up with the constant blitz that's occurring from advertisers, public relations managers, from corporations, from politicians, from the media as a whole who are all trying to shift our culture, to shift our society, to shift the way that we think as individuals and work together as a groups in order to modify our behavior to serve their needs.
Whether that’s selling us pianos, getting us to vote for somebody, buy a new product, it doesn’t really matter.
[15:22] The concepts, the ideas of how to achieve this, were laid down at this time by Edward Bernays.
[15:28] I grew up playing the piano and I don't think we have this concept of the music room anymore, but I’ve certainly been into a lot of homes - and this is usually the case with more expensive homes, more affluent families - that you walk into the house and there's this beautiful grand piano right there in the middle of the hall or the family room or whatever.
And in some cases no one in the family actually plays the piano. I’ve sat down at some of these pianos and they're not even in tune. They're just literally decorations.
So his influence in this area has really transcended generations.
[16:04] And another example. Bernays was hired a few times actually by the tobacco industry to help increase sales. Each time he came up with some brilliant campaign to indirectly create a positive association with cigarettes.
The big obstacle in the twenties was the fact that very few women smoked. There was a taboo against it and Bernays had hired a psychoanalyst who told him that cigarettes were a symbol of the penis and men’s sexual power.
[16:27] Very Freudian.
[16:28] His uncle would be proud.
[16:30] Bernays figured he needed to find a way to connect cigarettes with the idea of challenging men’s power, and he planned to do this at the big Easter Parade in New York City where they would be thousands of people and lots of press attention. This was in 1929.
When it was time for the parade, he hired a group of young women to join it, and at a specified time they started smoking. Bernays then ran over to the press and said “there’s a bunch of women in the parade that are part of the suffragette movement you should go check it out,” and when the Press investigated, the women told them that they thought of cigarettes as their “torches of freedom” and an expression of their independence.
[17:07] Wait I love this story on like a number of levels. First off, “torches of freedom” has to be one of the most hilarious slogans anyone’s come up with in the entire 20th century, especially for a cigarette, so funny - unintentionally so - but additionally we see this same concept, this idea today of harnessing these people who are out there working for social change, being captured by corporations, by private interests, who say “how can I use this to advance my product?”
So taking these young attractive women who are working for dramatic social change, the suffragette movement, and -
[17:41] Although in this case I don't think the women were actually involved in the suffragette movement he just -
[17:45] Well yeah I mean that's part of the points. It doesn't matter if they or not; these are hired actors, playing a part. The idea is that we're selling this suffragette movement thing whether it's genuine or not.
Maybe we remember last year in 2017 that failed Pepsi ad, where Pepsi decided they were going to capitalize on the tensions between regular Millennials who I guess they were targeting, and police in protesting. Things like Black Lives Matter, things like the conflicts that were going on all around the nation at the time, and decided “let's make an ad, where we have” who was is, Kendall Jenner or somebody “walking through the streets with all these artists and young hip Millennial people - they're playing cello, they're having a great time, and they're marching through the streets for some sort of social change because that's what those Millennial kids do these days, and then they come up ‘oh no there's cops, the cops are here,’ what are they going to do? ‘Oh I know let's hand the cops a Pepsi and we all will get along.”
[18:44] It was such a tone-deaf story I actually know somebody who worked on that project, they had no idea that it was going to be read this way, in fact the people who came up with this plan are still insisting that it's a great idea, and a great add. It was one of the most expensive ad buys in history that was never completed: over a billion dollars in ad buys were spent on ad time to play this ad because they thought it was going to be such a huge success. The ad itself was tens of millions of dollars to put together, and then again I know this because I talked to somebody who was working intimately with the project. For those curious nobody was fired at Pepsi or the agency that did this, in fact they continue to work together.
[19:21] But the same sort of idea – and though it failed at this time - of trying to attach a product, a corporate interest to a social movement is nothing new.
You know this was almost a hundred years ago this was going on with the suffragettes with Edward Bernays, and again it was another thing that was negative for you - I mean I guess they didn't understand smoking was bad for you at the time, that came out a couple decades later – but people knew it wasn't good for you, that it wasn't a healthy thing to do just like drinking Pepsi.
Kendall Jenner doesn't care about social justice with these poor people, but she played this part just like these suffragettes did at the time. And so these corporate interests are trying to take advantage of these Grassroots movements in order to forward their products and this is nothing new. This is not something that's come up in the past decade or few years or that Pepsi came up for the first time, but this extends back into the 1920s because of Edward Bernays.
[20:06] And what are they really trying to do, or what was Bernays trying to do by using these movements or connecting these products with something other than the product itself?
[20:15] He got this idea really from his uncle Freud right? At the time Freud was putting forth this new theory that deep within all of us are these primitive sexual forces and they need to be controlled to avoid chaos, and Bernay’s idea was “if we can harness the subconscious, these forces within everyone, and associate them with these products, then we can create this irrational connection between the product and the person.”
So in the example of the women smoking, their torches of freedom, because of this brilliant propaganda, women obviously started smoking, and they came to associate the idea of smoking and a cigarette itself with freedom and independence right?
And I guess in the same way Pepsi was trying to associate its drink with solidarity and community and all these types of things. And by connecting a cigarette for example with the unconscious desire for freedom and independence, in a way this propaganda is taking away the agency of these women. Because they have a real underlying need for independence in this case but it could be any positive change.
[21:17] But this propaganda is appropriating that need and replacing it with a product.
[21:22] Is that so different than sending “thoughts and prayers,” from changing your avatar on Facebook instead of actually doing any sort of real social change? You get the same bump, emotional dopamine hit saying “by smoking these cigarettes I'm part of a movement that's making a change” or what Pepsi said “Pepsi! It's the drink of social change.”
Maybe they're fooling you, maybe they're not, but it replaces that desire to actually do something, gives you that same sort of feeling like you're making a difference, while subduing you and actually making sure that nothing substantially changes, and that energy that maybe would have pushed things forward is instead being redirected towards a product.
Maybe it doesn't sound believable that buying a Pepsi replaces this idea of making a difference, but it's about plugging into that subconscious part of the brain that associates this very benign action with that same idea that “I'm making a difference,” and you might not be conscious of that moment, but these advertisers, these public relations, these propagandists are hoping that you are, and this is what happens in your brain, in your brain chemistry, and to the masses as a whole.
[22:21] That unconscious association is really important, and it's a point Bernays stresses in his book: the need to be covert and indirect with these campaign.
For another example, he was hired by the tobacco again after this to help increase sales. And his client was Lucky Strikes. They had this problem: they wanted more women to smoke Lucky Strikes but the packaging was green it clashed with women's fashion. Green was not in vogue at the time and so women didn't want to carry this package around.
So Bernays again designed a campaign of indirection where he would build up in the public's mind an association of the color green with fashion. Doing this by getting the media to reprint pictures and photos of celebrities paid to wear green, and culminating in a ball that he organized where a lot of famous people were invited but there was a rule that you had to wear green. So green shoes, green gloves, green necklaces, green hats, everything.
So that by the end of all this the association of fashion and good taste was connected with the color green, and all of this was for the sole purpose to get women to buy more Lucky Strike cigarettes.
It goes without saying that these types of campaigns were always secret; no one at this ball had any idea that they were promoting green, and especially not for the purpose of making a package on a cigarette box more appealing.
Bernays would never allow his name to be associated with any of this.
[23:43] I mean a lot of times when you hear these stories you’re like “what kind of idiots do they take us for?” but then you look at the numbers and this stuff actually works so maybe they're on to something and we are really the suckers that they think we are, but maybe it's also just because this advertising, this PR, this culture shifting methodology is so pervasive and impossible to escape that we have no choice, that it becomes part of us, part of our brains, part of the way that we think, and we end up programmed by this manipulation.
And this is really a sort of covert manipulation. Again, so the idea that when Pepsi runs an ad that says “do this thing and you’ll feel this way,” that's like a very obvious way of advertising, but these more subtle ways of shifting culture; introducing bookshelves into architectural designs; into building music rooms in new construction. The ways that manipulate our world around us so we act a certain way, is sort of like giving a hamster cage a wheel so it runs on that.
By shifting our physical space so that we have no choice but to purchase these products, to act in these specific programmed manners is a really sort of covert, very subliminal, and very manipulative way of advertising. Of manipulating these masses to get to your end goals.
[24:56] And it's not just in these physical examples, but also in the manipulation of media right?
So in that initial opening story about United Fruit Company, the important part of it was that Edward Bernays and his team were controlling the narrative. They created the newspaper, they were the only source of news coming out of Guatemala.
They were completely dictating how people read the situation. They were how you were thinking about this thing, because they were the only ones saying anything about it.
[25:22] And this wholesale control of media is really the ultimate concept that we’re going to take away from this, and this is the beginning of a series on media, on media manipulation, on advertising, and this whole world.
Maybe this is something I am slightly qualified to discuss because I work in salaried advertising. My day job is coloring all these ads that you see on TV. I'm a colorist. I charge outrageous sums of money in order to color up commercials that you watch that tell you to buy Motorola phones.
I've done things for ExxonMobil, I've done things for banks, from Merrill Lynch. I've done things for these companies that track you; for Google, for Apple. By day I sell out, and I've seen the interior process of this world, of the way advertisers think, and of the way that we try and sit down and manipulate you.
This control of media - again there's only a couple of companies that represent basically every single source of media you see, whether it's websites, TV, traditional newspapers, television, movies, radio, magazines - all of these sources of media that control the things that we talk about, how we talk about them, everything in this world are run by a very small number of companies that have the power to have the same sort of manipulation of information just like Edward Bernays was.
And even though it's multiple companies now - six or seven really that control the vast majority of this – that’s a very small amount to be able to dictate the narrative in the same way that Edward Bernay’s single newspaper was doing for United Fruit Company in Guatemala, and we are in a place where it's very easy to get back to that same scenario where if the interests of these media companies align, then we might only be hearing part of the story. We might be being influenced in ways that we can't even imagine because there's only a small part of the narrative being told, because things are being left out, or because stories just aren't being told at all.
That's something we'll explore more in the future.
[27:10] Well David I feel like if you're talking about magazines, and newspapers, and television, I think the common response is “well I'm not affected by advertising; I don't go to some fast food joint just because I see it on television, I make my own choices.”
[27:24] But again it comes back to this covertness and this misdirection that goes into these propaganda campaigns right? We are a culture that gives a lot of attention to celebrities, and other personalities on TV, our politicians and our athletes and things like this.
[27:38] And one of the things that Bernays stressed in all this is the manipulation of those people. So in a lot of ways this propaganda, these campaigns aren't directed at us directly but it's directed at these people who we look to for sources of inspiration and for directions on our culture.
And I hear this all the time you know we talk about presidents, we talk about athletes, and we talk about their genuine personality and who they are and why we like them.
[28:02] But Bernays saw personality as something that was meant to be crafted to fit the objectives that you were looking for.
He has this joke he tells in his book, that’s a little outdated, but it gets the point across. He says:
There’s a story that this banker fired his partner because he had divorced his wife. His partner says “what does my private affair have to do with the banking business?” And the man says “well if you’re not capable of managing your own wife, people will certainly believe that you are not capable of managing their money.”
[28:33] As sexist as that is.
[28:34] And as sexist as that is, he goes on to describe in his book how “look, if you’re a propagandist, you need to realize that his personality is something you should treat with scientific precision. You need to craft the personality so that when people see this person they see something genuine that appeals to their interests in a way that gets them to buy your product.”
[28:59] So the same person who says “look advertising doesn't affect me.” Well if they go watch TV and their favorite athlete gets up and is wearing a green shirt, and they say “you know I like that shirt,” and it subconsciously affects them so that they go out next time they're at Nike or Adidas or something they're buying green athletic wear...
[29:16] Soccer players are hugely influential in this; they basically dictate men's hairstyles, as funny is that is.
[29:23] Yeah exactly, and so I think we should be skeptical of this quality in our society of worshiping these figures, of looking at these politicians, these athletes, these actors, these fashion models, and trying to take cues about what we should do and how we should live our life from them, because if Bernays was manipulating our cultural leaders in the 20s, I guarantee you that that technique has only been refined over, and over again.
[29:49] Yeah we have this idea of influencers today right, that's the marketing word for people that they know if they show using a product then people will buy, they will use this product. They will say “oh this guy, this girl, she's using this thing and so it must be good and I'll use that to.”
More insidiously, Edward Bernays used this same idea - this is one of my favorite stories about him – to sell the idea of bacon with breakfast.
The American idea of breakfast is very foreign to the rest of the world. They look at what we eat, our cereal, our bacon, the typical component of a healthy breakfast as you see advertised on TV as totally insane.
Our cereal is leftover grains that are - actually I just saw an article today saying it is less nutritious than pizza, so we should be eating pizza for breakfast instead of cereal. And bacon and eggs, now this is a campaign that Edward Bernays worked on many years ago, the idea was to sell that bacon was part of a healthy.
[30:42] Maybe you've heard you know “a hearty breakfast” that saying. That came from this campaign, and he didn't do this by telling people “buy bacon, eat bacon with breakfast, it’s good for you,” because he realized that people don't get advice on their health from advertisers, from companies trying to sell products, where do they get that health advice from? Their doctors of course!
He realized that doctors in this situation are the influencers of people's health and nutrition. So he went out, reaching out to doctors, advertising to nutrition boards, creating boards recommending bacon is part of a healthy hearty breakfast, and then doctors took this information and said “oh yeah of course, this pamphlet says it's healthy, this is what people should be eating.” When people would come in for their check-ups, when they were sick, a doctor would say “are you getting enough food for breakfast? You know you should have bacon and eggs everyday it's part of a healthy hearty breakfast.” Next thing you know, bacon sales went up and Edward Bernay’s legacy of a healthy, hearty, bacon and egg breakfast is with us today.
[31:37] And I guess you could say “well David I like bacon and eggs so maybe I'm not too upset that he somehow introduced that into common mainstream,” but the point of all this is that this is preying on our very natural tendencies and desires to trust people, and to look to authorities to tell us what to do that's good for us and best for us.
Under a healthy society or a healthy community, these types of influences would come from people that we know personally, that have common interests with us. People that we can trust to influence us towards a mutually beneficial goal. But when these influencers are coming from this very shady place that we don't really understand what their incentives are in influencing us….
and you know that reminds me David maybe we should talk about where exactly the incentive for this manipulation comes from. I mean why are these propagandists really trying to shape us? Is it for our benefit or is it for some other reason?
[32:30] Well if you ask any competent propagandist - and that's the word I'm going to keep using and I'm going to start bringing that to these advertising agencies when I'm working there.
They will absolutely say “I'm here because I believe in this product, because I'm trying to help people,” but that's part of this whole trick of convincing yourself that what you're doing is good and helpful, because without believing in that you're not going to be effective at selling people that, and Edward Bernays was a master of this.
But ultimately these are all people serving the corporations, these companies, and occasionally the politicians that are trying to sell these ideas. These products.
It sounds silly when you sit down and you watch these advertisements on TV, or the pre-roll before your youtube ads, and you say “there's no way that these things are having any sort of effect on me, I'm a savvy consumer, I'm an independent person.” But remember a lot of this isn't about necessarily your individual actions, your agency, but instead about shaping the world you live in so you have no choice but to do certain things.
If you have a bookshelf built into your wall, you're not going to leave it empty, you're going to fill it with books and knick-knacks. It's about creating situations that leave consumers no choice but to act in certain ways that benefit these corporations, companies, and politicians.
[33:39] And you say these marketers, they feel like they're making the world a better place, and Bernays certainly felt that way, but it's important to realize who he was ultimately starving.
What his vision for society was, was that the masses would be manipulated by the corporate elite for economic benefit. So I guess in his vision making the world a better place means making it more profitable for a small group of people who run the major corporations of the world. And we have to ask ourselves is that the way we want our world to go in; is that what we feel is the direction towards a more utopian, a more fair society?
I want to just piggy-back off your point about how these campaigns shift our world so that it takes options off the table without us even realizing it. That’s a really insidious part about all this propaganda.
Say we see an ad for AT&T, and then we see an ad for Comcast, and we say “okay they're trying to convince me should I go with company A, or should I go with Company B?” And we think that's very natural.
What we don't realize is that before these advertisements even showed up on the air, there was a propaganda at work to get rid of option C, D, E, F, all the way through Z, which may not have been individual companies, but whole lifestyles, and whole concepts of how society could be structured.
Maybe at one point the idea of a free municipality provided internet was available, but that got taken out of the conversation without us even knowing it, and now we're stuck with this “should I go with company A and pay them $65 a month or $100 a month for internet, or should I go with company B and pay $100 a month?”
Without even realizing that maybe there were alternatives, not just to these individual companies, but whole ways of living that we can no longer even see.
[35:21] Yeah and one of the very major ways that this happened was the shift in the relationship between producers and consumers. So for most of human history things were created to supply a need right? I need something and so somebody creates that in order to fulfill my need and make a little money off that situation. And that’s how things were economically for the vast majority of history.
But with the advent of mass production coming out of the geared up factories from WWI, that shifted. These factories needed to be always producing in order to stay profitable, and you can't constantly produce and turn these products out if you're only supplying demand because you’re going to over-produce. So the cataclysmic shift that happened in the way that consumers and corporations interact with each other was pushed by Bernays and other propagandists of the time in shifting needs to desires.
No longer is it just “I need a pair of boots, otherwise I would have bare feet,” now it's “I want a new pair of boots because it's in fashion,” and this is really the creation of the consumer and consumerism.
[36:25] “We must shift America from a needs to a desires culture,” wrote a Lehman Brother’s executive. “People must be trained to desire. To want new things even before the old has been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”
[36:42] And maybe this is the greatest legacy of Bernays and his contemporaries: the creation of consumerism which really is the creation of America and capitalism as we know it today, and what's interesting is even past that as time has gone on and the decades have ticked by, advertisers, propagandists, have taken that desire and turned it back into a need. So now it's not only just “I want this thing,” but now it's become a need once more. “I want this thing so much I need to have it or else I'll be unhappy,” and that's really the final coup de gras in this process.
[37:14] One of these shifts in the economy came with the diamond industry.
De Beers, the owners of mines in South Africa at the time discovered huge deposits of diamonds and they said “how can we get people to buy these?”
[37:26] As ingrained in our culture as diamonds are today, at the time they weren't. They were sort of an odd stone that people would only use in humongous sizes and colors, so De Beers had this very lackluster find. They were common, they weren't anything particularly special, they weren't scarce at the time.
[37:42] And taking a page right out of Bernay’s Propaganda, they sought to associate diamonds with the idea of romance, so that it became a necessity. Anyone who wanted to express romance had to purchase a diamond.
They used the traditional models that we talked about. They used actors and they produced campaigns to show that famous wealthy people wore diamonds, and they created a discussion around it. The whole idea was “hey let’s target poor working class Americans and people, and make them look to these celebrities, make them look at these actresses… we want these poor women to say ‘man I wish I had what she has,’” a campaign that was obviously very successful.
[38:21] Yeah and it sticks with us through today. The idea that a diamond is the only way to propose; the idea that an engagement ring is supposed to be x number of months of your salary. That phrase “diamonds are forever.” All these things live with us today, affect our cultures, our society, our very mating rituals as a species, and it was created less than a hundred years ago because somebody had a mine full of worthless diamonds and wanted to sell them to us.
There's all sorts of stories like this.
[38:49] When I turned 18 years old David I received in the mail this package from Gillette razors.
[38:54] I got one too.
[38:55] Really? It was like a bottle of shaving cream and it was a brand new razor, and I was so impressed with this I said “wow no one's ever sent… like it was a gift that I got in the mail for my birthday.”
[39:07] Because you're a man now right?
[39:08] Exactly I was a man. Actually I couldn’t really use it for another year because… I guess I wasn’t quite a man at that point.
But that idea stuck with me and I was a Gillette man for a long time; I always bought their product, and it was expensive as hell.
You buy the little shitty razor, it's plastic and the cartridges are behind the locked case because they're so expensive and they're such a necessity, and they were good for like one, two, three, four uses and then I had to throw them out.
[39:35] But it left such an impression on me that I used them for a long time.
[39:39] These sort of actions by these companies affect us as individuals and consumers. All they did was send you a gift, it cost them a couple of dollars, and they had your brand loyalty for years until you realized their products are actually terrible. These are very modern examples of this stuff.
[39:54] Another great modern examples so business casual wear right? Everybody knows what that means, or rather they don't know what it means, they say “well what type of business casual are we talking about?”
But the concept of business casual didn't even exist a little over 20 years ago. At the time in the 80s when everybody was figuring out cool management styles and things, and books and studies were being done on how to run the company; how to make your office workers as productive as possible, somebody hit on the idea of casual Fridays.
They said if you take one day a week, and you let your employees wear whatever they want, it raises morale and a happy worker is a productive worker. But of course, companies, HR departments, they were shocked to see the things people were wearing on these Casual Fridays.
Untucked t-shirts, flipflops, shorts, jeans with holes in them. It was anarchy in the office; nobody wanted this. So a clever advertising department at Levi Strauss looked at this and realized “hey there’s an opportunity here.”
The year was 1992. Levi was very popular with their denim, with their Dockers khaki lines, but they wanted to sell more. So somebody hit on the idea of “let's create a pamphlet that we send to these HR companies, of all the major Fortune 500 companies in the United States, and this pamphlet lays out a new type of dressing called business casual. We won’t put our name on it, we won't put our products explicitly in it. All we’ll say is ‘you know what looks really great that lets your employees be casual but also dress to a certain standard? Is wearing Dockers, is wearing khakis and a button-down tucked into that. Is wearing nice jeans and a blazer over that.’”
They called this “business casual” and that term is still with us today decades later because somebody wanted to sell more khakis to people who worked in offices and had a day they could dress whatever they want.
In doing so they took the ability of workers to actually truly wear what they want, and instead made them have to buy these khakis, these nice Levi jeans because companies were afraid people were wearing whatever they want. And that's the kind of legacy these things have through today.
[41:54] David you know what the main takeaway for me of all this is? Is in realizing how these campaigns are designed to connect products with subconscious feelings and associations.
[42:03] I want to question everything. You know when it's the weekend and my idea of having a good time is going out with my friends to the mall, I think I should question that and say “well why do I want to go to the shopping mall to spend money? Where does that idea come from?
[42:16] This is a slippery slope Daniel I’ll tell you right now.
[42:18] Yea my credit card bill will tell you.
And one of the examples that really stuck out in my mind is when Edward Bernays designed a campaign to get women to buy more clothing. At the time women, and I guess everybody, really just wore the same outfit every day.
Which suited everybody just fine, but it didn't result in the type of profits the fashion industry wanted, and so he hired celebrities to get on TV and talk about how “if you're a woman and you wear the same thing every day, you give off an image that you're boring and bland. There are certainly interesting things about you, and you should show that through the clothes that you wear. Wear new clothing, mix it up, show that you're an interesting person.”
And so this association of character and worth as a person became associated with the clothes that you wore.
[43:05] This idea that “I'm a woman, and I want to go to a shopping mall to buy a dress, because that dress is going to make me happy and it's going to show off my interesting personality….”
Question that. Where did that idea come from? Because that idea was planted in our culture by a sexist middle-aged man that had no interest in fashion, no artistic talents for it, and really didn't care what women thought in the first place.
Is that where we want the motivation to buy things to come from?
[43:34] And as you expand that, you start questioning every part of our culture, saying “why is this this way? Why do we do these sorts of things?”
If you travel a lot you'll find that Americans in particular are very peculiar in some of our cultural norms, and many of these are because of the legacy of these advertisers, of these corporations, of people like Edward Bernays.
And as you experience more you realize that a lot of these things are specifically designed to take advantage of us, and so when you begin questioning every single thing you do saying “why am I doing this, why are we doing this, who does this benefit?” Then you start getting a very different perspective of the world.
A perspective I think is ultimately liberating - if initially overwhelming and very obnoxious when you’re constantly going on to your friends about:
“Wake up man, don’t you see what’s happening around us?!”
That’s going to get you a lot more friends David.
[44:26] Yeah of the few friends I have left at this point right?
Let’s not go down that dark of a hole.
But yea David. If you associate a purchase, or an object, or anything in your life with a feeling, ask yourself:
Where does that feeling come from? Is it truly your own, or did it come from somewhere else; somewhere that possibly was designed and manipulated to make you feel that way?
And if so do you really want to continue to make that part of your life?
[44:56] What I want people to take away from this is as silly as these ideas seem; as cliche as it sounds to say “what is making you want to do this thing?” and asking yourself “well somebody's trying to sell something,” it really is true!
We’ve shown time and time again the different ways that our society, culture, and very physical space that we live in is manipulated in order to get us to do certain things and act in certain ways.
So it’s okay to question this. It’s real! This is actually how our world is built. This is the actual things going on around us. You don’t have to look like a crazy person, this is not a conspiracy, these are textbooks. They are stories that these people brag about; that write autobiographies on, and that continue to affect and shape our world today. It’s okay to question this. You’re not crazy. This isn’t conspiracy stuff. It’s okay
And this is something we want you to remember as we continue to explore the effects that media, advertising, and propaganda as a whole have on our lives, as a society, as a culture, as a group of people, and also as individuals.
[45:58] And you may be wondering “hold up, what does this episode have to do with cracks in civilization, the potential collapse of the world, and some of these climate-related episodes that we've had in the past?”
[46:08] But we feel that this type of propaganda is just a symptom of these underlying structures; this need for infinite growth; the desire to consume; to keep these factories producing forever and continually expanding.
Those underlying structures are the same ones that are leading to our climate problems right? And this propaganda is not just a symptom of these underlying structures but it also enables and encourages it. Because by encouraging more consumerism, we're keeping those factories running, and we're keeping the mines open, and we're keeping the extraction of these resources going at full force.
That's why we are attacking these structures from every angle possible.
[46:44] That’s a lot to think about; we hope you'll tune in more as we continue to explore this topic in future episodes.
We’re going to take a break from the subject in the next show, where we turn back towards the climate, but we hope you'll continue to tune in as we explore these in the future episodes.
That wraps it up for this week; if you want to find out more about anything that we talked about today you can visit our website ashesashes.org where we have lots of links, sources, a full transcript of this episode, as well as lots of other media content and more.
A lot of time and research goes into making these episodes possible, and we will never use ads to support this podcast, so if you enjoy it and would like us to keep going you can support us by giving us a review, and recommending us to a friend.
We also have an email address contact AT ashesashes.org, and we’d love to hear from you. Send us your thoughts, send us your criticisms. Let us know what you think; it'll help us keep going; it'll encourage us, and if you have any examples of some modern marketing and propaganda campaigns, send them our way and maybe we can discuss them in an upcoming show.
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That wraps it up for this week!
This is Ashes Ashes.