In order to answer the question of what corporate propaganda it is first necessary to disentangle some standard misleading perceptions about the role that propaganda has played in history. A common assumption about propaganda is that it is something that totalitarian states carry out to indoctrinate and control their own population. But the development of the modern technique of propaganda is something that began in democratic societies in the early 20th century in order to control a public that could no longer be controlled through force. I will draw from two well-known figures in the development of the modern corporate propaganda system to illustrate this. One was one of the founders of modern political science, Harold Lasswell, who wrote a book on the use of propaganda during world war one, the title being Propaganda Technique in the World War. The other was the founder of the modern public relations industry, Edward Bernays, who wrote extensively on how propaganda could and should be used to control the public mind.
Up until World War One the role that propaganda played in industrial societies was relatively small, and not particularly effective. There were singular PR men like a guy called Ivy Lee who was paid to make the Rockefeller’s look good. But there was no real PR industry. During World War One however, the American government carried out a nationwide propaganda campaign to turn a left-leaning and anti-war population into anti-German jingoists. The success of this propaganda campaign then convinced the business elites and progressive intellectuals such as Harold Lasswell and Edward Bernays that propaganda could be used continuously, for both advertising and pacification of an otherwise militant population struggling for rights. As Bernays put it ‘[business] realized the great public could now be harnessed to their cause as it had been harnessed during the war to the national cause, and the same methods could do the job.’ This would be a new method of breaking up labour strikes, other than using violence, corporate power realized that it could use propaganda to denounce labourers as trying to establish the red rule of anarchy and bolshevism, and un-American values.
There was detailed analysis written about these new social changes. Harold Lasswell wrote in his short essay The Theory of Political Propaganda that ‘conventions have arisen which favour the ventilation of opinions and the taking of votes. Most of that which could formerly be done by violence and intimidation must be done by argument and persuasion.’ Similarly, in 1928 the main founder of the public relations practice, Edward Bernays, wrote in his book called Propaganda, which was a book that was the main manual of the public relations industry, pointed out in the first line that ‘the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.’ And that ‘we are dominated by a relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires who control the public mind.’ By this time propaganda was ‘universal and continuous, and in its sum total it is regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments its soldiers.’
The first line of his essay he later wrote in 1947 called The Engineering of Consent that ‘Freedom of speech and its democratic corollary, a free press, have tacitly expanded our Bill of Rights to include the right of persuasion. This development was an inevitable result of the expansion of the media of free speech and persuasion…. All these media provide open doors to the public mind. Any one of us through these media may influence the attitudes and actions of our fellow citizens.’
In 1949 Edward Bernays was honored by the American Psychological Association for his contributions to science and society. In the same year, Fortune magazine observed that ‘it is impossible to imagine a genuine democracy without the science of persuasion as it is to think of a totalitarian state without coercion….The daily tonnage output of propaganda and publicity…has become an important force in American Life. Nearly half the contents of the best newspapers is derived from publicity releases; nearly all the contents of lesser papers… are directly or indirectly the work of PR departments.’ Around about this time the use of the word ‘propaganda’ got phased out of use, as the word had picked up too much negative connotation from the way Nazi’s had used it. We have accepted the word Public Relations instead as a sort of a euphemism.
It should be noted that the system that was developed in America played an important role in Nazi Germany. The corporate propaganda system was defined by political scientist Harold Lasswell as ‘the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols.’ This system of symbol manipulation was to be crudely replicated by the Nazi government. As Goebbels put it, ‘One of the most ridiculous aspects of democracy will always remain… the fact that it has offered to its mortal enemies the means by which to destroy it.’ This ‘symbol management’, which as I understand is the association of certain symbols with meaning, was used effectively by the Nazis. A German called Victor Klemperer documented its usage in his book called Language of the Third Reich. One of his examples was the association of the image of the stormtrooper with the concept of heroism though posters. Thus when people thought of stormtroopers they thought of heroism.
But totalitarian societies like Nazi Germany could not control the public solely through propaganda, and had to rely largely on violence. Their propaganda system was far more crude and smaller than one you would find in your average 21st century industrial democracy. In totalitarian societies orders come from the ruling party on what to say, but it is not as successful in getting people to believe it. In a country like America you have a large class of professionals devoted to upholding the lies and distortions, you have a huge public relations industry, think tanks, and academics, advertisers, and an intensive devotion to polling public opinion, which is useful for those in power who want to manipulate it. Controlling public opinion here makes up a large part of the economy and those that repeat the mantra are almost always completely sincere as opposed to larger degrees of insincerity under a totalitarian state.
For the rest of the parts of this series of writings on corporate propaganda I will discuss the basic functioning of the propaganda system, as well as give a number of examples of this ‘symbol manipulation’ that are relevant for today.
Douglas Renwick is a student at Victoria University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Alex Carey. Taking the Risk Out of Democracy – Corporate Propaganda Versus Freedom and Liberty, P 22
 Ibid, P 22
 The American Political Science Review Vol. 21, No. 3 (Aug., 1927), P 627-631
 Edward Bernays. Propaganda, P 1
 Ibid, P 25
 Alex Carey. Taking the risk out of democracy: corporate propaganda vs freedom and liberty, P 82
 Jason Stanley. Preface to How Propaganda Works