Edward Bernays is the most important person you’ve probably never heard of, according to Time magazine at least, who listed him as one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century alongside Hitler and Einstein. He is mainly remembered as “The Father of Public Relations” and articulated all kinds of notions about advertising and marketing that are pervasive in those fields to this day. Perhaps not coincidentally, another member of his family is also remembered as a founder of a whole branch of behavioral science — his uncle Sigmund Freud. 

Bernays was far from a crackpot conspiracy theorist brooding about the New World Order or hidden government entities acting as puppet masters pulling the strings of society. He was a respected authority in a whole field of behavioral science, and his ideas are evident everywhere around us. He opened his 1928 book “Propaganda” with the following: 

“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. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

Basically Bernays was saying that the purveyors of the media, of the message that most people are exposed to, are the most powerful actors in society. At that time, the radio was the most advanced medium of communication for distributing news, and the power of mass-media was just being realized. 

By the early ’80s, 50 corporations controlled the vast majority of this country’s media; by 2011, the number had dropped to six. There is a huge effort at the “conscious and intelligent manipulation” of society, and one needs only to turn on the television briefly to see it. 

On many channels in recent years, there has been a disturbing trend towards celebrating the exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources. Channels like Discovery, National Geographic, and the History Channel now routinely air shows like “Bering Sea Gold,” “Deadliest Catch,” and “Ice Road Truckers” that all portray white men earning a hard living off the land utilizing techniques that are horribly destructive to the environment. None of these shows ever make a mention of the environmental degradation that these techniques cause.

They portray these rugged individualists as modern day anti-heroes. Everyone should be so desperate for a dollar that they risk all and strike out on the frontier to make it like Grizzly Adams and Davy Crockett. Empowered by modern technology they can produce more than our 19th-century forebears ever could have dreamed, yet that fierce desperation to conquer or be conquered is still apparent. It is celebrated. Who needs community? Who needs education? Who needs government? I’ve got me my six-gun and my wits and that’s all this cowboy needs. Now get out of the way. 

Advertising is another area where Bernays’ manipulation of public opinion is all too clear. In 1955 the economist Victor Lebow said the following in regard to the post-WWII economy, which betrays the aims of corporations to this day: 

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction and our ego satisfaction in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate.”

Lebow went on to discuss how a system of “forced draft” consumption needed to be created in order to keep this economy functioning, or a system of created wants. People had to compete in this system or else be branded as societal outcasts and deviants, incapable of attaining the status quo and worthy of exclusion. Commercials hawk all sorts of things and show all sorts of images about how a person must be in society in order to succeed

Troublingly, many commercials take aim at groups such as intellectuals and artists — groups that have traditionally been able to “see through” the myriad pressures to conform to the consumer system — and portray them in a negative and shaming light. One commercial I was unwittingly exposed to recently shows a professional athlete shaming his alter-ego, an artist, for not having adequate television. 

Such commercials combined with the message that pervades most media has resulted in a society that has lost its grip on reality. The message that “greed is good” and that accumulating vast quantities of wealth and prestige at the expense of having a decent community to live in is okay has created a system that can almost be described as feudal. In 2006, the National Institutes of Health released a study that described how inequality in society is directly related to rates of mental illness in a given country. With over one-quarter of our population diagnosed at some point with a mental illness, the United States trumps all other countries in that regard. We can thank the corporate media, in large part, for these difficulties. 

Grayson Lookner grew up in Camden, now lives in Portland and writes occasional columns for The Free Press.