Earth5R Research Article: Sustainability through Persuasion: Unveiling the Role of Propaganda in Societal Transformation

Author Name: Shreya Krishna

Earth5R Sustainability ID: E5R694W7K17S516

School/Institute/ Affiliation: Sri Chaitanya Junior College

Earth5R Guide/ Mentor: Saurabh Gupta

Publishing Platform: Earth5R Earth Journal (earth5r.org)

ABSTRACT

According to the Cambridge dictionary, the word ‘propaganda’ originates from its Latin derivative of ‘propagate’ which means to spread or propagate an idea; whether true or not. This can be done by not giving complete information or by secretly emphasizing only one way to look at the facts, which is usually done to manipulate public opinion without making it too obvious. How this process is done may vary in different forms but one essential principle remains the same in all of them- persuasion.

This study explores the art of propaganda and the sinister influence of Edward Bernays on the marketing industry. The general population may think that propaganda and sustainability lie on the extreme ends of the spectrum, they can’t be further from the truth. This research reveals how they used psychological tactics to manipulate consumers into associating products with happiness and social acceptance, which resulted in direct profit for their company. It is not uncommon to see current businesses use the same tactics to brainwash the masses. We are all entangled by the cobwebs of propaganda, whether we like it or not.

In this paper, we will analyze the marketing campaign strategies that were formed by Edward Bernays, and analyze the impact he left on society and how it has transformed into the world that we know of today. Did he truly transform the public for good, or did he discover a way that would drive humanity into crisis?

KEYWORDS

Propaganda principles, Social Responsibility, Advertising industry history, Perception management, Media influence, Conscious consumerism, Psychological influence

INTRODUCTION

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

  1. The Roots of Influence:

The 20th century marked massive shifts in psychology and how business and higher authorities communicate with the general population, the 1900s reformed the marketing and advertising sectors to what we know today, and at the center of these transformations stood an influential figure who was hardly recognized for his work: Edward Bernays, who firmly believed that the ‘’behind-the-scenes’’ people in power should practice their social responsibility by exercising public relations campaigns to direct the public into an appropriate way of life. Or to simply hypothesize it, engineering the public opinion on a large scale.
Edward Bernays, a member of the United States Committee on Public Information during World War One believed that everything in our society depends on the consent of other people than ourselves.
Bernays was sought after by Adolf Hitler, Francisco Franco of Spain to work for them.

The extent of Edward Bernay’s influence on the public is a little-known fact to most people. He applied his principles to politics, working with major political leaders such as Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States.
His campaigns extended beyond politics, influencing public perceptions of business products to social norms. He introduced ideas that would ignite a change in the way the world works and slowly wreak havoc in the public.

2. The Intersection of Psychology and Marketing:

As the nephew of Sigmund Freud, a pioneering figure in psychoanalysis research. Bernay’s exposure to his uncle Freud’s theories can be seen throughout his work as a public relations counselor.
Freud’s theories on the unconscious mind first came into the light of the public in the late 19th century, and leveraging the insights from his uncle Freud’s research, his understanding of the human mind laid the foundation for his later endeavors.

Bernays created the concept of “engineering consent” arguing that through carefully crafting messages and dealing with intricate and complex emotions of the general public, they could be directed to serve the interests of those in power. Bernays published his most influential book, Propaganda in 1928, where he described his vision of molding public opinion in ways that would be the “least harmful” in his judgment.

3. Ethical Considerations:

Bernays’ influence was enormous, but it was not without controversy. His work raised many concerns from the public and the experts later on about the techniques he discovered to tamper and mold public opinion. many researchers raised questions about the abuse of power that may occur if these principles fall into the wrong hands.

While Bernays was experimenting with the balance to create the perfect formula for propaganda, he acknowledged the power of it and the need for ethical considerations in order to sustain a healthy relationship between the public, the authorities, and the businesses.

4. The intention of this paper:
To create a better future where everyone lives sustainably, it is crucial to understand how we reached the current challenges that we face currently. By analyzing history, we can unravel the reasons contributing to our present problems.

Understanding this is important, especially if we aim for sustainable living in the future. Despite increased awareness, there is a reluctance to change habits in the public. Examining the intertwined dynamics of economic, social, and mental barriers will help us understand why we steered away from sustainable living in the first place. Understanding these obstacles is essential to persuading a larger audience toward a more responsible lifestyle.

5. The research focus:
Examining the historical methods of advertising, identifying common characteristics between them.
Comparing the results to current marketing practices to understand the evolution of the field, and identifying the lasting impact it left on the mental health of masses across the world.

MATERIALS

Understanding and analyzing the history of where propaganda originated needed a wide range of materials and resources to produce results that would be useful to anyone who comes across this research paper. The materials used in this paper are:

1. Historical archives
Access to historical archives that include records and materials about propaganda.
Government documents from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

2. Library resources
Access to scientific journals, research papers, and academic databases such as ScienceDirect, books written by Edward L. Bernays, Sigmund Freud, and many more.

3. Government statistical reports
India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF) for statistics on industry market size and consumer reports. For examination of governmental approaches to sustainable living and policies related to propaganda, censorship, and misinformation.

4. Documentation tools
Microsoft Spreadsheet and data analysis software such as Google Sheets were used in the assortment of data that were obtained in surveys and interviews.
Google Drive and Microsoft Teams for professional and standardized document creation.

5. Collaboration with scholars
To enhance project coordination and ensure information security Microsoft Teams, Discord, and Zoom were used to ensure that there is no risk of leaks. Additionally, collaboration with scholars in New York, United States provided new perspectives for the research that helped the project lead in a more promising direction.

6. Research mentorship
Guidance from distinguished researchers specializing in the field of sustainable development to understand the current challenges that we are facing. With special guidance from Saurabh Gupta, the Founder and CEO of Earth5R.

7. Public opinion surveys
Google Forms was used to collect public opinions about current propaganda and various other issues.

8. Legal and ethical guidelines
Ethical guidelines were thoroughly followed and all the participants were informed of the nature of the study and how their response would be used.
Data privacy regulations were observed throughout the research to make sure that no third party was involved. The participant’s responses were used with complete anonymity to ensure their privacy.

METHODOLOGY

We are first going to analyze some of the famous campaigns hosted by Edward Bernays and his associates which include:

1. Torches of Freedom” Campaign (1929)

During the 1900s, the act of women smoking was considered socially unacceptable in many regions. George Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company suffered a great loss due to this and hired Bernays to create a way to break the stigma so that the sales of tobacco among women increase and they gain profit from it.

During the Easter Sunday parade in New York City in 1929, Bernays persuaded rich young female debutantes to perform a dramatic public stunt where they openly smoked cigarettes as a symbol of women’s liberation, making the performance a feminist movement. They coined the term “Torches of Freedom”. Where the cigarettes represented the torch held by the Statue of Liberty. This agenda gained enormous attention from the New York Times Papers as it combined the emotional response to the word “freedom” and the rational response to the liberation of women who were seen as inferior to men at the time.
As the news of torches of freedom spread, the sale of cigarettes to women began rapidly. Although the idea that smoking made a woman “free” is irrational as it destroys their health, the emotional response to feeling independent is what drove women to keep buying tobacco, even today.

2. “Bacon and Eggs” Breakfast Campaign (1920s)

In the 1920’s Americans typically ate light breakfasts of coffee, orange juice, and rolls. Bernays and his client Bartlett Arkell who was the president of a Beech-Nut packing company decided to boost their bacon sales as the consumption of bacon in that period was extremely low.

In his planning scheme, he reached out to 5000 physicians interviewing them about what type of breakfast is best suitable for humans- a light or a heavy one. To which 4500 and more physicians replied that a heavy and “hearty” breakfast was required for the body to function at its optimum after a full night’s sleep. Although the definition of what a ‘hearty breakfast’ means is not known to anyone, Bernays recognized the potential and associated bacon and eggs with the idea of a hearty breakfast and promoted the idea as a “scientifically credible” opinion. By associating the new breakfast habit with professional medical opinions, the campaign began to gain credibility and trust from the public. He had this ‘study’ published in newspapers across America and the sales of bacon skyrocketed within a few weeks.
This technique of gaining scientific credibility for the product and fabricating the results for more sales is still widely used to this day in numerous advertisements as they give us something to base our opinions on- whether true or not.

3. Ivory Soap Campaign

Bernays worked with Procter & Gamble Corporation for around 3 decades to boost their ivory soap sales. The company saw a problem where the children hated soap because when their mother washed their faces with soap, it went into their eyes which would be a cause of irritation which led to losses in their product sales.
Edward Bernays sought out an artist Brenda Putnam who used soap instead of wax for sculpting her artwork because it was less expensive, and generated little to no waste as the leftover soap could be used for cleaning purposes.

During their research, they went to a psychologist and interviewed them to find out if the children had creative instincts, the psychologists reported that children from the age of 5 and above harbor creative urges that continue to flourish as they grow into their teenage years.
Taking this report, Edward suggested the ivory soap department conduct soap sculpting competitions each year for various categories of ages. Within a year, 23 million children in public schools were sculpting ivory soap and the reports showed that they were enjoying it as a creative outlet. For the next 20 years, the soap sculpting competition was adopted into many public schools’ curricula as a way to promote their ivory soaps.

Later that year, Ivory soap was marketed with a new slogan “cleanliness is next to godliness” and the soap being “99 and 44% pure”. This slogan was specifically chosen to highlight the extreme purity of Ivory soap, which gave it a precise and scientific claim that added to its appeal.
After this advertisement, more than 100 schools started to use ivory soaps throughout America, and their sales continued to grow and gained huge profits as their competition was eradicated.
The public continues to believe in the phrase “cleanliness is next to godliness”. A slogan that is quite popular in the hygiene sector of marketing. They use different variations of the phrase, but the core principle remained the same throughout the decades.

4. Observation

Bernays understood that the art of propaganda is an intricate form of persuasion as it deals with the psyche of large masses of people and tackles their emotional response which is related to happiness and social acceptance- the 2 crucial prospects that are highly valued by people. However, excessive use of manipulation and persuasion may lead to volatile and outbursts of backlash.
He discovered the theory that people believe what they already know or the beliefs held by others. To make people believe is by doing research and producing results that seem to agree with what they already believe- whether it be through reason, authority, persuasion, or tradition.

Bernays knew that enlisting a scientific opinion from a third party whose work was respected would influence the public perception. And while his work was often compared to propaganda – there was a key distinction.
By grandly presenting the opinions of others, he took the spotlight off of himself. This technique made the public believe that they are not being swayed by an individual; rather, they are aligning with what the collective seems to be doing. Bernays termed this phenomenon as the “herd mentality.”

5. Survey

The survey had 11 multiple-choice questions. The first few options were pretty straightforward, but the last one was framed to be ambiguous, floating right in the middle and not giving a clear answer. This technique was used to understand if more people would pick the ambiguous options simply because they are unaware of what responses the other participants choose, given the intentional withholding of the percentage visibility in the questions.

We took 38 participants in the survey, 19 from Asia and the other 19 from North and South America.
The intention behind the split among regions was to understand if the participants from the Western Hemisphere gave different opinions when compared to the people from the Eastern Hemisphere.
The age group targeted for the survey was 14 to 25 years old as I wanted to understand the impact left on them by the influence of Edward Bernay’s principles, the advertisement industry, the rise of social media, excessive use of neuromarketing, and heavy consumerism.
The main intention was to understand why so many young people are influenced by the advertising tactics used in the media and marketing industry.

RESULTS

The survey was categorized into different topics. The results have been separated into 2 regions:
1. Asia, specifically South Asian countries: India and Nepal
2. North and South America, with a main focus on the United States

The results are as follows:

1. Overpopulation and Over-consumption

Participants were asked about what they thought was a more pressing matter in the current times- overpopulation or overconsumption.

Asia: 84.21% chose the option “I don’t know, both are bad” expressing that both overpopulation and over-consumption are significant issues.
15.79% specifically opted for overconsumption as the more pressing concern.

North and South America: 57.89% of participants also chose the option “I don’t know, both are bad” and feel that both overpopulation and over-consumption are problematic.
36.84% singled out overconsumption as the primary issue.
A minority of 5.26% expressed that there is no such thing as overpopulation.

2. Humanity’s Harm to the Environment

Participants were asked to choose what they think humans have done to harm the well-being of everyone the most.

Asia: 52.63% suggested a belief that the mere presence and existence of humans on the planet are the primary contributors to environmental degradation.
31.58% opted for deforestation, and 15.79% attribute human greed to the worst thing humans have done. North and South America: 47.37% identify human greed as the worst offense, emphasizing the negative consequences of excessive materialism and resource exploitation.
31.58% believed that the existence of the species was doomed from the start and 21.05% specifically highlighted deforestation as a major environmental concern.

3. Views on Big Corporations

Participants were asked to share their opinions on whether they think big corporations are to blame for the environmental crisis the world is facing currently.

Asia:
63.15% of people express that corporations do play a role but they believe that individual action is more important.
21.05% of people believe corporations are the main problem in our society today.

North and South America:
73.68% of people express that corporations do play a role but they believe that individual action is more important.
36.84% of people believe corporations are the main problem in our society today.

The results are the same in both regions for the last question where 10.52% of people express that corporations do not play a part in any crisis that we are currently facing and a minority of 5.26% stay indifferent to any opinions.

4. Feelings About Changes in the Economy and Environment

Participants were asked if they ever felt helpless or disempowered due to the vastness of the environmental crisis or if taking action to “make a difference” is useless or futile.

A majority in Asia, North, and South America (52.63%) report feeling disempowered most of the time but they prefer to limit it by focusing on other things. They chose an ambiguous answer- “kind of, I feel hopeless sometimes but not that often”

Asia: 21.05% of people report feeling helpless all the time, and a minority of 5.26% avoid thinking about it altogether.

North and South America: 10.53% of people feel helpless all the time and 15.78% actively avoid thinking about it at all.

The rest of the result percentages are consistent within both groups, with 21.05% expressing that they deal with feeling disempowered every day and that climate change doesn’t concern them as much as it should.

5. Impulse Buying and Trends

Participants were asked to report if they ever feel like they’re buying things on impulse or participating in trends just because they’re popular, even if they may not align with their personal values or needs.

Asia: 42.11% admit to making purchases or following trends just because they are popular. 21.05% report trying not to but sometimes giving in due to curiosity or peer/societal pressure.
36.84% assert that they do not engage in such behavior.

North and South America: Approximately 57.89% admit engaging in impulse buying or trend-following based on popularity.
31.58% express an effort to resist such behavior but occasionally give in due to curiosity.

6. Outlook on Environmental Improvement

We asked participants if despite the obvious decline of the environment right now, is there still hope for any improvement.

Asia: 52.63% chose “maybe, but it needs to be a global effort”, and believe in a minor possibility of improvement.
Another 36.84% remain optimistic but emphasize the need for a significant shift in people’s mindsets.
10.53% of people think that it is too late and that they can do nothing to stop environmental degradation.

North and South America: a vast majority (89.47%) chose the option “maybe, but it needs to be a global effort”, believed in a minor scope of improvement.
10.53% remained optimistic and opted for the need for change in the mindset of the masses.

RESULT OVERVIEW

From the above data, it is clear that a majority of the participants opted for the answers that were framed to be ambiguous. While the topic of the survey was controversial, the questions asked were quite simple. Although the questions were based on a more large-scale ideology – economy, world-view, and planet well-being – it was crucial to understand the opinions of our upcoming generation.

The overall analysis of the survey indicated that younger generations (14-25-year-olds) believe human greed is currently at its peak, leading companies to exploit the people along with the environment for their profit- which has been an ongoing trend for the past two decades. They do so by targeting the masses through the use of Edward Bernya’s principle which describes the process of creating a perceived “need”.

He instilled a sense of urgency in his advertisements, making the public feel like they were missing out on something important. He arranged his campaigns in a way that romanticized the product by associating it with happiness and other positive emotions, as he was aware that this would create a sense of lack and inferiority complex in people and they would desire the product even more. He designed the advertisements to make the public believe that possessing this product would make their life better in one way or the other- whether it was true or not.

Upon reviewing the survey, the results reveal a disheartening perspective. Even though the participants are well aware and appropriately informed on the topic of consumerism, sustainability, and the advertising techniques that companies use on media platforms; a majority of the participants still fall back into the over-consumption patterns, even if it’s just driven by curiosity.

The reason for this is that they often feel disempowered or as though their actions have little to no impact, due to which they may develop a sense of inferiority complex. This may be a direct effect of the evolution of Bernay’s advertising technique. The participants also report feeling like the hope for the future is slowly dying out but the scope for change persists.
On the contrary, a significant number of participants report not engaging in those trends, it also shows that people are slowly adopting healthier habits and becoming aware of the detrimental effects on the environment.

CONCLUSION

The last discussion I want to add is the reason why people, in general, are so easily susceptible to being influenced. This discussion will be a hypothetical analysis.
The era of consumerism is at an all-time high right now. The initial step towards achieving sustainability involves helping people understand the reasons that led to the necessity of pursuing sustainability in the first place. Even though we can’t eradicate the whole propaganda and consumerism system completely, we can reduce the negative impact it has on the environment. Although the process might be slow and may take many years, we can start now by understanding the reason behind the mental barrier that prevents people from taking any action.

The excessive use of neuromarketing on people is proving to be detrimental to the analytical capabilities of many generations. The process of how it works, is by romanticizing every product and portraying it to be the “new trend”, which results in people feeling like in order to choose, pick, or buy something- they need to have the approval of someone; whether it might be their peers, social media, or family. And the fact that the younger generations are still not fully developed in their personality yet, gives room for growth in their inferiority complex to unhealthy levels. Because they are being influenced too much, which leaves no place for them to develop their own opinions about anything.

When we reflect on the present situation of how schools and jobs function, we tend to associate it with a lot of workloads, tight deadlines, and strict authority figures, particularly in the age group of 14 to 25-year-olds. The upcoming generation is consistently influenced by every prospect in various ways- teachers in educational institutes, authorities at work, product advertisements by media, persuasive propaganda at its peak, and the abrupt increase in the world’s mental health statistics. All of these are factors fuel the minds of our population.

So, Will these factors lead the way for future leaders determined to bring positive change, or will they shape individuals who find it difficult to make their own decisions, existing in an ambiguous state of uncertainty?

While we ponder upon the uncertainties, we can choose to educate ourselves and the people around us about the reason how our society had transformed into what it is today. The role of propaganda, persuasion, neuromarketing, and Edward Bernays has changed the world completely. But in order to reverse the effects of it, we can start small. Being conscious of the things we buy that are harmful to the environment in the long run and opting for products that are environmental friendly instead might be hard to adapt to, especially because we are still wrapped in the influence of consumerism behaviour that Bernays left behind. But for a better sustainable future for all, we will fight against the ideologies that were placed on us against our will.

Author’s note:
This research paper is an analytical foundation, constituting the initial phase of a two-part project. The next segment will focus the practical implementation and fieldwork based on the insights derived from this analysis. Individuals with introspective perspectives, scholars, or volunteers are encouraged to contribute to the development of future papers or articles. Your collaboration is welcomed and valued in advancing the practical aspects of our research.

REFERENCES

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7. Edward L. Bernays interview, 1986-10-23 (https://youtu.be/rg1jOLBzvvY?si=uEYUKWfSOQfbGb-O)
8. Bacon and Eggs interview of Edward L. Bernays (https://youtu.be/3Asnt2ISZJs?si=_shvu2uG21NjvSKY)
9. Excerpt from Adam Curtis ‘Century of the self’ – Edward Bernays Corporate Propaganda (PR – Public Relations) (https://youtu.be/vL1PPGCJnuo?si=ksaVXDpH7lZxS7gH)

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