in "PR!: A Social History of Spin" (Basic Books, 320 pp., $30), Stuart Ewen knocks over the painted flats and tears away the gauzy scrims that have hidden the stage managers of consensus reality public relations experts throughout this century.
Ewen is a social critic and professor of media studies at New York's Hunter College. A decade in the making, "PR!" is the long-awaited follow-up to "All Consuming Images," a mordant critique of commodity culture that inspired Bill Moyers' PBS series "The Public Mind." Written in lively, front-page poetry that combines a historian's passion for buried truth with a sociologist's view of the topography of everyday life, "PR!" is the first history, incredibly enough, of one of the formative influences on the public mind in the 20th century: the manufacture of consent through the mass media.
The book begins with Ewen's quixotic audience with the nearly 100-year-old "double nephew" of Sigmund Freud, Edward L. Bernays, a larger-than-life Svengali who was present at the birth of public relations and who, Ewen writes, "from the early 1920s onward, helped to consolidate a fateful marriage between theories of mass psychology and schemes of corporate and political persuasion." It ends in the present, where an unseen army of PR specialists, pollsters, image consultants, organizers of ersatz grassroots campaigns (known in the trade as "Astro Turf organizing"), and other "engineers of consent" (Bernays' term) put a corporate-friendly spin on much of our mass-mediated reality.
Between these historical bookends, Ewen tells the story of the emergence of PR as a technique for orchestrating the mental life of the restless masses. He excavates PR's roots in the "progressive publicists" of the 1900s activist journalists whose denunciations of the excesses of the robber barons gave voice to middle-class anxieties brought on by the cultural upheaval following the Civil War, as America moved from being an agrarian nation to an industrial leviathan. By World War I, middle-class fears of the rising tide of immigrants and the social turbulence borne on their wake were overtaking the progressive agenda; the Enlightenment faith in a reasoning "public," susceptible to arguments founded on fact, was giving way to a vision of the masses as an irrational, unmanageable "crowd." Informed by social science, public relations emerged as a tool for controlling cultural chaos and maintaining the status quo.
Ewen traces the evolution of PR, from Woodrow Wilson's WWI propaganda ministry, the U.S. Committee on Public Information, to the "unseen engineers" who drew on psychology to burnish corporate images in the postwar period, to PR's evangelical exhortations on behalf of the free market at the 1939 World's Fair, to its ultimate triumph, the casting of GE pitchman and B-movie actor Ronald Reagan in the role of a lifetime. "PR!" ends with an impassioned call for the introduction of media criticism and visual literacy programs in grade schools to parry the effects of what the French social theorist Guy Debord called "the society of the spectacle."
Unfortunately, by failing to address the playful, sometimes subversive ways in which people respond to PR in their everyday lives, Ewen implies that the public is credulous and compliant a psychological portrait that veers ironically closely, at times, to PR's own vision of its subjects. Moreover, his "top-down" analysis of the media makes the powers that be seem even more monolithic than they are. But these sins of omission are minor ones. "PR!" is a fascinating account of the social and historical forces that created the virtual reality in which we now live. It's not too much to say that Ewen's work brings the dream life of the 20th century to light for the first time.
Even though your critique of him is unsparing, Edward Bernays whom you call "one of the most influential pioneers of American public relations" emerges as an almost avuncular presence in "PR!". Your effectiveness as a critic of public relations, advertising, and consumer culture clearly owes something to your fascination with this stuff a fascination that shades, at the edges, into a perverse affection.
I've spent a lot of years working on this stuff and I don't think I would have if I didn't delight in it in certain ways. I had been trailing Bernays around, in my research, for about 20 years and had assumed he was dead, so I was tickled to have the opportunity to talk to the living dead.
But there's another side to it, which is that part of being effective at public relations is understanding people, knowing how to make your interests and theirs apparently coincide. Bernays was very hip to the psychological bonding that can be achieved between a message-transmitter and a message-receiver. He was an authentic charmer, and for me to turn him into a depersonalized historical force would have been an inaccurate description of who he was, and what happened when we met.
Bernays was one of a very broad population of intellectuals experts, I would call them whose primary expertise is engaged in the management of the perception and behavior of the masses, who are assumed to be irrational blobs of protoplasm that will respond to the right triggers if you pull them. You can look at a guy like Bernays and erect a demonic vision of him, and it's certainly easy to do that, particularly when one recalls his influence on Goebbels.
But I think what's missing from that argument is that part of what makes advertising and PR work is that people see their own personal needs or interests being stoked, and I think that unless you acknowledge the appeal of this stuff its eroticism and the self-interest of the receiver of the message, it's like presenting a machine without anything driving it; there's no sense of what propels the apparatus.
You argue in the book's conclusion that the faction within the PR industry that envisions public relations as the strategic manipulation of symbols to mold our minds and modify our behavior has carried the day.
If one looks at the broad panorama of contemporary culture, the professional manipulators of symbols are to a large extent defining public discourse. It's not conclusive, but it is where we are right now, and for it not to be conclusive, we need to be able to look things in the face. It's a dire threat to democracy when PR and public opinion polling become a surrogate for an engaged, interactive public life.
Jefferson believed that an informed electorate was the cornerstone of a democracy. How can we winnow fact from fiction in an information society where our windows on the world the media are owned by an ever-shrinking pool of transnational conglomerates and where "news" consists, more and more, of pseudo-events concocted by PR experts and other unseen stage managers?
People need to scrutinize and better understand the processes and techniques by which virtual or phantom facts are routinely manufactured. Even though we live in a society where public relations is a ubiquitous presence, no history of public relations had been written, until "PR!"
In writing "PR!" I discovered that by looking at public relations, you're looking at a biography of a large segment of American intellectuals in the 20th century.
Many of PR's founding fathers are really public intellectuals, operating outside the academy.
We may be hesitant to use the term "intellectual" to describe these people, but if you avoid the fact that the practice of public relations is one of the lives of the intellectual in the 20th century, then you're avoiding one of the major pieces of the story namely, the way in which more and more people who use their minds as their primary professional tool are people whose jobs have to do with managing opinion and managing behavior on behalf of powerful interests, and in an attempt to counteract the "dangers" of democracy.
According to "PR!", public relations as we now know it is rooted in the school of socially conscious investigative journalists of the early 1900s known as "progressive publicists." How did it come to pass that principled reporters ended up conscienceless propagandists during World War I?
The progressives were part of a generation that moved from being outraged by corruption at the top to being increasingly concerned about the growing power of the underclass, specifically an underclass of foreign birth. As a result, they began to feel that there was a need for the imposition of some kind of managerial order on what were seen as the dangerous proclivities of the masses. So, by the time the First World War comes around, they're alarmed at the disorder within working-class America. Consequently, a whole generation of progressive journalists ended up working in the propagandistic Committee on Public Information because they believed that the war would disseminate the notion of the sane, socially responsible management of a society, on a global scale.
These are people who were really occupying two different worlds at the same time. While they were still verbally committed to an 18th-century public-square vision of democracy, they were also living in a world that convinced them that popular sovereignty was impossible. So amidst this fascination with an "informed public," and with the power of the fact, they were also inventing a new language, where the commitment to laying facts before a candid world was mitigated by a mass-mediated language of tawdry sensationalism.
The publisher's catalogue blurb for "PR!" says that it's "based on unexplored and often confidential sources." How did the PR community respond to your incursions onto their turf?
A lot of those confidential sources are sources which were confidential when they were produced and which nobody has looked at since. As a historian, you're often able to examine materials which the corporate watchdogs no longer view as particularly dangerous. I think it "is" still dangerous it's still live ammo but because the corporations in question are primarily engaged in keeping a lid on embarrassing things from the present and the recent past, there isn't a great deal of diligence regarding the protection of old records and documents, which is what makes doing a history like this possible.
Also, since public relations is largely the activity of people who are paid to be invisible, a lot of these people cherish the idea of emerging as historical figures. When I first contacted Bernays, he sent me an article about himself as one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century; this was a guy who, despite the stealth of his practice, clearly craved historical recognition.
I can't resist asking: As someone who sounds the depths of the public mind, have you ever been approached by corporate image consultants, advertisers, and other manufacturers of consent?
I've been approached a lot. I was asked to edit the Benetton magazine "Colors," I was approached by people at Condi Nast to consult with them when they were so worried about Generation X, and when the Cold War ended I was contacted by IBM about how to deal with anti-corporate sentiment as anti-Soviet feeling began to evaporate from the popular consciousness.
What was your response to IBM?
[chuckles] I told them that they should become a humane institution and they'd have nothing to worry about.
Where do you draw the moral line in these situations? If, as the editor of "Colors," you'd been allowed to devote an entire issue to, say, media literacy and anti-consumerism, wouldn't that have constituted a global forum for the dissemination of your ideas?
It might have, but I decided against it, in part because I felt it would undermine my ability to do what I do. I told a historian friend of mine the story of how Benetton creative director Oliviero Toscani had approached me.
"Colors," he explained, was going to be a magazine when you held it one way, and a catalogue when you flipped it over. I said, "That's not a magazine, it's a catalogue!," and he retorted, "The New Yorker's a catalogue, too; wouldn't you write for The New Yorker? All magazines are catalogues. They're simply vehicles for selling the products in their ads." His argument was that "Colors" was more honest because it was overtly a catalogue. Although I thought this was sophistry, I also thought it was an intelligent response to my resistance, the sign of an agile mind at work.
In any event, I made a decision not to do it. When I told my historian friend this story, she said, "Oh, you should've done it! All I ever read are catalogues." She had a point; in recent years, the catalogue has emerged as a new literary form, a media environment in the same sense that the Web or various other places are environments within which one might do one's mischief. I didn't do it, but it would be dishonest for me to say that I didn't find it an intriguing proposition.
I look forward to the day when a Victoria's Secret catalogue edited by Stuart Ewen lands on my doorstep.
[laughs] That one I'd do in a minute!