Sunday, January 22, 2012

Communication, Propaganda, and Consumerism

"The fields in which public opinion can be manipulated to conform to a desired result are as varied as life itself" (Bernays, pg. 55).

I used this quote to open my blog post because I felt it sums up many of the readings in the first section of the book. Bernays's article in particular stood out to me because he addressed how easily mass communication and propaganda can influence public opinion - from the major, "It is one of the manifestations of democracy that anyone may try to convince others and to assume leadership on behalf of his own thesis" (p. 51) - to the mundane, "Public opinion may be marshaled for or against even salad dressings" (p. 56). Bernays uses the example of fashion trends to display the tight grip that communication and social thought can hold over the way we dress and spend our money. Much as it was for velvet and American-made silk back then, masterful propaganda campaigns still hold much sway over the choice we make in fashion, and even sadly, the lengths we go through to make our bodies match a certain ideal.

Lasswell wrote on the power of propaganda, "...The fact remains that propaganda is one of the most powerful instrumentalities in the modern world. It has arisen to it's present eminence in response to a complex of changed circumstances which have altered the nature of society" (p. 49). Altering the nature of society? Wow, that's kind of a big deal! Going back to my comment about trying to make our physical selves match a certain ideal - look at how society's perception of beauty has transformed, and how the circulation of mass media which has in turn manipulated public opinion has caused society to change it's idea of what human beauty is.

Jane Addams addressed the negative influence that media can hold over children when she discussed the power that the theater holds in influencing young boys. "It is as if a child, starved at home, should be forced to go out and search for food, selecting, quite naturally, not that which is nourishing but that which is exciting and appealing to his outward sense, often in his ignorance and foolishness blundering into substances which are filthy and poisonous" (p. 27). One current example of this that I can think of (that also equates to the shifting ideal of beauty) is the "Jersey Shore" TV show, which glamorizes a certain type of lifestyle and physical appearance is has become wildly popular due to impressionable youth. The apathetic attitude of many adults towards allowing the influence of propaganda and mass media on their own children also contributes to shifts in social norms.

In Lynd and Lynd's "Middletown," they capture the propensity of many adults to allow social media to teach their children. "One working class mother frankly welcomes the movies as an aid in child rearing, saying, 'I send my daughter because a girl has to learn the ways of the world somehow and the movies are a good safe way'" (p. 67). While mainstream movies back then were likely much more educational then they are today (as entertainment seems to be the chief concern of today's filmmakers), the tendency to save time and grief on parenting by parking kids in front of the TV screen is still alive and well.

When enough people agree that something is "good" or "the way it ought to be" it becomes and idealized phenomena, brought about by public opinion. "...Public opinion represents the thought of any given group of society at any given time toward a given object. Looked at from the broadest standpoint, it is the power of the group to sway the larger public in its attitude towards ideas" (Bernays, p. 52). Going back to the salad dressing comment, and the power that public opinion holds over our own consumerist tendencies, I find it fascinating how food manufacturing companies use popular media to control even the choices that we make when eating food.

One is example is the debate over high fructose corn syrup. It is present in a plethora of foods in the U.S. namely because it is a much more cost effective way to sweeten food. People never gave much thought to it until research emerged showing that it could be unhealthy. This CBS news report characterizes this battle of public opinion:
Even in this CBS article, the author stated, "So companies are busy removing high-fructose corn syrup from some products, citing reasons like "consumer trends." There was enough of an outcry in public opinion over the validity of HFCS as a safe food additive that manufacturers were forced to take it out. Suffering from a loss of profit over this new public opinion, the Corn Refiners Association launched a media campaign  to counteract any negative feelings towards HFCS by making the consumer feel it is safe through the use of imagery of happy, healthy families serving products with HFCS to their families and walking through picturesque corn fields:


  1. I am SO glad you brought up the issue of PR and--in my opinion, propaganda--surrounding the high fructose corn syrup fiasco. This is a very important issue to me because my career centers on ethical considerations and responsibilities in food marketing to children. I have been researching for years the effects that food marketing of less nutritious foods to children can have on their well-being and future food choices as adults.

    Given the current state of health and obesity in this country, I think your post brings up a very important point, one that was also brought to my mind as I read through Addams and Bernays.

    Bernays writes that "a public that learns more and more how to express itself will learn more and more how to overthrow tyranny of every sort" (51). I feel like the entire idea of PR and "spinning" is supremely exemplified in the battle raging on the food industry front.

    And the ones who end up absorbing the brunt of the unrestricted food marketing of junk food to children (and I'm very much including the HFCS ads you posted about here) are, as Jane Addams believed, the vulnerable audiences whose minds are filled with "absurdities which certainly will become the foundation for their working moral codes and the data from which they will judge the properties of life" (26).

    I feel like the HFCS commercials are a great example of this, because if this generation of children is not exposed to the consequences of consuming diets full of HFCS and other refined, high-energy dense foods, and is left for Big Food to turn them into lifelong loyal consumers of unhealthy products, we will be looking at a health crisis and will be hard-pressed to find "imagery of happy, healthy families."

  2. Hey Betsey, I'm glad to hear you are doing research in this area! I find it disgusting that manufacturing companies are allowed to pitch their food as if they are healthy (which are outright lies). Things such as poptarts and nutella, which aside from a few vitamins thrown in, really have zero nutritional value and yet continued to be pitched towards parents and children as healthy ideas for breakfast. If Michelle Obama really wants to make an impact with her campaign on fighting childhood obesity, why not go after these companies for pitching these unhealthy foods in ways that make them seem healthy? Remember the fight over Joe Camel advertisements back in the 90's? ( Consumers complained that Joe Camel appealed too much to youth, thereby sending a negative message to children about smoking. In my book, allowing companies to continue to advertise crap food towards children and parents should also be outlawed.