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Propaganda: The Manufacture of Consent

Propaganda: The Manufacture of Consent

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“Propaganda will never die out. Intelligent men must realize that propaganda is the modern instrument by which they can… help to bring order out of chaos.” — Edward Bernays

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ran on a platform strongly opposing US entry into WWI. But just a few months after taking office, the United States declared war on Germany. Soon after, the American people, so firmly opposed to the war just a year earlier, were enthusiastic supporters.

What happened?

The short answer: propaganda.

PROPAGANDA: THE MANUFACTURE OF CONSENT is a revealing documentary about how public relations grew out of wartime propaganda—and a portrait of one of the key architects of the field, Edward Bernays.

The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays refined the techniques used so successfully during the war to sell products to consumers, and ultimately to sell capitalism itself to workers. Public relations was also critical in building support for the New Deal, and in the pushback against it from the National Association of Manufacturers, which created materials including films aimed at children on the glories of manufacturing.

Bacon and eggs as part of a hearty breakfast? The work of Bernays on behalf of a bacon company. Cigarettes as a sign of women’s liberation? Bernays, again. Casting the democratically elected government of Guatemala as a Communist threat to justify US invasion on behalf of the United Fruit Company? Once more, Bernays.

There was nothing shadowy about Bernays. He wrote a book detailing his techniques and discusses them in an archival interview with Bill Moyers from 1983. Still, it is jarring to see his pride in hijacking the women’s suffrage movement in order to sell more cigarettes—one of many illuminating moments in this film.

Featuring Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Public Relations Museum co-founder Shelley Spector, historian Stuart Ewen, sociologist David Miller, and Bernays’ daughter Anne, PROPAGANDA offers an insightful look into the development of public relations techniques, and how they continue to affect us today.

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