You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Why is it that majorities of Americans distrust the political establishment, the corporations, and even the media? Could it be that they don’t trust any of these actors to tell them the truth?

Well, they are right to be suspicious. Since the early 20th century US policy makers and corporations have consciously used propaganda, public relations and advertising to sell products and manipulate public opinion.

The Committee on Public Information, more commonly known as the Creel Commission after its director George Creel, was established by the Wilson administration to mobilize public support for World War I. The result was jingoistic Americans and some very valuable lessons for the ruling class. Specifically: how much more effective persuasion was than force in gaining the consent of the public.

One of the prominent members of the Committee on Public Information was Edward Bernays, nephew of pyschiatrist Sigmund Freud. In 1928, drawing on his Creel Commission experience, Bernays wrote a book entitled Propaganda, that called for the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” He said that for the right kind of democracy to succeed it is the “intelligent minorities which need to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically.”

On the commercial front, Edward Bernays would go on to create numerous advertising campaigns, including an effort to get more woman to smoke cigarettes. In 1929 he had fashionably dressed young women, posing as suffragettes, march in the Easter Parade in New York City, holding cigarettes aloft as “torches of freedom.”

Since then, advertising, public relations and propaganda have been employed to sell lots and lots of cigarettes. American advertising has consistently used the idea of freedom as a way to hawk its products. In 1968, the Phillip Morris tobacco company introduced Virginia Slims, a new line of cigarettes targeted at young professional woman. Their ad campaign was: “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby,” that equated smoking with freedom, liberation and empowerment. This ad campaign was so successful that it resulted in a rapid increase in smoking among young woman.

But these methods of persuasion have also been employed to sell ideas. There has been an ongoing campaign to relentlessly sell the idea of “free enterprise,” or capital accumulation by the wealthy and corporations, as the American way. The accompanying argument is that any interference with this domination of America by business interests is socialism or worse. This theme is so ubiquitous that it’s treated largely as established fact.

But here’s the thing–being a consumer is different that being a citizen. “Free enterprise” doesn’t really confer any sort of freedom or democracy to the average American, mostly it has been a trend towards plutocracy. And smoking Virginia Slims cigarettes doesn’t confer freedom and liberation to young woman, only cancer.

It’s all marketing. We sell politics and ideology just like any other product: relentlessly.

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