The Atlantic had a thought provoking article on “Sharenting” – the use of social media to share content on their kids – recently.
A data excerpt – “Almost a quarter of children begin their digital lives when parents upload their prenatal sonogram scans to the internet, according to a study conducted by the internet-security firm AVG. The study also found that 92 percent of toddlers under the age of 2 already have their own unique digital identity.”
The article features stories of kids – some of whom are excited about their existing digital identity and others who are mortified. As more kids grow up to a generation shaped by social media, I expect many more articles on the topic. It is an important one.
For our part, we’ve made the choice to not share any photos of our kids on social media – until they grow up and give us the permission to do so. I write about lessons I learn from experiences with them as they’re a big part of my learning journey. But, that’s as far as the sharing goes.
As is the case with such decisions, it isn’t for everyone and it matters that we’re thoughtful about what would work for us.
Edward Bernays is one of the most influential persons in the 20th century. He is considered the father of “Public Relations” and changed how we think of mass marketing and advertising at scale. And, yet, it is likely you’ve never heard of him.
Despite his enduring impact on the world, there are many reasons for this lack of popularity. However, chief among them is a reluctance among the folks in his industry to talk about his work. So, you don’t hear Marketing professors or advertising executives mention him or his work. Not doing so denies some fascinating lessons that might shape how we think about the attention economy.
Edward Bernays and Propaganda
Edward Bernays was an Austrian American whose family moved to the United States in the 1890s. He spent the early part of his career as a Medical Editor and Press Agent. In both these roles, he showcased an ability to take strong positions on certain causes and successfully solicit support from the public — among them elite figures like the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts.
After the US entered World War I, he was recruited by the US Government’s “Commission on Public Information” to build support for the war domestically. Since a large portion of Americans had just fled Europe, this didn’t make much sense. But, Bernays coined a phrase — “Make the World Safe for Democracy” that became the meme President Woodrow Wilson needed. It gave the senseless war a higher purpose. And, Bernays began referring to his work as “psychological warfare.”
Bernays also added significant artillery to his propoganda techniques. He did this by incorporating the lessons from a then-infamous psychologist uncle who’d published work about how individuals are driven by unconscious needs, desires, and fears. Sigmund Freud, until then, was a relative unknown as he had been scorned by European society. But, his nephew, Edward Bernays, made him and his work famous in the United States and ensured he attained fame and prestige. Bernays applied his uncle’s insights to great effect by manipulating public opinion through mass media. As he became the world’s foremost expert in propaganda, he realized it was as powerful a tool in peacetime as it was during war.
So, after the war, he moved to New York and decided to counsel companies in propoganda. However, since the word propoganda was controversial and since its alternate “advertising” was too mundane, he decided to rename it “Public Relations.”
Why tobacco and bacon are great for you
Sadly, Bernays’ counsel was sold to anyone who cared to pay him well for it. And, chief among his clients were the tobacco companies and the pork industry. In his work with them, he demonstrated his skills as a master campaign strategist.
For example, he staged the “Torches of Freedom” event during the 1929 Easter Day Parade as a means of conflating smoking and women’s rights. Tens of millions of women threw off their shackles to claim their right to smoke in public.
His media strategy involved persuading women to smoke cigarettes instead of eating. He began by promoting the ideal of thin women by using photographers and artists in newspapers and magazines to promote their “special beauty.” He, then, had medical authorities promote the cigarettes over sweets.
Bernays also pioneered the covert use of third parties. For instance, he conviced a doctor to write to 5,000 physicians asking them to confirm that they’d recommend heavy breakfasts. 4,500 physicians wrote back and agreed. He arranged for these findings to be published in every newspaper across the country while stating that “bacon and eggs should be a central part of breakfast.” Sales of bacon went up.
The Engineering of Consent
Bernays called his brand of mass manipulation the “engineering of consent.” He worked with every major political power during his day to help provide the tools to non-coercive control of the mind. In 1928, he crystallized some of his lessons in his book “Propoganda.” Here’s a passage that describes his thought process about the importance of his work in society —
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
Enid Blyton and Bernay’s popularity
When I was growing up in India, books from “Enid Blyton” (a British children’s authors) were recommended reading for all kids. I was a huge Enid Blyton fan myself. One of the enduring memories I have of her storytelling is her focus on food and her insistence — via various characters in the book — that “bacon and eggs was the best breakfast in the world.” As I grew up and learnt more about bacon, I couldn’t understand why she said that.
Now I do.
Edward Bernays held the masses in contempt. That’s why we don’t know much about Bernays. He simply didn’t care about popularity in the eyes of those who he held in contempt. As is evident from the Enid Blyton story, the impact of his techniques on society are undeniable. Every marketing and PR campaign since has used his techniques to shape our minds. We study his work in every case on mass marketing — without ever referring to him.
The incredible jump in the proportion of British workers who voted “leave” in the 2 months before the EU referendum would not have been possible if it wasn’t for Bernays techniques.
3 notes to ponder
(1) Many column inches in the past year have been devoted to the role ads and social media have played in the tumultous political climate in the past couple of years. Here’s what scares me — a large proportion of the population is responding by consuming and discussing events on private messaging tools like Whatsapp. The Reuters Insititute confirms this trend among younger Americans. If you think polarized social news feeds can be propoganda carriers, you haven’t experienced the power of Whatsapp in spreading lies (see this and this).
(2) How would we go about learning marketing and public relations if we studied the life and work of Edward Bernays? I understand why professors and executives don’t want to talk about Bernays. Discussing his beliefs and techniques can seem akin to touting the power of the dark arts. But, every useful tool has its dark sides. And, the founding story of the PR industry is a great example of that. It is not an example we should avoid. Instead, it is a story we must learn from. It’ll make us all better marketers and, perhaps, better human beings.
(3) I was one among many who was surprised by the size of the impact of social media tools on the global politics. In retrospect, there were many warning signs. But, hindsight is always 20:20. That said, I don’t think I’d have been anywhere as surprised if I’d read the Edward Bernays story. The story of the propoganda maestro from a hundred years ago, it turns out, is very relevant today.
History doesn’t repeat itself — but it rhymes. It is why any attempt to understand the present and predict the future is futile if it isn’t preceded by an understanding of history.
For the longest time, you didn’t have too much of a say in crafting the “future you.”
Even two decades ago, those who worked “above” you in your organization had a big say in what opportunities you got to work on. Want to make that big career switch? Or, want in on that exciting new project? You just had to wait to get picked by the powers that be.
But, that’s changed.
Now, you have access to an incredible set of media tools to shape “future you.” You could demonstrate your penchant for coming up with ground breaking insights about the industry you want to work in on your blog or on LinkedIn. Facebook or Instagram can be incredible platforms to show off your artistic abilities. And, Twitter is a great place to build a following around your comedic wit or knack for pithy dialogue.
Like all good things in life, these tools are entirely what you make of them. You can use them to consume an endless stream of sticky content. Or not. If you decide to do so, these tools can be your customized digital garage to work on projects that would open up opportunities for “future you.”
Here are 3 simple questions to help craft your approach toward social media –
1. What sort of projects would you like to work on in the future?
2. What do you need to learn and ship to get access to those opportunities?
3. Which 1-2 social media tools could you use to build that body of work? If you really love the consumption, pick one other tool to consume (guilty pleasure allowance) and nix the rest.
You could choose to unconsciously engage in social media in ways that simply benefit their parent companies and hurt you.
Or, you can harness the tremendous power these bring and pick yourself to do work that matters.
Critic Anita Sarkeesian has been the subject of intense harassment and abuse (a.k.a “trolling”) from the gaming community after sharing her views on how women are portrayed in video games. She shared 1 week of tweets from trolls from on her blog last week. Just as a preview, she has the following content warning before her tweets – Content warning for misogyny, gendered insults, victim blaming, incitement to suicide, sexual violence, rape and death threats.
Now, a question – how many of those who tweeted would have the guts to say that to her in person?
I would be surprised if one out of every hundred had real courage. The most courageous people would look to give Anita a call and discuss her point of view or perhaps disagree with her with a critique on her own. Despicable behavior is a hallmark of gutless cowards. And, unfortunately, such pseudo-macho behavior is a hallmark of cowardly male behavior on the internet.
There are 2 thoughts that come straight to mind –
1. In short term, Twitter needs to take a hard stand against trolling. We need to think of it as bouncers in a club. Users should be given a warning (strike 1), thrown out for a few days for abusive tweeting (strike 2) and then banned from the service altogether if there’s a third strike. I know this would run counter to the typical social media mantra of “we want all the users we can get,” but, Twitter is fairly niche and is really well positioned to take such a stand. (And, it looks like they’re thinking about it)
And, my hypothesis is that a few such actions will stop the rest from such behavior. Cowardice doesn’t do too well with hard action. It is just a question of creating norms – you rarely see such trolls on LinkedIn..
2. In the long term, we need more education and discussion around ethics on the internet. I spent a lot of time as a secondary student learning to write letters as part of the English curriculum. Now, I write letters just once a year but, at least, some of those learnings have been useful in the world of email. Services like Twitter are completely new territory and we need to think intentionally about ethics and norms.
And, the other question for the long term is whether we can figure out ways to reduce emotional distance between two people on services like Twitter. Emotional distance is what makes it easy for a coward to throw insults on Twitter but not in person. It doesn’t feel as “real” and we forget that the people at the other end are real people – a lot like us (see Derek Sivers’ excellent 3 min video if you haven’t as yet). I’m not sure how we’d do that as yet. But, there has to be a way. And, I’m sure we’ll find it.
A close friend shared that his plans for today involved a quiet day at work. He also mentioned that he was getting screamed at by everyone he shared the plan with. Today is new year’s eve after all and there’s a certain pressure to do something memorable.
I was reminded of an evening a bunch of us spent together as teenagers. I think it was new years eve. After some time spent gaming in the afternoon, we spent about 3 hours in the side walk discussing our plans for the evening. Ironically, it was well into the evening by the time we ended our discussion. And, this wasn’t a one-time occurrence. We enjoyed talking about what to do. That meant everyone shared their preference and pretty much got berated for suggesting what always seemed like a dumb idea. Planning what to do typically meant lots of laughter and, I think, as a result, we spent a significant portion of those years planning.
Planning was the excuse, of course. It was just a blast to spend time together.
When I look back to my childhood, some of the best moments my friends and I spent together were spent on the most unspectacular things. An evening hanging out at my place, “planning,” a sleep over with a movie or two, riding to the beach (It was 1 hour away. So, it wasn’t the hanging out at the beach as much as it was about the ride), playing, eating panipuri at a roadside chaat shop, and just cracking up at each other’s expense – none of these cost much. But, they all made for really cool memories.
One of the funny consequences of the digital age and social media is that, somehow, they’ve added a certain pressure of expectation to moments of fun. Suddenly, it is not enough to be on vacation, it matters that it is a really cool vacation. Similarly, it is not clear if a fun evening with friends counts without a tagged status update or photo. As a result, fun occasions like new years days and valentines day have become high pressure days where we compete for likes and social status. Maybe some find it fun. I sure hope they do. This is for all those who don’t.
As you think about your fun events either to celebrate this new year’s day or an upcoming vacation, I really hope you think about what makes it fun for YOU. If that means, spending a week by yourself, so be it. In doing this, you will have to embrace your quirks. I realized a year or so ago that I don’t mind working on “stuff” when I’m on a break. What does matter to me is waking up without an alarm. You see, I sleep 10-11 hours on average most vacations and, as long as I do that, I’m happy.
It is up to us to design a life that will embrace that quirkiness. There is no shortcut to looking inward.
Finally, I came across this Zen quote – “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
It is a fantastic quote. Applying it to this context, it doesn’t matter how rich/successful/enlightened we are – at the end of the day, we are still human beings who crave love, attention, engagement, good food, good times and sleep. Here’s to that and more – on this new year’s eve and beyond.