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Modern Marketing

This week's marketing read: Propaganda by Edward L. Bernays

By Matt Boffey | founder

August 5, 2015 | 4 min read

Each week, London Strategy Unit's Matt Boffey reads one of the most influential books from the world of innovation, marketing or creativity so you don't have to. In today's Booknote, he tells us why Edward L. Bernays' 1928 title Propaganda is worth your attention.

Because it rigorously dissects the psychology behind persuasion. Written by 'the father of public relations', Propaganda was the first text to suggest a method for manipulating people on a global scale.

What’s the original thought or argument?

That all humans share deep desires that influence their thoughts, values and actions. Chief among these are the wish to feel part of a group and to shift the burden of decision-making onto others. By tapping into those desires, leaders in public relations can become an 'invisible government' that has the power to shape the decisions of large groups of people.

If you want to look smart, just read

Chapter Four: 'The Psychology of Public Relations'. This outlines Bernays’ indirect approach to selling – creating circumstances that drive demand by provoking emotional responses. As an example, he uses the case of increasing sales of Mozart pianos by creating a vogue for music rooms in high-society homes.

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You might want to skip

Chapters six to 10, where Bernays considers the implications of his theories in sectors ranging from education to women’s activities. They’re interesting case studies but don’t introduce anything that isn’t in the first half of the book.

Why trust this author?

Bernays’ insights were sought by just about everyone at the time, with clients ranging from US presidents to CEOs of multinationals. It’s difficult to overstate his influence on American culture; his “Torches of Freedom” campaign for the American Tobacco Company transformed public opinion on women smoking in public.

Once you’ve read this you don’t need to read

Anything by Bernays’ uncle, Sigmund Freud. Propaganda outlines the most relevant applications of psychoanalysis, so there’s no need to go back to the source. You can also give Mark Earls’ Herd a miss – his book on group psychology does little more than outline some modern applications of Bernays’ well-established theories.

Why should this stay on your bookshelf?

Many of its observations are as relevant now as they were nearly 100 years ago. Propaganda reminds us that every point of contact an organisation has with the public is a communication of its brand, implying that the art of public relations should be considered at every level in a company.

What’s the one thing you should do differently after reading this book?

Keep the desire behind the product in the forefront of your mind. Always be asking 'What deeper human need does this product speak to?'

Best quote in the whole book?

“Because man is by nature gregarious he feels himself to be member of a herd, even when he is alone in his room with the curtains drawn. His mind retains the patterns which have been stamped on it by the group influences."

Matt Boffey is the founder of London Strategy Unit, which you can follow on Twitter @LSUsocial

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