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Professional Propaganda

in 1917, president woodrow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI), a federal agency responsible for producing an “avalanche of publicity” on behalf of the war effort.1 The man in charge of the CPI was George Creel, the former journalist who just one year earlier had made the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War” the centerpiece of Wilson’s successful re-election campaign. Now head of the CPI, Creel elevated publicity to a new level, combining the tools of journalism, advertising, and even film to build up public support for the war in part by drowning out the voices of those who disagreed.2 Writing in 1918, Creel described his work for the government as “educational and informative,” adding that public opinion “has its base in reason. . . rather than any temporary excitement of passing passion.”3 Yet, Creel also admitted that as he worked “to erect our house of truth,” the purpose of the CPI was “to ‘sell’ America to the world.”4 Creel even titled his memoirs How We Advertised America, describing his efforts as “a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.”5

Creel’s work illustrates the tension between the idea of publicity and its modern practice, a tension that became increasingly apparent in the years after the First World War. Building on a celebrated ideal of an educated citizenry, publicity experts transformed the conduct of political work by using press releases, paid advertisements, and other methods of communication to cultivate popular support for government programs, political candidates, and even corporations. However, the discovery that the U.S. government had waged a massive campaign of persuasion during the war revealed the susceptibility of the public to misinformation. Critics charged that the purpose of the CPI was not to inform, but to manipulate the public by using carefully crafted words, images, and symbols to stoke anti-German sentiment and generate support for the war.6 If publicity described a prewar hope for a reasoned democracy, a new word, propaganda, crystallized for many the realization that such a goal was utterly unattainable.

With the taint of propaganda hanging over them, publicity experts could no longer claim the educative function of informing the public. Facing widespread criticism, publicity experts had to find new ways to promote their skills and defend their methods. One strategy was to claim the mantle of a skilled professional trained in a new science of persuasion. This assertion of professional status occurred just as a behavioral social science began to emerge, along with a set of scholars who viewed propaganda not as a scourge but as an object of scientific study. By forging links with scholars interested in the effects of propaganda, practitioners could claim that they were highly trained professionals who specialized in the practical application of social scientific knowledge.

This step in the development of the business of politics is vividly illustrated in the work and writings of Edward Bernays. At a time when the progressive faith in publicity had given way to a widespread concern about the limits of public reason, Bernays articulated a different vision about the role of propaganda in a democratic polity. For Bernays, coordinated campaigns of persuasion were a characteristic feature of modern life that required a scientific approach to the study of mass beliefs. By aligning himself with prominent social scientists, Bernays sought a measure of credibility and a degree of control over his craft. Although he never called himself a political consultant (preferring the term “counsel on public relations” instead), Bernays foreshadowed the methods and tools that would become central to the professional control of political work: poll-tested messages targeting discrete groups of voters.

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