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PR Today, 1928: Vice Magazine in The New Yorker
There is this all-consuming article in the New Yorker about the frequently confusing, possibly acceptable hipster-media-capitalism of Vice Magazine (the TV show), in the current cultural context. The talk of the town seems to be that Vice has sold out better than anyone else, that not selling out is failing, and that authenticity is for the poor or the soon-to-be-rich. Progressive political will, funded by corporations, and fueled by boring white-guy-Brooklyn hedonism, is the only mindgame in town.
Enter Edward Bernays: the man behind the men behind the reason you feel something when you buy something. The guy who sold soft Freud to hard markets.
Not surprisingly, the man frequently credited with founding the business discipline of modern public relations (PR, for all you flat-ioned office bitches setting down Tory Burch bags next your Mac Airs), was as good at talking about himself, as he was a helping companies talk about themselves. He did this by writing a paper book, which he sold to clients, followers, fanboys. In this 1928 eBook, sold via Amazon via Thought Catalog via Vice mediaworldgroup, Bernays posits himself and the inventor of modern business subtlety, only slightly prefigured by the United States Military public education campaigns of the First World War, various European Kings, and um… the Roman Catholic content publishing empire circa Before Christ. I guess I need to ask where China fits in to this whole “everything is propaganda, so get with it kids” angle, but I’m too fucking tired. Build your conclusions about an industrial state that comes with pre-existing modes of manufactured consent. Maybe just buy some real estate or a ghost city or something.
And so, Propaganda by Bernays.
His refreshed notion of propaganda shows a market of hapless drone purchasers, buying spirituality and hope for always low prices. In the exact same way (pseudoscience) that people wage military campaigns: misinformation, suggestion, community hacks. Bernays tells a big story, mostly about himself, but also about us, a little. If we care about politics, markets, business.
Speaking of ourselves, we read this Propaganda book, and made the following points.
1. If Bernays saw media as a war against Americans by Americans, to help them buy the right things and live the right lives, what side is Vice on? In the war against ourselves we call media, who is buying? who is selling? and why can’t we just work out a society with less suffering and inequality? I get (frequently) weird when I realize that my advertising agency is paid to attack the public with messages designed to sell more stuff. That’s nihilism, not business, to my understanding. I can calm myself when I realized people need stuff to live, but the question becomes, how much of the economy exists between the value of stuff I need to live and the inflated value of all the things sold so that people will buy them. But it only really makes sense if you’re selling the right stuff in the right way, so honestly, c’mon I can’t kid myself all the time. There are big forces in play here. The imaginary weight of all that, the psychic weight of it, is what Bernays is calling Propaganda. It’s terrifying stuff if you take it serriously. Like, in order to function, we North American scum must attack ourselves with content aimed by weaponzied media channels, from Vice to PBS kids.
2. Many reviews of this book have noticed that all the case studies are in third person and also mostly refer to campaigns that Bernays managed, which seems like a cool way of not taking credit for how great you are, sort of. Problems of authority and framing the discussion. Or, fitting the ideal message to the ideal medium: the propaganda novel about propaganda.
3. The ideas of independent journalism, democracy, and thoughtful, representative policy makers get really foggy when you think of the USA as a place that is literally at war with itself just to function, a place where everyone just wants massive economic growth balanced with a veil of political correctness. It’s basically not Europa, or Asia – where quality of life still has some kind of meaning. It’s brand one. USA USA USA. And if you’re not with us, you’re probably just confused. Join with the machine, or destroy it. Sell everything, more. Unless, like a socialist, you think business isn’t war?
4. Everything in this book is relevant to anyone in marketing. It’s the source code for a lot of recently, supposedly innovative thinking.
5. In this big SEO superlife of selling poems and chemical soaps, success is measured in spiritual footnotes, nods, and blog posts, as much as in financial gains. Bernays sees himself as sooo fucking powerful and correct (his slightl misunderstanding of Marx and Freud, in a business context admittedly puts him far ahead of his Mainstreet colleagues, selling their tiny little products to a fraction of the consumer brain) that the alternative to his alternative is outgunned. I would relate this to the crypto-pro-morality of Vice’s Global Youth hipster corporate groundswell, but I think you just did. Vice, however dumb it might be, is simply further along than most other glacial-pace media brands. You can’t say no to progress if you can casually sip it in a bar in North Brooklyn, while talking about global warming and endless, meaningless war. At least they make an effort to confront to political weather of today. Their shoddy work is more interesting than the blank stare journalism of cable-now. Coolness is a part the equation, just like it always is. If there wasn’t cultural capital to balance out actual capital, we’d be in a much worse place.
A room full of rich young white guys wearing flannel and swilling 70-dollar bottles of Malbec is the unfortunate price we’re willing to pay in order to avoid the previous/alternative regimes. Pay up.