The Engineering of Consent, An Essay By Edward Bernays (Audio Reading)

A while back I did an audio reading of Edward Bernays essay “The Engineering of Consent” This essay is the basis for the book of the same title. The book is a blueprint for mass deception, one that is still used by the social engineers today. Below the video, is a detailed analysis of each step of the consent engineering process. If you like this video, subscribe to my youtube channel, subscribe to the Propaganda Report Podcast, and click the little blue follow button in the top right-hand corner of this page.

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Again, the book is based on the essay, and is basically an instruction manual for the massive propaganda apparatus that’s currently in place in the United States. It’s no longer in print but if you want to pick up a copy, there are a few used ones available online. The lowest priced first edition copy I could find is just under $400. The other first edition copies available are priced near $1,000 and higher.

Select Quotes

“Newsworthy events, involving people, usually do not happen by accident. They are planned deliberately to accomplish a purpose, to influence our ideas and actions.

“The public’s attitudes, assumptions, ideas, or prejudices result from definite influences. One must try to find out what they are in any situation in which one is working.’

“Primarily, however, the engineer of consent must create news. News is not an inanimate thing. It is an overt act that makes news, and news in turn shapes the attitudes and actions of people.”

“The United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.”

Here is a quick overview of the process of engineering consent as described in the essay.

  1. Control and master the use of the mass communications system
  2. Identify and influence group leaders who have the most influence over the largest number of people.
  3. Plan Your Campaign
    1. Select a clear overall goal.
      1. Know your destination, what you want to accomplish with absolutely clarity
    2. Determine if the goal is realistic
    3. Adjust your goal if the research calls for it.
    4. Remain flexible in how you reach your destination
  4. Studying The Public
    1. Values & Techniques of Research
    2. Understand their conscious and sub-conscious motives
  5. Selection of Themes, Strategy, & Organization.
  6. Selection of Tactics

Understanding Bernays

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Edward Bernays was often referred to by his peers as a young Machiavelli. He believed that it was up to the “intelligent few” to lead to mindless herd around by the nose. Bernays even admits in his book ‘Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays‘ (More affordable Kindle Version) that Goebbels was using his book ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion‘ as “a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany.”

Here’s the full quote from Biography of an Idea:

Karl von Wiegand, foreign correspondent of the Hearst newspapers, an old hand at interpreting Europe and just returned from Germany, was telling us about Goebbels and his propaganda plans to consolidate Nazi power. Goebbels had shown Wiegand his propaganda library, the best Wiegand had ever seen. Goebbels, said Wiegand, was using my book Crystallizing Public Opinion as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. … Obviously the attack on the Jews of Germany was no emotional outburst of the Nazis, but a deliberate, planned campaign.”

It helps to have this understanding of Bernays when reading any of his material because, like all skilled propagandists, he hijacks the language of democracy to spread his elitist ideas.

Bernays thought the public was incapable of reasoning. He believed the “intelligent few”, of which he considered himself one of, should lead the bewildered herd around by the nose. They couldn’t physically coerce the public into doing what the elites wanted them to do. Instead, using the systems of mass communication, they “Engineered Consent” by manipulating the psychology of the masses without the masses knowing it. This was Bernays playbook for controlling the masses, and it is still very much in use today.

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The engineering of consent is a broad social engineering process. The purpose is to shape the beliefs, attitudes and actions of the public to the will of the government, or client. If the client is not the government, it’s some wealthy special interest or a large corporation.

Control of The System of Mass Communication

In the essay, Bernays gives an overview of this process of consent engineering. He starts with a discussion of the communication apparatus in the United States, referring to it as;

“the world’s most effective apparatus for the transmission of ideas.”

Naturally, the transmission of ideas is important to a propagandist. The more people that can be reached the better. And the system of mass communication in the United States enables the social engineer to rapidly transmit ideas to nearly everyone from a centralized location. Bernays says the communication system can reach anyone in the country no matter how isolated they are. Considering that he wrote this in 1947, it’s scary to think of how quickly ideas, or ideologies, can be transmitted to the masses today.

Two quotes capture his enthusiasm for how easily he can transmit his ideas to the public.

“The United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.”

“Words hammer continually at the eyes and ears of Americans.”

Bernays believed consent engineering was a great thing. If everyone could be reached from a centralized location, through the various forms of media, then society could be completely controlled from behind the scenes.

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To him, the various forms of media were control mechanisms. If you can control the information that people receive you can shape their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes at will. You and I see a television, he sees a mechanism for mass control of society. The same is true for the cinema, the newspaper, the public speaker, the billboard, the teacher, and any other vehicle that information passes through.

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To Bernays, this “enormous amplifying system” is access to the public mind. This is where the engineering of consent starts, with control over the communication system. Control is gained either overtly with pressure and threats, or through subtle manipulation.

“Leadership Through Communication”

The title of this section in Bernays essay is deceiving. It looks like a masters course you might take at a business school. What Bernays is referring to in this section is manipulating the masses through group leaders. There are many groups and sub-groups in society. We’re all part of many different groups based on our interests, education, jobs, and relationships. For example, someone might be a Braves fan, an animal advocate, a republican, a catholic, a book lover, a family man, and a million other things. Those are all separate, overlapping, groups that Bernays and other propagandists target with their messaging. If they can influence the leaders, the influencers, of those individual groups, they can influence the entire group.

Each group has as different set of appeals and interest in common. Some crossover and some conflict. When Bernays talks about leadership through communication, he’s talking about identifying and influencing the leaders who have the most influence over the most groups. Bernays often used shady, manipulative tactics to influence leaders. For example, he mastered the use of the front organization. On the surface, these organizations claim to exist for the purpose of a general social good. In reality, they only exist because of the often hidden special interests they serve.

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The Engineering Approach

After laying the preliminary ground work, Bernays goes on to discuss his engineering approach.

Governments and elites rule either with force, or manipulation. Bernays engineering approach is his way of ruling through manipulation. If the government wants the population to consent to a movement, an ideology, an action, a transformed way of life, or anything else that, at the present moment, the public isn’t likely to consent to, then consent must be engineered.

Bernays arrogantly refers to this process as:

“the very essence of the democratic process.”

This “democratic” system, which Bernays speaks so highly of, is the same one he used to help the CIA engineer the overthrow of a democratically elected Guatemalan president. You can read all about this in the book Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala and in the Bernays book Biography of An Idea. I’m not sure if the kindle version of the book covers the subject.

While his words at times sound democratic, his actions all too often appear despotic.

“The Importance of Engineering Consent”

Bernays says a number of things to take note of in this section. Remember, Bernays was a close adviser to presidents, and some the wealthiest of businessmen in the world. He also worked in foreign relations, and was an active proponent of world government. He had the ears of the most powerful people in the world. They sought and took his advice. So, when he says things like,

“it (the engineering of consent) affects almost every aspect of our daily lives.”

he’s not just guessing. He’s advising the people who have the power to affect every aspect of our daily lives.

In this section he admits that his manipulation tactics can be subverted.

“The techniques can be subverted; demagogues can utilize the techniques for anti-democratic purposes….”

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He also touches on how you can rule from the shadows because of advances in communication technology.

“It is clear that a leader in democracy need not always posses the personal qualities of a Daniel Webster or Henry Clay. He need not be visible or even audible to his audiences. He may lead indirectly, simply by effectively using today’s means of making contact with the eyes and ears of those audiences.”

Bernays then goes on to provide an example of an organization that engineered consent. The example he uses is the WWI Committee on Public Information, which he was part of. The way he describes that committees efforts makes them sound nothing short of heroic. At one point he even says,

“It (the committee) helped win that war.”

He fails to mention that prior to the massive propaganda efforts targeting the United States, the public never wanted to enter WWI. Without the admitted deceptions, we might have never entered the war in the first place. Fellow member of the Committee On Public Information, Will Irwin, openly admitted that the committee frequently lied saying,

“We never told the whole truth—-not by any manner of means.” Irwin said.

In his book, Public Relations, Bernays himself not only admits that deception was used, he refers to the public’s gullibility in doing so.

“Reports that the Germans were beasts and Huns were generally accepted. The most fantastic atrocity stories were believed. After the war there was widespread disillusion with and reaction against propaganda. The American people resented their own wartime gullibility.”

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A Professional Perspective

The tactics used by the Committee on Public Information were very effective in manipulating the public during WWI. This is part of why the public was so angry about it. Bernays took these tactics, systematized them into the engineering of consent process, and applied them to the business world after the war. Bernays and other members of the committee spread out all over the country, working with big business and government agencies. Bernays gleefully speaks of the success of this new form of propaganda in his 1928 book, Propaganda:

“It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind.

After the war Bernays and others studied and improved upon consent engineering. They also made a killing selling their propaganda services to big businesses who used them to profit off of the public.

Planning A Campaign

Bernays may be a despot, but he’s planning skills are admirable. Goals must be defined clearly. You must know where you want to go and what you want to accomplish. During the planning phase, you will determine if your goal is attainable. The key thing here is have a clear destination to move towards.

Study The Public

Once you have your goals, you study the public. Most people do base level research. Bernays did mass data collection like research. He would have field day today with all the psychographic data collection techniques available.

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Some of the things Bernays studies are: how people communicate, what motives people on a deep subconscious level, where his target gets their ideas, who influences their thought processes the most, what basic assumptions people operate on, what motivates them to take action, and anything else that will help him understand what makes them tick. Some notable quotes from this section are;

“What ideas are people ready to absorb? What are they ready to do, given an effective stimulant?”

“The public’s attitudes, assumptions, ideas, or prejudices result from definite influences. One must try to find out what they are in any situation in which one is working.’

“To influence the public, the engineer of consent works with and through group leaders and opinion molders on every level.”

Values & Techniques of Research

The main takeaway here is the importance of surveying the public. You have to get a feel for what’s going on out in the field if you are to manipulate the field. Bernays basically suggests contacting the leader of every group and sub-group that you can think of.

Speaking on public opinion research, Bernays says;

“It (public opinion research) should disclose the realities of the objective situation in which the engineer of consent has to work. Completed it provides a blueprint for action and clarifies the question of who does what, where, when, and why…….It will disclose subconscious and conscious motivations in public thought, and the action, words, and pictures that effect these motivations.”

Once this knowledge is gained, you then make adjustments to other areas of your plan based on what you learned.

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Themes & Strategies

Bernays provides a brief overview of how propagandists use themes and what strategies they employ in using them.

“These themes contain the ideas to be conveyed; they channel the lines of approach to the public; and they must be expressed through whatever media are used. The themes are every present but intangible–comparable to what in fiction is called the “story line.”

“To be successful, the themes must appeal to the motives of the public. Motives are the activation of both conscious and subconscious pressures created by the force of desires.”

When it comes to themes, it’s all about identifying an emotionally charged cause that can be attached to whatever Bernays is selling. He then sets out to turn his client’s idea, product, or ideology into a symbol for that cause. Once established in the minds of the target, the symbol then becomes a motivational trigger for that target group.

After establishing the themes, the social engineer determines strategy. Bernays briefly covers a few strategies in the essay. In the book based on the essay, themes are strategies are described in much more detail.

And last but not least, tactics are chosen.

Tactics

Bernays describes tactics as:

“How the themes are to be disseminated over the idea carriers, the networks of communication.”

Bernays talks about something very important in this section. He emphasizes that tactics shouldn’t be thought of in segmental approaches. He’s referring to compartmentalization. Tactics in and of themselves are not the point. It’s how they work with all the other parts that’s important. This is a holistic approach that enables the propagandists to remain flexible to changing conditions.

Here is what Bernays has to say about selecting activities;

“Emphasis on the consent engineer’s activities will be on the written and spoken word, geared to the media and designed for the audiences he is addressing.”

“He  must familiarize himself with all media and know how to supply them with material suitable in quantity and quality.”

“Primarily, however, the engineer of consent must create news. News is not an inanimate thing. It is an overt act that makes news, and news in turn shapes the attitudes and actions of people.”

Bernays talks a lot about propaganda of the deed in this section. Propaganda of the deed, as Bernays uses the term in his other works, is the staging of events for the purpose of creating news. People are more influenced by real events, by drama that leaves an emotional imprint. By staging and dramatizing an event, it gives those who are there a real experience, and it makes an impact on those whom the message is transmitted to through the various channels of communication. The dramatization of the event in the media creates a domino effect. Someone in the target group witnesses an event on the news, and is inspired to take action of their own. The Resistance movement is a great example of this.

One of the most important parts of the staged event is to create a symbol that connects with the feeling of oppression or desire in the target group. When this is done, the symbol acts as a motivational trigger for members of the target group. This trigger can then be exploited by the social engineers at will.

Bernays essay offers a glimpse into how society’s controllers pull the strings.

For more propaganda related terms, visit our propaganda glossary

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