Living in a Spin

A dark aspect of Freud’s teaching is its application by his nephew, Edward Bernays, to Public Relations. Rather than liberating people from their unconscious fears and prejudices, Public Relations has sought from its inception to exploit those very fears and prejudices so as to reach beneath consent and control people. Machiavelli would have exulted in the modern practice of advertising. He famously said that it is better to be feared than loved, but the idea that an individual's every fear, and every love, could be manipulated to bring about obedience would have sent him into ecstasies.

Hitler believed that Britain had won the First War because of the careful use of propaganda. Goebbels was able to control almost the entire media of the Nazi realm – thankfully a more difficult task in the days of the Internet (though this privilege may always be withdrawn).

As religion lost ground in the first world, its place was assumed by politics. Initially, this was an idealistic and reforming force, either liberal or socialist in tendency. The promise of heaven was replaced by the promise of a paradise on Earth for our children, or their children. As long as we made the right sacrifices, that is. The truth is that politicians have used their power as selfishly as Popes and prelates. Politicians have been all to willing to ignore the issues and act in accordance with the directives of their advertising and PR men – now called spindoctors. Margaret Thatcher rose to power with the support of the Saatchi brothers. Tony Blair relied upon TV expert Peter Mandelson.

Our society has long been saturated in cynical propaganda. Obsession and addictive responses are cultivated through advertising. Lacking funding our schools have turned to the corporations in return for product placement. TV, cinema, radio and the print media float on an ocean of carefully branded waves. Camel cigarettes famously employed a waggish cartoon to recruit their customers long before they could legally use the product. That was long ago, now babies begin their conditioning through highly forceful television ads, which are actually – astonishingly – designed to appeal to them. Just digest that thought with your upmarket decaf latte.

The high degree of activity in film and television creates a need for ever more stimulation. Computer games add to the mix. Attention spans shorten. The adolescent pulls on 501s, slips on Nikes, slurps Vanilla Coke, pretends adulthood through Marlborough and WKD Blue.

We live in a culture where the demands of social compliance have changed from belief in God and eternal damnation to addiction to soaps, scents, the lottery and nicotine. The sleepers dive ever deeper into the nightmare, none of them happy until they have grabbed that next new stimulation. Immediately discarded for the next high-speed vacuous thrill. There can be no peace in the tumult, only mounting dissatisfaction punctuated by disaster.

We cannot go back. These attempts at control will create disaster just as the attempt to burn out heresy does. The choice will always be between trying to enhance free choice and free will, and controlling the mob. The irony is that the controllers who create this distress and chaos are as much victims as their own prey.

April 2004