Propaganda in the Age of New Media. Think you’re a free thinker? Think again. “Free will” is being manipulated by “free speech”.

Star Spangled Branding

The explosive momentum of the Internet has created a perfect environment for quickly spreading images and ideas to the public. Anyone can craft professional visuals. The barriers to broadcasting have been eliminated. It’s easier than ever to shape public opinion. And it’s all happened in less than a century.

>Meet Edward Bernays (1891-1995) 

He combined the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud. Bernays revolutionized public relations by combining traditional press agentry with the techniques of psychology and sociology. 

In 1928, Bernays wrote “Propaganda, considered to be a declarative work on the subject. The basis of his argument is quite simple, and bears uncanny resemblance to the essential principles of branding:

Bernays worked for presidents, governments and companies, with outcomes that shaped countries, business, perception and history. He lived until age 103, and in his obituary, he’s considered “The Father of Public Relations.”

Is propaganda the father of branding?

>Now meet Frank Luntz (1962-) 

An American political consultant, pollster, and public opinion guru, Luntz is best known for developing talking points and other messaging for various Republican causes. He advocates using specific vocabulary crafted to produce a desired effect. He’s a local Angelino, and when I run into him around town I’m starstruck.

In 2008 Luntz wrote “Words That Work” (https://www.amazon.com/Words-That-Work-What-People/dp/1401309291), exploring the effective use of language in the context of understanding the audience. Even the best message fails if the communicator does not create the message from the receiver’s point of view. 

He is arguably today’s most celebrated wordsmith, and I think of him as the new face of new propaganda. By testing word and phrase choices using focus groups and interviews, he learns empirically how audiences react based on emotion. Those simple words are used consistently to alter public perception through widespread adoption among his constituents. They form amazing soundbites, making them memorable and easy to promote.

Aside from my personal disagreement with his political views, I’m in awe of Luntz’ ability to shift the conversation. Consider some of Luntz’s well-known messages:

Great messages can shape perception.

Both Bernays and Luntz recognize the tremendous power that results when messaging resonates. But they’re also willing to tread into deceit in the aim of achieving their objective. With propaganda, anything goes. The goal is manipulation to obtain results, but there isn’t loyalty behind it. It takes a lot of energy to maintain deception, and in the end it eventually unravels once the effort has ended. Because ultimately, the regimes that fund and fuel propaganda are not sustainable. And that’s where propaganda departs from branding.

Take a moment to consider your brand. It’s the most visible expression of who you are. If the messages behind your identity aren’t resonating, then you haven’t closed the gap between how you see yourself and how the audience sees you. Clarity and honestly improves your brand, because the result is authenticity. 

Imagine combining the power of propaganda with the integrity of branding. 

The results are legendary when these components align. Start with the real you. Understand your customers’ motives. Generate predictable emotional reactions from consumers. Limit the range of choices. Push the audience into a binary mindset. Achieve faster, more enthusiastic decisions. By keeping it real, loyalty doesn’t require any ongoing effort because it’s the natural result of integrity.

Is branding the new propaganda?  I don’t think so (but it’s complicated)

The new face of communications has evolved at an astounding pace, but “we the people” haven’t caught up to these changes culturally. To detect propaganda, the audience needs to develop a policy of scrutiny that exposes dishonesty and discredits deceit. This hasn’t occurred yet, but experience builds maturity over time. 

Eventually, the consumer will develop the same sense of suspicion of branding that they have with advertising. We know that there’s a motive to sell driving every campaign. But we’re still naive when it comes to the newest forms of social media, especially when they target our unique preferences and behavioral profiles.

Remember, new media is in its infancy. Instagram is only 10 years old. It’s still the wild west out there. The open access we have to communications today that won’t last forever. Privacy laws and regulations are beginning to affect targeted “narrow-casting” campaigns by hiding online behavioral profiles. Many countries outside the USA have already enacted privacy laws that limit behavioral targeting.

It’s so easy to reach your audience that it is almost reckless not to take full advantage of the situation. If you’re not actively budgeting for branding, and haven’t found the right words that work, then you’re missing the boat. That’s where your competition can gain a meaningful advantage, and can end up with a trump card to win market share.

>My advice –communicate with consistency and frequency. And keep it real.