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Propaganda, Technology, and Woke PR

Public relations was originally called "propaganda" for a reason.

Paris Hilton meets with Senator Mitt Romney of Utah in October. (Senator Mitt Romney/Twitter)

Of all the traumas of recent years, few can match the anguished cringe of watching last summer’s “I Take Responsibility” video, in which a raft of Hollywood celebrities virtuously signaled their taking responsibility for structural racism. With 14 celebrities all saying the same three words, repeatedly, along with sustained eye-contact, it was more akin to a failed attempt at hypnosis than an argument. Although the reception was mixed, even among those who share the BLM agenda, critics didn’t ask the basic question of why it is that celebrities advocate on social justice issues at all.

Such advocating is now so commonplace it goes largely unnoticed. Last month, Mitt Romney praised Paris Hilton for her work on raising the issue of the Troubled Teen Industry, sharing gratitude that she is now advocating at the federal level. Paris Hilton is a prime example of someone “famous for being famous,” going from It-girl to superstar after a homemade sex tape was leaked in 2003. 

Ricky Gervais came close to questioning celebrity advocacy when his Oscar’s Speech of 2020 berated the assembled stars for being “in no position to lecture the public about anything” as they “know nothing about the real world.” What he failed to mention, however, was the public relations industry which drives celebrities to advocate on woke causes in the first place. 

While woke capitalism is highly visible, woke P.R. goes below the radar. P.R., of course, is always in the shadowy space between product and consumer. Behind all the faux-sincerity of those celebrities clutching their pearls and gazing into the camera to say “I take responsibility,” there is the army of publicists and consultants out of frame—calculating how best to maximize reputational advantage from whichever social justice fad is in vogue (and in Vogue).

Is there more going on than just this pragmatic manipulation of the status quo?

Some will retort immediately that different political ideologies and P.R. synchronize at different times. This is to play the classically liberal card of “neutrality of form.” Publicity is a necessary but inherently neutral feature of a world with mass communications, they say. Whether or not it engages with content that is highly questionable merely reflects decisions made by individuals working in that field. This is as far as Ricky Gervais got, berating the lack of ethical compass but not asking if genuinely moral orientation is even possible in a world that cherishes fame: “If ISIS started a streaming service, you’d call your agent, wouldn’t you?”

It could be that public relations and wokeness are partly reflective of a general cultural entropy, to which celebrity publicity is acutely vulnerable as the most vacuous pseudo-culture. That is, people don’t ask whether advocacy is the best route forward, but are carried downstream by the current of making everything advocacy without even noticing it.

But even that doesn’t do it justice. Allied with the entropy is a powerful force that accelerates in direct proportion with the deceleration of culture: technology. Why is woke posturing so seductive for P.R. agencies that it is becoming their raison d’être? Because there is a shared direction of travel between technological advancement, P.R., and identity politics. A shared telos, if you will.

Public relations was originally called “propaganda” for a reason. Edward Bernays, a founder of the industry, invented the term “public relations” because “propaganda got to be a bad word” after it was used during the First World War. He also coined an equally ubiquitous phrase to describe what P.R. does: the “engineering of consent.”

Mike Mercer writes that a partnership was formed “between Hollywood and the government” with the creation of  the Committee of Public Information in 1916, for then it was recognized that “an entertainment product became a valuable tool of influence.” Mercer considers this the “critical point between the creation of culture as a sort of unconscious byproduct in the quest for profits and the deliberate product of ideas aimed at shaping the public’s mind.”

The problem with woke P.R., though, is not so much its being a product of deliberation, but its reaching a level of ubiquity whereby it is rarely questioned. It has become the unconscious byproduct itself. The range of things for which consent is engineered has markedly narrowed around identity politics. 

David Miller and William Dinan note that Bernays’s work for Big Tobacco in the late 1920s led to a campaign to break the taboo against women smoking in public. What is salient here is how he did it: using political narratives of freedom and oppression. Hot on the heels of the suffragette movement earlier that decade, it was presented as a matter of sexual equality for women to smoke without shame, and he organized a parade down Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday, 1929, of ten debutantes (provided by a contact at Vogue), with their lit cigarettes renamed “Torches of Freedom.”

Those claiming “neutrality of form” for communications techniques will say this was just dubious ethical decision making on Bernays’s part. Yet there are numerous times when early P.R. moguls presented their trade as something that could re-form society itself, something with substantial content of its own. Bernays’s mentor, Walter Lippmann, wrote in The Phantom Public that P.R. could neutralize situations that threaten to turn into social unrest. The industry could manipulate opinion to protect the elite from the demands of the people. This approach was developed following the sociologist Gabriel Tarde, who had distinguished between the “crowd” and the “public.” Crowds insistently and threateningly make demands, he wrote, but unruly crowds would be replaced by what he called “the public.” Technology enabled interaction between people who are not physically present at the same space and time. Tarde thus spoke of modern society as promising a public—meaning “a dispersion of individuals who are physically separated and whose cohesion is entirely mental” and which could be “extended indefinitely.”

Seeking a cohesion that is “entirely mental” means there is also a close proximity between P.R. and techniques of psychological manipulation. Another early innovator, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, said “publicity is a matter of mass psychology.” Psychology itself was a burgeoning science in the early 20th century, along with the technology of mass communications, both of which joined with P.R. to create a three-headed hydra. Bernays himself was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and the great-uncle of the founder of Netflix. 

In the U.K., this threefold alliance has reached the point where the government response to the Covid-19 pandemic was to have nudge theorists from the government’s behavioral psychology unit orchestrating not just the publicity about lockdowns, but also the “test and trace” apps that came with it. The gravitational pull toward physical separation and a new cohesion which is “entirely mental” has intensified in ways even Lippman, Lee, and Bernays dared not to dream.   

The cult of celebrity can be situated right in the center of PR’s genesis. Theorists mostly agree with Chris Rojek, who wrote in Fame Attack that “the development of public relations” and the “underpinning philosophy” of Bernays “lies at the centre of the celebrity industry.” The role of technology in this, however, gets less attention.

Daniel Boorstin’s The Image focused on the quantity of visual reproduction technology brought to someone like, say, Marilyn Monroe, so that encounters with images become “human pseudo-events” in peoples’ lives. This idea was developed later by Richard Schickel, who understands celebrities as creating an “illusion of intimacy” with their consumers.  The drive toward physical separation thus intensifies in celebrity adulation. Now the public could include a pseudo-family, also entirely mental. The way this leads into pornography is self-evident. Vast numbers of Lippman’s phantom public now have sexual encounters with phantoms on a daily basis.

Perhaps the most influential consideration of the celebrity phenomenon is Richard Dyer’s Stars from 1979. This is considered groundbreaking in its interpretation of celebrities as “signs”: nodes of competing social influences, showing people how the various pushes and pulls of social life can be integrated in a particular personality. Those who idolize a celebrity thus identify with how that individual’s image promises to blend different influences in a meaningful whole. P. David Marshall built on Dyer’s work to argue that “celebrities represent subject positions that the audience adopt or adapt in their formation of social identities,” for the celebrity is “an embodiment of a discursive battleground on the norms of individuality and personality within a culture.”

Here we come to the decisive development. There is no real “discursive battleground” anymore, for the range of social identities on offer has so greatly reduced. In the 1980s, a young man could identify with Bruce Springsteen, or Michael Jackson, or Hulk Hogan, or Chuck D. In the 2020s celebrity identities don’t have differing ideological underpinnings (Springsteen, working-class patriotism; Michael Jackson, eccentric humanitarianism; Hulk Hogan, nationalism; Chuck D, black power). There is one ideological underpinning. Celebrities have gone from being the site of a discursive battleground to being the victor’s spoils. 

Why would P.R. be complicit in this ideological narrowing? Because one particular identity offers a never-ending cascade of sub-identities, forever splintering and fracturing into different permutations of the oppressed categories of identity politics. Lippman wanted a public realm that could be “extended indefinitely,” and identity politics provides it. 

Moreover, technology is entirely complicit in this because internet data work in such a way as to inhibit scrutiny of ideological priors. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger observes that a Big Data society is one where people don’t “know why but what.” Data can only tell agencies what people are doing, and nothing about motivation or cause—about intention. But questions about how people should actually live are about intention, requiring a range of options pushed out of sight by aggregated statistics. As Christopher Caldwell notes, “the internet approach to data, and to reality, undermined all types of thinking aimed at understanding systems from the outside.” The outside is harder than ever to glimpse. We are all in the Matrix now.

TAC’s Helen Andrews rightly observes that “the boomer’s embrace of mass culture has been the death of both folk culture and high culture.” Much critique of the celebrity world tends to critique popular culture as folk culture, not realizing that celebrity itself is a targeted attack on the common life of people. This assault on common life takes two steps. Firstly, genuine physical presence and interaction must be minimized or at least made secondary, so there are fewer common spaces. Secondly, the phantoms presented to the public must no longer be genuinely and substantially connected with differing orientations for ordering life itself. The result is a commons not held in common by persons as ends-in-themselves, but a phantasmagoria of illusory meaning—an infinite regress of eternal advocacy within the same narrow set of priors. 

In 2006, Kay S. Hymowitz described Americans as having “less of a common culture, but we all still share Paris Hilton.” This sharing is the pseudo-sharing by a phantom public of one who gained notoriety precisely because a sex tape found its way onto the internet at exactly the moment in 2003 when broadbrand enabled the viewing of such video footage to spread like never before. “It-girl” is an instructive term, for persons as micro-components aggregated in the digital swarm are indeed each made a mere “it,” a mere object. 

Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. His forthcoming book Obedience is Freedom will be published by Polity Press in 2022.

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