Popular articles about generations often deal with proving and disproving stereotypes about tens of millions of people living in the U.S.
For example, writers routinely use selective data from the financial and political sectors to proclaim the millennial generation is “killing” an industry or is responsible for a specific process — essentially blaming nearly 75 million people for the destruction of marriage, napkins, restaurants, establishment politics, and so on.
Journalists and media creators who dare to question the homogenization and white washing of the millennial generation face a considerable challenge . Disproving propaganda with facts, in a news cycle that is driven by ad revenue and emotional manipulation, is a tall order.
Even if the point gets across that public speculation about millions of people is rather dangerous in a society ravaged by white supremacy, class warfare, environmental nihilism, and military aggression — there’s always the next clickbait article, the next Simon Sinek video, the next provocation and distraction about our collective identity.
One could argue that the wave of biased and selective data, “alternative” facts, and corporate-sponsored surveys about millennials was modern society’s first taste of post-truth culture. By all accounts, the same routine will follow the recently branded Generation Z, as its members begin the arduous process of navigating through misinformation about their generation in the media and beyond.
While we should expose the byproducts of propaganda about our lives, that doesn’t get at the heart of the issue — the process which allows a small number of people to tinker with public perception of generations in the first place. To deconstruct this process to its essential elements, we have to begin with the ideology, practice, and proliferation of propaganda in the U.S.
In his seminal book on the subject published in 1928, Edward Bernays, known as the “father of public relations,” defined Propaganda as the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” According to Bernays, “those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” Throughout his life, he worked with Procter & Gamble, General Electric, and the American Tobacco Company.
Bernays’s theories on propaganda were heavily influenced by his time at the Committee on Public Information (CPI), an independent U.S. agency created by Woodrow Wilson to influence public opinion in support of US participation in World War I.
In a 1994 interview with Stephen Cutlip, Bernays stated that there was one basic lesson he learned from his time in the CPI — ”what could be done for a nation at war could be done for organizations and people in a nation at peace.” This observation defined the role of Bernays in modern history, as his services frequently involved using “psychological warfare” to change and manipulate public opinion and behavior.
When Bernays was made aware that Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda for the Third Reich, was an admirer of his writings, he admitted that he was “shocked,” but also acknowledged that “any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.”
As made evident in his writings, Bernays clearly understood the ramifications of propaganda. However, that didn’t stop him from creating what essentially became a detailed road map for anyone interested in engaging in mass mind control — a process that can be traced to platforms like Facebook and Google, and the use of “microtargeting” to influence the public down to an individual level.
In order to have the most impact, Bernays advised propagandists to highlight changing external conditions (such as technology), universal instincts, and instinct-emotion pairs, such as “flight-fear, revulsion-disgust, pugnacity-anger, and so on.” In his books, Bernays proposed that people should be targeted as members of “interlapping groups” which involve different aspects of their identity.
To quote from Crystallizing Public Opinion, published in 1923, “the skilled public relations man provides a valuable service in overcoming heterogeneity to influence millions of people. This is done by using established communication media to communicate the right facts at the right time.”
This rings especially true for mainstream articles about millennials, which often sensationalize and reduce the millennial collective experience to a narrow framework, i.e. millennials as workers, partners, consumers, parents, etc.
Crystallizing Public Opinion was to a large extent influenced by Public Opinion, the seminal work of one of the most influential U.S. journalists, Walter Lippmann. Lippmann described how people use stereotypes to interpret information through partial truths. He defined a stereotype as a “distorted picture or image in a person’s mind, not based on personal experience, but derived culturally.”
“The systems of stereotypes may be the core of our personal tradition, the defenses of our position in society,” Lippmann wrote. “No wonder, then, that any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe.” Lippmann described the perfect stereotype as one that “precedes the use of reason” and “imposes a certain character on the data of our senses before the data reach the intelligence.”
In his writings on the subject, Bernays wrote that “the public relations counsel sometimes uses the current stereotypes, sometimes combats them, and sometimes creates new ones.” Thus, he ambitiously expanded Lippmann’s concept of stereotypes to include ways in which our “unconscious desires” can be manipulated for private gain.
It is this realm of unconscious desires and hidden motives that inspired Bernays to think of himself as a “psychoanalyst for troubled corporations,” according to Irwin Ross who interviewed him in the 1960’s.
Bernays focused on appealing to consumers’ wants and desires instead of their rational thoughts, arguing in Propaganda that “man’s thoughts and actions are compensatory substitutes for desires which he has been obliged to suppress.”
If this sounds Freudian to you, you might like to know that Bernays was a “double nephew” to the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud — his mother was Freud’s sister and his father was the brother of Freud’s wife, Martha Bernays.
The story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Edward Bernays is the subject of part one of the popular documentary “Century of the Self;” the part is entitled “Happiness Machines.”
Bernays was instrumental in promoting Freud’s ideas in the U.S. and had attempted to lure his uncle into various arrangements to collaborate which the famous psychoanalyst dodged, at least until Sigmund found himself in financial trouble and agreed to have his nephew publish his works in the U.S.
Bernays’s own practice of propaganda exposes why his contemporaries were so critical of his theories — and why we should be as well. A prime example of Bernays’s legacy and how it affects us today is his famous “Torches of Freedom” campaign.
In 1928, the head of the American Tobacco Company hired Bernays to help expand the market for cigarettes. To accomplish this goal, Bernays decided to eliminate the social taboo against women who smoked in public. The campaign culminated in 1929 when Barneys paid women to walk through the Easter Sunday Parade in New York while smoking their “freedom torches.” He hired photographers to shoot the event and tipped off the press, which immediately sparked a nationwide discussion on the subject.
By representing smoking as a rite of passage for women, and evoking emotions that are in themselves valid, but have nothing to do with smoking cigarettes, Bernays portrayed the unpleasant process of starting to smoke as a rebellious act that can make women feel free.
In the end, the campaign wasn’t at all about women’s rights, or modernity and freedom — it was about using those sentiments to make the tobacco industry more profitable. In 1923, when lung cancer was extremely rare, women only purchased 5% of cigarettes sold in the U.S. In 1929, that percentage increased to 12%, peaking in 1965 at 33.3%. Unsurprisingly, tobacco industry documents reveal that executives used similar marketing tactics to appeal to teenage smokers.
“Tobacco advertising works for the same reasons that other product advertising works,” write Ann Marie O’Keefe and Richard Polley, co-authors of the paper “Deadly Targeting of Women in Promoting Cigarettes.” “Once a particular market niche has been defined, marketing researches explore the weaknesses or needs of those targeted individuals and the stimuli to which they respond in seeking to fill those needs.”
Freud’s influence on Barneys, especially the notion of how irrational forces might drive human behavior, is self evident. The ultimate goal of corporate propaganda is just as obvious — to make money, to convince people to buy stuff they don’t need, and to shape public opinion for any purpose, regardless of whether it is beneficial to human beings or not.
Bernays was aware of how mediated experiences can be used as a backdoor to our minds, claiming in Propaganda that “men do not need to be actually gathered together in a public meeting or in a street riot, to be subject to the influences of mass psychology.” He stated that people feel as “members of a herd,” even when they are “alone with the curtains drawn,” and suggested that one’s mind would retain “the patterns which have been stamped on it by the group influences.”
Given this context, one may conclude that propaganda about millennials is not so much about generations as a collection of people, but about different aspects of those people’s identities that can be molded through stereotypes in the ecosystem of the public relations industry.
Propagandists use the millennial and other labels as hooks to reach those who identify with them, as well as those who reject them, and attempt to influence just about any aspect of our lives.
A cursory analysis of content written about millennials today, roughly a century after the publication of Propaganda, reveals the label is used in service to different industries — ”Millennials aren’t opening credit cards. That’s a mistake.” reads a CNN headline, “How do you motivate your millennial hires?,” asks a video segment on MSNBC, “Millennials pay $1000 for Gucci fanny pack,” muses Fox News.
Such statements frame millennial issues not in terms of what millennials themselves deem as important, but in terms of what they can do for employers, financial institutions, and producers of luxury goods in the confines of the current economic system.
Propagandists who use extreme sentiments when writing and talking about millennials evoke universal instincts to influence our thoughts and emotions. Take for example the popular framing of millennial issues in which millennials are portrayed as industry killers — what is more universal than death? In a time when a majority of Americans only read headlines, clickbait titles become powerful mass influencers.
The framing of millennials as mere consumers with different tastes than previous generations, rather than educated citizens who are well into their 30’s, exposes why the use of the millennial label is a no brainer for propagandists — it is a sure way for anyone to implicate tens of millions of humans living in the U.S. without ever engaging them in a real way.
This logic works both ways. If mainstream articles painted millennials as saviors and revolutionaries, they would sound just as reductive. As Shaun Scott points out in his article, “Millennials Are Not Here To Save Us,” “as with any identity, the social framing of generations changes according to the material structures that underpin society.”
In other words, what we see and hear about millennials is often an expression of our economic system’s framing of what we should think about millennials. To borrow a phrase from the influential Marxist philosopher Guy Debord, content about millennials in the mainstream media is often “the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself.”
Tracing propaganda about millennials to its roots — that is, to the origin of propaganda itself — reveals that the art and science of manipulating public opinion have been around for a long time. Thus, the millennial label can be viewed as one of many vehicles propagandists use to sensationalize or obfuscate the issues of tens of millions of people.
Deconstructing the system which allows a small group of people to spread falsehoods about tens of millions reveals ways in which we can deepen our perception of generations — and devise new ways to share generational knowledge outside of for-profit motives.