The four-part documentary series The Century of the Self captures the rise of one of the definitive industries of the 20th century, namely, Public Relations (PR). The term Public Relations is somewhat of a euphemism, for far from maintaining healthy relations with consumers the industry actually acts against their interests. It is true that the role of PR is to keep the public contended, but the problem lies in the means it adopts to achieve this end. Instead of addressing genuine public grievances through transparent sharing of information, PR firms specialize in manufacturing misinformation and spinning dubious facts.
The Century of the Self exposes how thorough and scientific the PR industry has become. In its early days the industry concerned itself with selling products by highlighting its features. However, quite soon, as the Unique Selling Propositions (USPs) of competing products decreased, the only way of distinguishing products was through their perceptions. This led to a pervasive trend of promoting products for their qualities and attributes. This is where Sigmund Freud’s theories on psychoanalysis were employed. The advertising industry, from being endorsers of products had now turned into manipulators of individual psychology.
If the choice of psychological manipulation was bad enough for consumers, it was even more portentous when it comes to democracy. The successful party propaganda efforts of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s had set a notorious benchmark. Ever since, political campaigns have come exclusively to depend on marketing success and not on the merits of election manifestos. These days the same PR firms that sell us toothpaste and detergent also sell us our next President. Hence, as The Century of the Self indicated in grave tone, politics today has become an exercise in tapping our primordial fears and instincts. Politics is no more a reasoned discourse on the merits and demerits of policies.
The documentary Toxic Sludge is Good For You is again another indictment of the PR industry. It talks of the unholy alliance between big corporations, political parties and the PR industry. As a result most programs in mainstream media are no more than exercises in creating illusions. As the title ironically suggests, advertisements have become synonymous with spreading falsities. To a large extent even the general public knows it. The documentary alludes to how PR industry had copied some of the strategies used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for international espionage and sabotage. In a strong critique of the state of PR industry, the filmmakers liken it to being part of the corporate-state machinery. Hence, more than being a commercial enterprise, the PR industry is deeply politicized as well. This has implications for democracy, as this politicization invariably interferes with fair democratic processes.
The nexus between the state, business and PR industry tends to narrow down the agenda for political discourse. Usually, since the business elites and the political establishment espouse a conservative ideology the consumer marketing campaigns also reflect this. Apart from explaining the corrupt structures and interrelations upon which the PR industry is based, Toxic Sludge is Good For You gives several shocking illustrations of the industry’s power to manipulate. The comic case of the fake housemaid to George Washington is just one example. The danger to democracy comes from the fact that the PR industry is adopting the same tactics and strategies as high-level espionage. As a result, democracy is gradually getting reduced to a battle of strategies between political parties rather a reasoned evaluation on the basis of policy positions.
PBS Frontline’s documentary The Persuaders is an eye opening account of democracy in our time. The film shows how the marketing and advertising industries are increasingly being deployed for political propaganda. Drawing on interviews from industry leaders and media critics, the film explains the new meaning of ‘brand’. Unfortunately, even political leaders are being promoted as brands. In our culture of consuming commodities, creators of brand value strive to promote politicians after certain ideas and images. But their actual accomplishments diverge from this idealized image.
During election campaigns the role of these persuaders assumes a new avatar. They attempt to enforce an emotional connect between the leader (the product) and the public (consumers). Emotions are appealed to because they short-circuit logic and rational analysis. It is a sad fact that today we no longer have any serious political debates in mainstream media. The persuaders make sure that real issues that affect people are set aside. In its stead much media space is devoted to discussing trivialities of image or brand perception.
In conclusion, the three documentaries chosen for analysis converge on certain basic points. They all point out that media is increasingly being used for political propaganda. Democratic processes suffer as a consequence. This is a deviation from media’s idealized view of serving as the fourth pillar of democracy.
Century of the Self, retrieved from
The Persuaders, retrieved from
Toxic Sludge is Good for You, retrieved from