Working in the World of Propaganda: Creel, Lippmann & Bernays

[ Below, I’ve excerpted a section from my recent paper on early trailers and discourses of social control. This section considers the theoretical and practical writings about a/v entertainments (film) and their marketing (trailers, etc.) by three of the most important figures of the period. Unlike most posts, I’ve included footnotes at the end. The full article may be found at Frames Cinema Journal, under my name and entitled: “Working in the World of Propaganda: Early Trailers & Modern Discourses of Social Control.” ]

Freud’s Notorious Nephew: Founder of Public Relations

Arguably the most important Public Intellectual of the 20th Century

The Man who Advertised America!

Propaganda used to name a respectable activity. When Pope Gregory XV established the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, it wasn’t deception he desired but dissemination of doctrine. To modern ears, however, propaganda is pejorative, a synonym for lies rather than the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of information” in order to capture the public mind “in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea,” as Edward Bernays phrased it in his 1928 classic, Propaganda. 1

By any objective measure, contemporary life is saturated with persuasive speech that relies on a self-interested presentation of information or “opinion expressed for the purpose of influencing actions of individuals or groups,” as defined by mid-century social scientists Alfred and Elizabeth Lee. 2 Whether categorized as advertising, marketing, advocacy, news or entertainment, messages propagated by modern mass-communication technologies that “shape the attitude of many individuals simultaneously” using “calculated emotional appeals and indirect messages” instead of “overt, logical arguments” are ubiquitous. 3 Yet insofar as propaganda attempts to “put something across,” to “do the other fellow’s thinking for him” and to bring about a certain action, while encouraging belief in the recipient that ideas grasped and emotions felt are sui generis and that consequent decisions are freely taken, it poses significant challenges to cherished ideals of choice, agency and self-governance. 4

Of course, movie trailers are propaganda, as are commercials for soap powder and deodorant, political candidates and military recruitment and just about any persuasive argument or proposition you can think of that doesn’t rely on mathematical proof or lab reports to compel belief. But so what? Or, better yet, how so or in what manner? Lest a technique of communication be confused with its content, it’s essential to distinguish the formal strategy of motion-picture marketing – of telling, selling and describing – from the substance of its message.

As an historian of movie trailers, I’m interested in their emergence and early development. At roughly the same time in which modern discourses of social control and suasion (crowd psychology, public opinion, human relations, public relations, market research, scientific polling and modern advertising) are promulgated, codified and applied – discourses in which the potential of the moving image is expressly marked -moving image advertising enters the American zeitgeist as an integral part of the movie-going experience. In the pages to follow, I look at early trailers in light of their persuasive, non-rational mode of communication and their potential to perform the work of propaganda as described by its foremost American theorists, proponents and practitioners….

In 1917, having obtained congressional approval to involve the US in the European conflict, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee On Public Information (CPI) and appointed journalist George Creel to head it. Under the able, energetic leadership of Creel, the CPI produced feature-length propaganda films, shorts, slides, posters and cards, and published thousands of articles, op-eds, bulletins, essays and reports in fulfillment of its mandate to support the war effort using every medium at its disposal.

Both Walter Lippmann, a young advisor to Wilson, and Edward Bernays, who worked for the CPI in Latin America, were profoundly influenced by the CPI’s systematic, media-wide campaigns of information, persuasion and perceptual management. Identified by historians and communications scholars as “the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda,” the CPI produced content informed by recent research in individual and crowd-psychology, disseminated through every conceivable media channel (print, radio, film, in-person, graphics, etc.) and methodically distributed in every market, from local to international. 6

Significantly, if baldly, Creel entitled his 1921 memoir of his CPI tenure, How We Advertised America. Lippmann, already on his way to becoming one of the most influential journalists and public intellectuals of the century, drew on his observation and analysis of the CPI’s work for his learned 1922 monograph, Public Opinion. 7 A few years later, Bernay’s, Propaganda (1928) distilled his war-time CPI experience into an instantly definitive account of the topic.

What George Creel judged “a plain publicity proposition” and “the world’s greatest adventure in advertising,” Lippmann analyzed as the “manufacture of consent” and Bernays heralded as propaganda or “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” 8 But in describing opportunities for creating and managing public opinion(s), each writes insistently and enthusiastically about the medium of film and the deployment of advertising as the apotheosis of interested messaging within a democratic system of government. Without recapitulating their well-known analyses and conclusions, I want to highlight each man’s obsession with moving pictures and their promotion, publicity and marketing as preview and exemplum of this epochal change in mass communications.

“[A]s a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner…persuasion has become a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government,” frets Lippmann. 9 Bernays, by comparison, is sanguine: he reckons society consents to this “vast and continuous effort …to capture our minds in the interest of some policy or commodity or idea.” The selling of political notions he considers a market approach to governance and a clear improvement on dictatorship, its alternative. 10 Both were reacting to Creel’s work at the CPI, discussed below.

Intended to “mobiliz[e] the mind of the world so far as American participation in the war was concerned,” the CPI began a worldwide campaign in 1917. 11 Rather than traditional censorship, the CPI flooded the channels of distribution with information selected to advance pre-determined objectives. Since the US was “fighting for ideas and ideals,” Creel urged the use of ideas as weapons. 12 But, he insists “we did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption.” 13

Confident that a straightforward presentation of facts was all that was required, Creel commissioned pamphlets to “bl[o]w as a great wind against the clouds of confusion and misrepresentation.” 14 Supplementing print, the CPI recruited artists to produce “posters, window-cards, and similar material of pictorial publicity for the use of various government departments and patriotic societies.” 15 More to the point: “America’s war progress, as well as the meanings and purposes of democracy, were carried to every community in the United States and to every corner of the world,” by the medium of film. “Pershing’s Crusaders, America’s Answer and Under Four Flags were …feature films by which we drove home America’s resources and determinations.” 16 Accordingly, “wide and intensive publicity and advertising campaigns were conducted.” 17

Because the motion picture “had to be placed on the same plane of importance as the written and spoken word,” 18 Creel arranged for the CPI to become the distributor of Department of War images and battleground footage. 19 Additionally, materials with “as high publicity value” as footage for feature films and the Official War Review were provided to news weeklies at bargain rates. 20

As is well documented elsewhere, CPI propaganda was supplemented by the entertainment industry. Wielding Trade Board authority and sanction power, Creel mobilized the talents of producers, directors and tradesman and leveraged the celebrity of actors. “What we wanted to get into foreign countries,” he explains, “were pictures that presented the wholesome life of America.” 21

Creel didn’t have to twist arms. Studios, the industry lobby and individuals recognized a patriotic duty and an economic opportunity in supporting the effort. 22

Studio executives promised “support for the defense of our country and its interests” offering to “to place the motion picture at your [Wilson’s] service in the most intelligent and useful manner.” The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry pledged “the undivided conscientious and patriotic support of the entire [film] industry in America.” Louis B. Mayer called motion pictures “a powerful tool of “the government and its various propagandas.” Cecil B. DeMille told the Motion Picture War Relief Association that, “[t]he motion picture is the most powerful propaganda…a message …which can’t be changed by any crafty diplomat.”[/ref] A Motion Picture News editorial from 1917 describes establishment sentiment and resolve: “… every individual at work in this industry wants to do his share,” it opined, pledging that “through slides, film leaders and trailers, posters and newspaper publicity they [would] spread that propaganda so necessary to the immediate mobilization of the country’s great resources.” 23 (Emphasis mine)

Analyzing political history and reviewing the CPI’s application of theoretical insights to a practical circumstance, Lippmann, in Public Opinion, sought to understand “why the picture inside [their heads] so often misleads men in their dealings with the world outside,” what this says about the “traditional democratic theory of public opinion” and how it might be possible to make “unseen facts intelligible to those who make decisions.” 24

From a study of the actions of the French General Staff during WWI, Lippmann concluded that control of information – and visual information especially – was fundamental: “a group of men, who can prevent independent access to the event, arrange the news of it to suit their purpose.” 25 (As with Bernays and Creel, Lippmann uses figures of visual perception to express understanding, such that to “see” is always, already, a dead metaphor.)

Though critical of CPI suppression of information, Lippmann acknowledged its achievement: “while the war continued it very largely succeeded…in creating … one public opinion all over America.” 26 Typically, however, for most of the population, there are no “channels” connecting the various circles they inhabit that would allow an enlargement of perspective. “For them,” he laments, “the patented accounts of society and the moving pictures of high life have to serve.” 27 While he initially begrudges such a role to film, he soon extols it: “[i]n the whole experience of the race there has been no aid to visualization comparable to the cinema,” for “on the screen the whole process of observing, describing, reporting, and then imagining, has been accomplished for you.” 28

Moreover, since “[w]e cannot be much interested in, or much moved by, the things we do not see,” public affairs are “dull and unappetizing” for most people, poorly perceived and understood “until somebody, with the makings of an artist, has translated them into a moving picture.” 29 It’s only then, Lippmann concludes, that fact and experience can be transformed by individuals into public opinions or “the pictures of themselves, of others, of their needs, purposes, and relationship.” 30 But such pictures must be imbued with our personality. “Until it releases or resists, depresses or enhances, some craving of our own, it remains one of the objects which do not matter.” 31 Logical argument or reasoned analysis will not suffice. The agglomeration of individual belief into a public opinion requires emotional investment (empathy) and personal involvement (identification). Movies, more than any other medium, possess this power to move us.

With respect to the formation of Public Opinion, Lippmann describes the processes of association and analogy, symbol and substitution, in evocative terms:

The stimulus… may have been a series of pictures in the mind aroused by printed or spoken words. These pictures fade and are hard to keep steady; their contours and their pulse fluctuate. Gradually the process sets in of knowing what you feel without being entirely certain why you feel it. The fading pictures are displaced by other pictures, and then by names or symbols. But the emotion goes on, capable now of being aroused by the substituted images and names…. 32 (Emphases, mine)

Notably, it’s the press agent, that professional advocate of private interest, who is the master of these processes: “the picture which the publicity man makes… is the one he wishes the public to see. He is censor and propagandist, responsible only to his employers, and to the whole truth responsible only as it accords with the employers’ conception of his own interests.” 33

But whereas Lippmann is apprehensive about the consequences of propaganda for democratic theory and practice, Edward Bernays is blithe. 34 He approves the fact that “we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.” 35 It is these invisible rulers who “sift and high-spot” fact and information and narrow our choices to “practical proportions.” 36

Like Lippmann, Bernays finds inexhaustible reference and example in motion picture entertainment and advertising of the application of and capacity for propaganda. Indeed, “[v]irtually no important undertaking is now carried on without it, whether that enterprise be building a cathedral, endowing a university, marketing a moving picture, floating a large bond issue, or electing a president.” 37 For Bernays, Creel’s work “opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind.” 38 In this group Bernays places “the fifty most popular authors, the presidents of the fifty leading charitable organizations, the twenty leading theatrical or cinema producers, the hundred recognized leaders of fashion, the most popular and influential clergymen in the hundred leading cities.” 39 (Emphases, mine.)

As with Lippmann, the public relations counsel, a special pleader and professional propagandist, represents to Bernays the avatar of this socio-political revolution: “[h]e examines the product, the markets, the way in which the public reacts to the product, the attitude of the employees to the public and towards the product, and the cooperation of the distribution agencies.” 40 If the job resembles that of a marketing executive, it’s not by coincidence. It was the “amusement business,” he notes, that taught industry and commerce how to advertise. Commerce then “adapted and refined these crude advertising methods to the precise ends it sought to obtain.” 41

Inexplicably, politics – or the marketing of ideas and beliefs – has lagged behind its peers in amusement and commerce. While politics was the first important department of American life to use propaganda on a large scale, Bernays critiques its delay in retooling to meet the changed conditions of the public mind. 42 Since “Every object which presents pictures or words…can be utilized in one way or another,” political campaigns must be organized and executed with particular attention to media, content and distribution. 43

In a telling anecdote, Bernays affirms the reciprocity I’ve hypothesized between discourses of social control and the marketing of visual entertainment:

I often wonder whether the politicians of the future… will not endeavor to train politicians who are at the same time propagandists. I talked recently with George Olvany. He said that a certain number of Princeton men were joining Tammany Hall. If I were in his place I should have taken some of my brightest young men and set them to work for Broadway theatrical productions or apprenticed them as assistants to professional propagandists before recruiting them to the service of the party. 44

As Bernays knows, argument is hard; appeal is easier. Better to dramatize the issue to attract attention, answer the “spontaneous questions” and address “the emotional demands of a public already keyed to a certain pitch of interest in the subject.” 45 “As the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world,” the American motion picture should be utilized to “standardize the ideas and habits of a nation.” 46

While it is indisputable that Creel, Lippmann and Bernays understood the propaganda potential of motion-pictures and their marketing from positions of familiarity, apprehension or avidity, is it also the case that trailers of the 1910’s and 20’s (apart from their features) were aware of or attempting to realize that potential? To see whether and in what ways the era’s preference for entertaining persuasion over physical coercion is discernible in early previews of coming attractions, a closer look is warranted.



    1. Edward Bernays, Propaganda, (New York: Liveright, 1928), 8-9. ?
    2. Alfred McLung Lee, and Elizabeth Bryant Lee, The Fine Art of Propaganda, (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1939), 126. ?
    3. Aaron Delwiche, “Of Fraud and Force Fast Woven: Domestic Propaganda During The First World War,” First World, last modified August 22, 2009, accessed November 10, 2012, ?
    4. Ibid. ?
    5. [omitted]
    6. Delwiche, “Of Fraud and Force,” 2009. ?
    7. Harry C. McPherson, Jr. Review of Walter Lippmann and the American Century, by Ronald Steel, Foreign Affairs, Fall, 1980. ?
    8. Creel, How We Advertised America, by George Creel, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920), 3; Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, (New York: Macmillan, 1922), ch. xv; Bernays, “Propaganda,” 8-9. ?
    9. Lippmann, “Public Opinion,” ch. xv. ?
    10. Bernays, “Propaganda,” 36. ?
    11. Newton Baker, “Foreward,” How We Advertised America, by George Creel, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1920), xiii. ?
    12. Baker, “Foreword,” xv. ?
    13. Creel, “America,” 3-4. ?
    14. Ibid., 5. ?
    15. Ibid., 6. ?
    16. Ibid., 8. ?
    17. Ibid., 121. ?
    18. Ibid., 116. ?
    19. Ibid., 118. ?
    20. Ibid., 123. ?
    21 Ibid., 280. ?
    22 Max Alvarez, “Cinema as an imperialist weapon: Hollywood and World War I,” World Socialist Web, modified 5 August 2010, accessed 5 November 2012, ?
    23. Delwiche, “Of Fraud & Force,” 2009. ?
    24. Lippmann, “Public Opinion,” ch. i. ?
    25. “Without some form of censorship, propaganda in the strict sense of the word is impossible… For while people who have direct access can misconceive what they see, no one else can decide how they shall misconceive it, unless he can decide where they shall look, and at what. Ibid., ch. ii. (Emphasis, mine.) ?
    26. Ibid., ch. iii. ?
    27. Ibid. ?
    28. Ibid., ch. vi. ?
    29. Ibid., ch. xi. ?
    30. Ibid., ch. i. ?
    31. Ibid., ch. xi. ?
    32. Ibid., ch. xiii. ?
    33. Ibid., ch. xxiii. ?
    34. Bernays renamed his pseudo-science Public Relations. “New activities call for new nomenclature. The propagandist who specializes in interpreting enterprises and ideas to the public, and in interpreting the public to promulgators of new enterprises and ideas, has come to be known by the name of ‘public relations counsel.’” Bernays, “Propaganda,” 36. ?
    35. Ibid., 8-9. ?
    36. Ibid., 10. ?
    37. Ibid., 24. ?
    38. Ibid., 26. ?
    39. Ibid., 32. ?
    40. Ibid., 38. ?
    41. Bernays, “Propaganda, 89. “The business man and advertising man must not discard entirely the methods of Barnum.” (ibid., 83). ?
    42. Ibid., 92. ?
    43. Ibid., 102. ?
    44. Ibid., 104. ?
    45. Ibid., 106. ?
    46. Ibid., 155-7. ?

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About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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