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Century of the Self (2002)
Part I: “Happiness Machines”
Part II: “The Engineering of Consent”
Overview: Century of the Self (2002) is a four-part documentary by British documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis. Part I: “Happiness Machines” describes how Edward Bernays (1891-1995), the “father of public relations,” played a significant role in making his uncle Sigmund Freud’s ideas public and relevant. Freud’s ideas about the unconscious mind and the human being’s hidden, primitive drives became widespread in the United States because of Bernays. Not only did Bernays make Freud a household name and establish Freud as an authority on human nature, Bernays used Freud’s ideas to change U.S. public perception about a range of subjects from U.S. involvement in World War I to women’s smoking in public. Recognizing the negative connotations of the words “propaganda” and “propagandist,” Bernays invented the name “public relations” to give his profession credibility and a better image. Part II: “The Engineering of Consent,” details how Bernays became one of the 20th century’s most important figures in “social engineering,” the psychological manipulation of people living in a particular culture. Social engineering manipulates and exploits group and individual psychology for the purpose of changing and regulating the future development of a particular society by systematically changing the thinking, behavior, and attitudes of the majority of people (masses) living in the society. Bernays believed that people were irrational and could not be trusted to make their own decisions in democratic republics such as the United States and writes in his book Propaganda (1928),
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is the logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. (“Organizing Chaos,” p. 37)
Some of Bernays’ clients, over his long, successful career, included former United States presidents Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), and Herbert Hoover (1929-1933); the inventor Thomas Edison; and a number of corporations, many foreign governments, and various non-profit groups and organizations.
1) Provide two examples discussed in Century of the Self of how Bernays helped make Freud and his ideas popular.
2) Describe and explain how businesses and companies in the United States began to advertise in ways that associated the individual’s personal sense of self with the products business owners wanted them to buy. Use concrete examples from Century of the Self. Be detailed and specific.
3) According to Bernays’ “Organizing Chaos,” who are cited as “invisible governors” deeply invested in controlling the masses? Be detailed and specific.
4) How and why did the political establishment in the United States come to depend on public relations? Describe and explain the process as it was described in Century of the Self.
5) Why did Bernays believe that controlling “the unconscious feelings of the masses” was necessary in a country like the United States? What historical events compelled him to believe that the masses of people are/were dangerous if they could not be controlled and manipulated? Be detailed and specific.
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