Bernays, Horkheimer, and Adorno: Theory in the Age of Social Media

Bernays, Horkheimer, and Adorno: Theory in the Age of Social Media

William Sipling
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1734-5.ch005
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Social media and 21st century mass communication have changed the technological landscape of marketing and advertising, enabling instant content creation, content curation, and audience feedback. The thought of Edward Bernays can be useful in examining and interrogating today's media, especially through the lens of Frankfurt School social theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Further, the works Crystalizing Public Opinion and Propaganda are critiqued through ideas found in Dialectic of Enlightenment to give business and PR professionals ethical concepts that may be applied to modern trends in communications.
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In the age of social media, propaganda techniques are ubiquitous—whether they appear as user-generated content displayed as the results of invisible (yet personally tailored) algorithms or by means of dialogue and discourse which actively demean out-groups or deify in-groups.

The results of propaganda are often observed post-hoc, that is, after website traffic data is collected or after violent protests take place. Naturally, qualitative data only functions to observe after-the-fact documentation. Other tools may be needed to attempt to understand the effects of propaganda before damage is done. Social theory—seen as distinct from fields such as “community management” or “data science,” which may be “trendy” within the digital age—is a useful interrogative lens which provides an explanatory framework through which the results, justifications, and developments of modern propaganda may be explored. Such exploration clarifies the “why” of certain results of propaganda but may also outline the particular styles of communication and group behaviors which may predict—philosophically, rather than empirically—future actions as a result of propaganda.

Such discussions may initially seem too erudite, or perhaps too tangential to the field work of copywriting, statistical analysis of social media engagement, or expertise in landing page design. However, as in any field, communications and media is bolstered by external information (which may not be in the form of applied domain-specific knowledge). For example, a psychotherapist’s work may be bolstered by an understanding of the classics, as it relates to the narrative arc of human and cultural development. A historian may be aided by a familiarity with chemistry, as the archeological work they may do may be affected by various interactions of ancient materials with their analysis and testing tools. In the same way, one’s expertise in the human-centric fields of social and digital media may be augmented by becoming conversant in the field’s meta-topics: philosophy, psychology, and anthropology. A topic such as social theory covers these grounds, and does so in a way which integrates these fields together so that they are accessible to non-philosophers, psychologists, or anthropologists by focusing on observable, real-world phenomena—the kinds which many marketers may already perceive and participate in, but may not necessarily have the lexicon to describe these experiences. Further, the work of social theorists has often taken a critical view of totalitarian language, overly-controlling organizations, and extremist communication which come through the means of new media. Therefore, social theorists—by the nature of their work and field—are inherently helpful interlocutors in marketing-related conversations concerning trends in increasingly aggressive digital communication.

In this chapter, propaganda theory will be explored through the work of a practitioner and through the work of theorists. Bernays, by means of Crystalizing Public Opinion and Propaganda, serves as an interlocutor for practice. His writing will be examined theoretically, and his conclusions applied to modern digital and social media methods of communication. From the theorist perspective, the work of Horkheimer and Adorno—primarily through Dialectic of Enlightenment—clarifies the role of theory in making sense of the ethical quandaries and potentially unsafe outcomes stemming from a culture of propaganda. The aim of this chapter is to summarize today’s trends through an examination by means of Bernays, which is then critiqued and analyzed by social theory. By giving examples of such critique, marketers and advertisers will then be able to extrapolate the examinations of this critical lens and apply these to their own work or the work of their teams or agencies to combat aggressive propaganda or “fake news” by incorporating re-humanizing and non-alienating forms of communication.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Alienation: In the writings of Horkheimer and Adorno, the term alienation is borrowed from Marx’s definition which describes an estranging frame-of-reference which is adopted and promulgated by capitalistic cultures that functions as a way of separating workers from their work products. Through oppressive work environments and the existential crises caused by them, alienation occurs when workers see their work as irrelevant or even counter to their personal and fundamental identities, desires, and beliefs.

Public Relations Counsel: Edward Bernays’s term referring to a full-service consultant who functions as the primary manager of communications for companies or organizations. The term is meant to stand in contrast to account executives or other marketing positions which are siloed from global or emerging trends. According to Bernays, a public relations counsel is a marketing polymath, aware of nuances in the eclectic fields of local politics, new technology, and social movements, utilizing and synthesizing this knowledge to develop a complete communications strategy.

Kulturindustrie: Culture industry or kulturindustrie is a term coined by Horkheimer and Adorno and is used to describe the commodities of mass production characterized by standardization, mundanity, and sterility. In Frankfurt School critiques, kulturindustrie is viewed in a negative light due to the hyper-utilitarian focus on products and production, resulting in a loss of beauty or personality and in the dehumanization and alienation of workers. Further, kulturindustrie creates systems of dependency that attract consumers to higher value but lower quality goods.

Influencers: In marketing and advertising, influencers are content creators or curators with special access to specific and/or niche audiences and have unique selling capabilities based upon social capital and in-group peer pressure. Influencers can be sponsored by businesses to incorporate product placement or testimonials into already-existing organic channels and platforms, overcoming standard barriers in paid media. Influencers may appear in traditional media outlets in content types such as interviews or expert opinion pieces but are increasingly utilized through their own platforms on modern social media websites.

Dialectic: In the thought of Horkheimer and Adorno, dialectic refers to the Hegelian-originated concept of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, wherein two opposing viewpoints (thesis and antithesis) are coalesced to develop a new concept, artefact, or idea known as the synthesis. The resultant culmination is an enhanced or developed consciousness about or towards society or culture.

Modernity: Modernity is a philosophical movement born out of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution of the late 18 th century. The foundation of modernity is centered upon rationalization, verification, and empiricism, as a result of rapid scientific and technological progress and innovation. In contrast to pre-modern and postmodern thinking, the focus of modern thought is on the observable and testable, allowing for cultures centered on efficiency, improvement, and production. Modern figures include René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Ayn Rand, and Murray Newton Rothbard.

The Frankfurt School: A Western Marxist social theory movement formed with the creation of the Institute of Social Research in 1923 in Frankfurt, Germany. In the wake of World War II, many theorists moved to the United States to continue developing its philosophy and ideology. Frankfurt School theory often centers on critiques of capitalism, consumerism, dominant ideologies (especially fascism and populism), and Enlightenment philosophy. Associated figures include Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Jürgen Habermas, Erich Fromm, Ernst Bloch, Herbert Marcuse, Axel Honneth, and Moishe Postone.

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