In a “Speaker’s Box” contribution to JAR, Nicholas O’Shaughnessy (Queen Mary University of London) demonstrates that the tools for shaping public opinion have long been influenced by the consumer economy.
More specifically, The Politics of Consumption and the Consumption of Politics: How Authoritarian Regimes Shape Public Opinion by Using Consumer Marketing Tools tracks back 60 years to understand the roots of the awareness of the crossover from business practice to public policy.
An especially influential concept in this area is the “engineering of consent”, a notion developed by Edward Bernays, the legendary marketer often referred to as the “father of public relations” – and who argued that public opinion doesn’t exist in a defined form, but instead is tentative and somewhat malleable.
O’Shaughnessy offers three manifestations of Bernays’ theory in practice – one historic (Germany), the other two contemporary (China and Russia) – to provide a fuller understanding of evolving political climates.
In Germany, he says, “Consumption was an easier sell than international brotherhood, for consumption in Nazi Germany was a salient feature of its social ecology and a way of gratifying a mass public, by making the connection between the satisfactions of consumption and the benevolence of a political regime.”
More recently, “In China, new propaganda forms emulate the feel, technique, and tone of consumer advertising, but the ‘product’ is the nation itself and its government.”
In Russia, meanwhile, the mix of public policy and advertising strikes closer to home: “The promise of a consumption utopia is less apparent,” O’Shaughnessy writes.
Given this context, he continues, “Russia resorts to the employment of international public-relations firms. Putin’s government employed the American public relations company Ketchum to make its case and lobby on its behalf, as well as other international agencies.
“One claimed consequence of Ketchum’s exertions was Putin gaining the title of Person of the Year in Time magazine.”
In a broader (and more immediate) context, “Marketing and advertising are usable politically in two senses,” O’Shaughnessy asserts.
“First, they provide a method of proselytization with which the target is familiar intimately (because of its salience in the consumer economy). That transference, although it is neither simple in application nor guaranteed in its effectiveness, can succeed in altering the political landscape.
“Second, the marketing-driven consumption economy is of itself an asset to the regimes sponsoring it by offering endless vistas of material possibility.”
Data sourced from Journal of Advertising Research; additional content by WARC staff