PR, Social Control and Revolt: An Interview with Stuart Ewen

By Jon Bailes
January 29, 2009

Stuart Ewen is Distinguished Professor in the Department of Film & Media Studies at Hunter College, CUNY (City University of New York). He is generally considered one of the originators of the field of Media Studies, and his writings have continued to shape debates in the field.

He is the author of a number of influential books, including PR! A Social History of Spin (1996), All Consuming images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (1987; 1999), Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (1976), Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness (with Elizabeth Ewen. 1982; 1992) and, most recently, Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality (co-authored with Elizabeth Ewen. 2006). SoN editor Jon Bailes conducted the following interview via email in March 2009 to discuss his analyses of PR and image culture.

State of Nature: What is it that makes the fields of PR, advertising and image culture so significant for you?

Stuart Ewen: To understand any society it is critical to explore the arenas of public expression and the extent to which structures of power and often-unequal relationships have an impact on social priorities, discussions and actions. As old structures of social and religious hierarchy began to give way to democratic ideas, the notion that people are created equal and are endowed with natural rights, elites increasingly began to develop strategies of rule that were concerned with managing thought and behaviour under the rubric of a democracy. For me, tracking down the genealogy of the compliance professions and the emerging of visual persuasion strategies is necessary for critically examining how public expression has led to what Walter Lippmann termed the “manufacture of consent” as a routine feature of ostensibly democratic societies.

SoN: What do you think is the extent of the power of public relations? For example, could there really have been a move toward a more socialist style economy in the US after the New Deal era, in which people had become more knowledgeable about democracy, without corporate PR interference?

SE: We live in a world where intercommunication of thought and perception without the necessity of physical presence is a fact of life. The town square has changed, is no longer a distinct physical space, and anyone interested in progressive political change can’t ignore that fact. Among progressives, there is a tendency to view “rhetoric” as another word for lying, and many eschew “rhetoric” and believe that the unadorned presentation of facts is the best way to promote the greater good.

Rhetoric, however, can not be abandoned as a way of understanding how to communicate. Traditionally, rhetorical arts understood that facts must be presented eloquently, with a clear understanding of how to develop a persuasive argument that will resonate with people.

I say this because we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. In the United States, corporate PR—beginning during the New Deal and continuing to the present—has certainly promoted the fantasy that free market capitalism is the only route to the democracy and the common good, but countervailing strategies of publicity are absolutely necessary if we are ever to break that carefully constructed illusion. In other words, while the corporate “engineering of consent” has been a disastrous impediment to the greater good, strategies of persuasion are necessary for alternative visions of society—democratic socialism, for example—to break through and be seen by people as a viable option. The current crisis, where so many of these carefully constructed illusions are in tatters, and where the religion of the marketplace is being exposed as a fraud, offers an opportunity for change, but it won’t happen without developing ideas about how to develop twenty-first century versions of pamphleteering to publicize and encourage folks to imagine themselves out of the confines of corporate ideology. The key is not to denounce publicity in itself, but to develop approaches that encourage public awareness and engagement. Ideally, our educational structures need to promote a modern vision of literacy where the boundary between communicator and audience is dissolved, and where people in all communities are endowed with the talents and tools of effective public expression.

SoN: Is there still such a thing as spontaneous public sentiment? Is there ever an identifiable line between this and manufactured opinion?

SE: Right now there is no such thing as the public. It is something we mostly see in the statistical applause tracks of published polls. For an effective public to exist, people must remake it. That may come out of spontaneous collective understandings of what is going on, but for it to emerge as a viable public it will need to engage in publicity. I’m not talking about “manufactured opinion,” which is about seeing the public mind as the product of an industry. I’m talking about people throughout the society using modern tools of communication to engage in progressive public discussions that challenge the authenticity and hegemony of “public opinion” as it is now caricatured.

SoN: Some theorists in recent decades have talked about the end of ideology. But do you see today’s PR and advertising in fact precisely as instruments of ideology – cultivating a favourable atmosphere towards corporations, capitalism and consumerism without explicitly saying that they are doing so?

SE: Without doubt. The most effective ideology is that which doesn’t sound like ideology, but is experienced by people as “reality.” For ideology to be effective, it can’t be seen as one among many points of view. Helen Lynd once wrote, “Every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.” Ideology functions seamlessly when other ways of seeing are invisible, when “stereotypes” and “pseudo-environments,” as Lippmann named them, provide the foundation for peoples understanding of the universe.

Once people begin to comprehend that a “way of seeing” is simply an expression of ideology, that ideology is no longer functional.

SoN: PR is no longer a hidden clandestine force behind politics and corporations – one is instantly directed, quite overtly, to a company’s PR department for information. Is the greatest coup of PR in fact that it has persuaded people that PR is something quite acceptable?

SE: In recent years, PR has become something that is accepted as a profession, if not acceptable. Students thinking about jobs, would often talk to me about going into PR and marketing. This may not be an expression of their inner ethics, but of their understanding of the alternatives and resources available to them. This is not fixed in stone. With global capitalism in crisis, and the propaganda machineries of the status quo under the spotlight, a new sense of alternatives and resources will become increasingly important to young people.

SoN: To what extent do you see television as the key to mass engineering of consent in the 20th century? How do you see new media, such as the internet, affecting the methods of public manipulation, either positively or negatively?

SE: The internet has clearly altered the physics of perception, and of politics. How that will play out is still unclear, but the traditional one-way street conceits of media and persuasion are clearly in jeopardy. Whether this will be positive or negative, or both, remains to be seen. But it is good that more and more people are generating art and ideas for general distribution. This contains enormous democratic possibilities. Whenever the means of expression have been democratized, this has broadened the range of public expression and challenged the stability of big lies. But, to quote The Clash, “The Future is Unwritten.”

SoN: To what extent does the PR world’s reliance on demographics contradict many ‘postmodern’ ideas about the fragmentation of society and the loss of categories such as class?

SE: Demographics is the enemy of democracy. That’s often its purpose. It transforms the variety of human experience into a raw material for instrumental purposes, perception and behaviour management. I’ve never been a big fan of postmodernism, so I don’t want to go there.

SoN: Do you think the ubiquity of PR and image management today represents a fear of democracy on the part of those in control? Does this indicate an idea amongst the elite that public opinion, if not carefully controlled, would be significantly different?

SE: The emergence of PR as a corporate practice was intimately connected to the rise of social and behavioural psychology, whose “theoretical goal” was, as behaviorist John B Watson put it in 1913, “the prediction and control of behaviour.” This goal inflected many of the emerging social sciences and compliance professions that took hold in the early twentieth century, and continue to function with this objective. Democracy, and the threat of anti-capitalist militancy, stood and stand at the heart of this development.

SoN: How do you see the current adoption of themes of environmental concern in corporate advertising – a cynical attempt to manipulate corporate image to make it seem more sympathetic, or a reaction to public opinion that leads to a positive change in the waste culture of consumerism?

SE: Most corporate environmentalism is made up of campaigns to “greenwash” practices that continue to be environmentally destructive. One of the most telling examples of this is British Petroleum or BP’s attempt to wrap itself in an iconography that looks solar and green while their actual investments in renewable, environmentally sound energy resources is miniscule compared to their oil and gas business. They say that BP stands for “Beyond Petroleum,” but the following image offers a more accurate picture of the company.

BP investments chart

SoN: Is the appeal of style its escapist quality – something we can invest in even though we know it to be ephemeral and lacking in substance? If so, does style therefore always implicitly indicate social antagonism (and require its existence), because there must be something from which to escape, and therefore democratisation of style, away from the concerns of only the elite, is more a case of democratisation of escapism?

SE: I don’t think that style is a negative. The realm of art and aesthetics is a source of pleasure and empowerment. The style industries feed off of this, but people keep developing their own forms of expression, built organically out of their lived experience.

SoN: You mention the idea that ‘style makes statements, but has no convictions’. What does that say about attempts in ‘subculture’ to imbue style with political meaning?

SE: I think that quote is taken out of context. When style is turned into a commodity, that is often true, but vernacular style or sub-cultural style is often driven by convictions.

SoN: Advertising often employs images of transgression against authority and social norms. What does it imply about the public’s attitude towards society, if advertisers recognise rebellion as such a popular concept?

SE: Advertising always tends to follow and glom onto popular aspirations. If people are thinking rebellion, then rebellion™ will be seen in ads, at retail counters, and for sale in catalogs or on the internet.

SoN: Is the current so-called ‘credit crunch’ comparable to the depression era in terms of a shift in public opinion away from supporting corporate interests because it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore social antagonism? Is PR better equipped to deal with anti-business sentiment today, or are the public better equipped to deal with PR?

SE: I think the current credit crunch is disturbingly similar to that which led to the Great Depression, as is the free market boosterism that permeated the 1920s before the Crash. Social antagonism, as you put it, is growing and class-consciousness is re-emerging among workers and so-called middle class people who have been devastated by a corporate state politics that has driven social and economic life for decades. Whether PR or the public is better equipped to deal with framing the political moment remains to be seen, but ordinary people have some tools at their disposal that could shift the balance towards the public. There is also a revival of unionism and ideas of the common good that will be hard for PR practitioners to do away with.

SoN: With the pervasiveness of corporate backed PR and an image culture divorced from social relations, which circumvents debate about substance with spectacle and subconscious messages, is there any conceivable way of mobilising the public towards a different goal?

SE: Yes. There are many ways. But they won’t come from above.

Jon Bailes is co-editor and webmaster of State Of Nature. He is currently writing a PhD thesis on ideology theory at the Centre for European Studies, University College London, and has an MA in European Thought from the same department. He is co-author of Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (London: Pluto, 2012).