The Scientific Outlook, Part 4 – Propaganda: From the Class Room to Hollywood

Propaganda: From the Class Room to Hollywood

Originally Posted July 20, 2008

“I think the subject which will be of most importance politically is mass psychology. Mass psychology is, scientifically speaking, not a very advanced study… This study is immensely useful to practical men, whether they wish to become rich or to acquire the government. It is, of course, as a science, founded upon individual psychology, but hitherto it has employed rule-of-thumb methods which were based upon a kind of intuitive common sense. Its importance has been enormously increased by the growth of

modern methods of propaganda. Of these the most influential is what is called ‘education’. Religion plays a part, though a diminishing one; the Press, the cinema and the radio play an increasing part.” – Bertrand Russell, 1952 (p40)

Mass Psychology

From The Scientific Outlook:

[Italicised text is original emphasis and bolded text is added by author.]

“There is, however, a large amount of genuine experimental science in social affairs. Perhaps the most important set of experiments in this realm is that which we owe to advertisers. This material, valuable as it is, has not been utilized by experimental psychologists, because it belongs to a region remote from the Universities, and they would feel themselves vulgarized by contact with anything so gross. But anybody who is in earnest in studying the psychology of belief cannot do better than consult the great advertising firms. No test of belief is so searching as the financial one. When a man is willing to back his belief by spending money in accordance with it, his belief must be regarded as genuine. Now this is precisely the test which the advertiser is perpetually applying. Various people’s soaps are recommended in various ways; some of these ways produce the desired result, others do not, or at any rate not to the same degree. Clearly the advertisement which causes a man’s soap to be bought is more effective in creating belief than the one which does not. I do not think any experienced advertiser would suggest that the merits of the respective soaps had any share whatever in bringing about the result. Very large sums of money are paid to the men who invent good advertisements, and rightly so, for the power to cause large numbers of people to believe what you assert is a very valuable power. Consider its importance, for example, to the founders of religions. In the past they often had to adopt the most painful forms of publicity. How much pleasanter their lives would have been if they could have gone to an agent who would have purchased the respect of their disciples in return for a percentage on the ecclesiastical revenues!

From the technique of advertising it seems to follow that in the great majority of mankind any proposition will win acceptance if it is reiterated in such a way as to remain in the memory. Most of the things that we believe we believe because we have heard them affirmed; we do not remember where or why they were affirmed, and we are therefore unable to be critical even when the affirmation was made by a man whose income would be increased by its acceptance and was not backed by any evidence whatever. Advertisements tend, therefore, as the technique becomes perfected, to be less and less argumentative, and more and more merely striking. So long as an impression is made, the desired result is achieved.

Considered scientifically, advertisements have another great merit, which is that their effects, so far as is known through the receipts of the advertisers, are mass effects, not effects upon individuals, so that the data acquired are data as to mass psychology. For the purposes of studying society rather than individuals, advertisements are therefore invaluable. Unfortunately their purpose is practical rather than scientific. For scientific purposes I suggest the following experiment. Let two soaps, A and B, be manufactured, of which A is excellent and B abominable; let A be advertised by stating its chemical composition and by testimonials from eminent chemists; let B be advertised by the bare statement that it is the best, accompanied by the portraits of famous Hollywood beauties. If man is a rational animal, more of A will be sold than of B. Does anyone, in fact, believe that this would be the result?

The advantages of advertisement have come to be realized pretty fully by politicians, but are only beginning to be realized by the Churches; when the Churches become more fully alive to its advantages as compared with the traditional religious technique (which dates from before the invention of printing), we may hope for a great revival of faith. On the whole, the Soviet Government and the Communist religion are those which hitherto have best understood the use of advertisement. They are, it is true, somewhat hampered by the fact that most Russians cannot read; this obstacle, however, they are doing their best to remove.” – 187

Education as Propaganda

“This consideration brings us naturally to the subject of education, which is the second great method of public propaganda. Education has two very different purposes; on the one hand it aims at developing the individual and giving him knowledge which will be useful to him; on the other hand it aims at producing citizens who will be convenient for the State or the Church which is educating them. Up to a point these two purposes coincide in practice: it is convenient to the State that citizens should be able to read, and that they should possess some technical skill in virtue of which they are able to do productive work; it is convenient that they should possess sufficient moral character to abstain from unsuccessful crime, and sufficient intelligence to be able to direct their own lives. But when we pass beyond these elementary requirements, the interests of the individual may often conflict with those of the State or the Church. This is especially the case in regard to credulity. To those who control publicity, credulity is an advantage, while to the individual a power of critical judgment is likely to be beneficial; consequently the State does not aim at producing a scientific habit of mind, except in a small minority of experts, who are well paid, and therefore, as a rule, supporters of the status quo. Among those who are not well paid credulity is more advantageous to the State; consequently children in school are taught what they are told and are punished if they express disbelief. In this way a conditioned reflex is established, leading to a belief in anything said authoritatively by elderly persons of importance. You and I, reader, owe out immunity from spoliation to this beneficent precaution on the part of our respective Governments.

One of the purposes of the State in education is certainly, on the whole, beneficent. The purpose in question is that of producing social coherence. In mediaeval Europe, as in modern China, the lack of social coherence proved disastrous. It is difficult for large masses of men to co-operate as much as is necessary for their own welfare. The tendency to anarchy and civil war is always one to be guarded against, except on those rare occasions when some great principle is at stake which is of sufficient importance to make civil war worth while. For this reason that part of education which aims at producing loyalty to the State is to be praised in so far as it is directed against internal anarchy. But in so far as it is directed to the perpetuation of international anarchy, it is bad. On the whole, at present in education, the form of loyalty to the State which is most emphasized is hostility to its enemies.” -190

Uniformity of Opinion – The Press

Modern inventions and modern technique have had a powerful influence in promoting uniformity of opinion and making men less individual than they used to be. […] But in the modern world there are three great sources of uniformity in addition to education: these are the Press, the cinema, and the radio.

The Press has become an agent of uniformity as a result of technical and financial causes: the larger the circulation of a newspaper, the higher the rate it can charge for its advertisements and the lower the cost of printing per copy. A foreign correspondent costs just as much whether his newspaper has a large or a small circulation; therefore his relative cost is diminished by every increase in circulation. A newspaper with a large circulation can hire the most expensive legal talent to defend it against libel suits, and can often conceal from all but serious students its misstatements of facts. For all these reasons, of which advertisements are the chief, big newspapers tend to please small sets of cranks or high-brows, and there are journals devoted to special interests, such as yachting or fly-fishing, but the immense majority of newspaper readers confine themselves either, as in England, to a small number of newspapers, or, as in America, to a small number of syndicated groups of newspapers. The difference between England and America in this respect is, of course, due to size. In England, if Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook desire anything to be known, it will be known; if they desire it to be unknown, it will be unknown except to a few pertinacious busybodies. Although there are rival groups in the newspaper world, there are, of course, many matters as to which the rival groups are agreed. In a suburban train in the morning, one man may be reading the Daily Mail and another the Daily Express, but if by some miracle they should fall into conversation they would not find much divergence in the opinions they had imbibed or in the facts of which they had been informed. Thus for reasons which are ultimately technical and scientific, the newspapers have become an influence tending to uniformity and increasing the rarity of unusual opinions.” – 191

Uniformity of Opinion – The Radio

“Another modern invention tending towards uniformity is the radio. This, of course, is more the case in England, where it is a Government monopoly, than in America, where it is free. During the General Strike in 1926 it afforded practically the only method of disseminating news. This method was utilized by the Government to state its own case and conceal that of the strikers. I was myself at the time in a remote village, almost the furthest from London, I believe, of any village in England. All the villagers, including myself, assembled in the Post Office every evening to hear the news. A pompous voice would announce: “It is the Home Secretary who has come to make a statement.” I regret to say that the villagers all laughed, but if they had been less remote they would probably have been more respectful. In America, where the Government has not interfered with broadcasting, one must expect, if the same policy continues, that there will be a gradual growth of big interests analogous to the big newspapers, and that these will cover as large a proportion of the ground as does the syndicated Press.” – 193

Uniformity of Opinion – The Cinema

But perhaps the most important of all the modern agents of propaganda is the cinema. Where the cinema is concerned, the technical reasons for large-scale organizations leading to almost world-wide uniformity are over-whelming. The costs of a good production are colossal, but are no less if it is exhibited seldom than if it is exhibited often and everywhere. The Germans and the Russians have their own productions, and those of the Russians are, of course, an important part of the Soviet Government’s propaganda. In the rest of the civilized world the products of Hollywood preponderate. The great majority of young people in almost all civilized countries derive their ideas of love, of honour, of the way to make money, and of the importance of good clothes, from the evenings spent in seeing what Hollywood thinks good for them. I doubt whether all the schools and churches combined have as much influence as the cinema upon the opinions of the young in regard to such intimate matters as love and marriage and money-making. The producers of Hollywood are the high-priests of a new religion. Let us be thankful for the lofty purity of their sentiments. We learn from them that sin is always punished, and virtue is always rewarded. True, the reward is rather gross, and such as a more old-fashioned virtue might not wholly appreciate. But what of that? We know from the cinema that wealth comes to the virtuous, and from real life that old So-and-so has wealth. It follows that old So-and-so is virtuous, and that the people who say he exploits his employees are slanderers and trouble-makers. The cinema therefore plays a useful part in safeguarding the rich from the envy of the poor.

It is undoubtedly an important fact in the modern world that almost all the pleasures of the poor can only be provided by men possessed of vast capital or by Governments. The reasons for this, as we have seen, are technical, but the result is that any defects in the status quo become known only to those who are willing to spend their leisure time otherwise than in amusement; these are, of course, a small minority, and from a political point of view they are at most times negligible. There is, however, a certain instability about the whole system. In the event of unsuccessful war it might break down, and the population, which had grown accustomed to amusements, might be driven by boredom into serious thought. The Russians, when deprived of vodka by war-time prohibition, made the Russian Revolution. What would Western Europeans do if deprived of their nightly drug from Hollywood? The moral of this for Western European Governments is that they must keep on good terms with America. In the American imperialism of the future it may turn out that the producers of cinemas have been the pioneers.” – 194


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