Unit 3: Media and Ideology – The Socjournal

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AMA citation:

Sosteric M. Unit 3: Media and Ideology. The Socjournal. 2010. Available at: http://www.sociology.org/courses/sociology-288-social-movements/unit-3-media-ideology/. Accessed November 29, 2010.

APA citation:

Sosteric, Michael. (2010). Unit 3: Media and Ideology. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from The Socjournal Web site, http://www.sociology.org/courses/sociology-288-social-movements/unit-3-media-ideology/

Chicago citation:

Sosteric, Michael, “Unit 3: Media and Ideology”, The Socjournal, posted June 25, 2010, http://www.sociology.org/courses/sociology-288-social-movements/unit-3-media-ideology/ (accessed November 29, 2010).

Harvard citation:

Sosteric, M 2010, Unit 3: Media and Ideology, The Socjournal. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from

MLA citation:

Sosteric, Michael. “Unit 3: Media and Ideology.” The Socjournal. 25 Jun. 2010. 29 Nov. 2010

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At the end of this unit, students will be able to:

  • Understand the importance and significance of compliance and the role of the PR industry in manufacturing this compliance.
  • Understand the significance and continued importance of propaganda (a.k.a. public relations) to the manufacture of compliance
  • Outline the history of propaganda in Western society in three phases

Core Readings

Additional  Resources

  • Matrix Movie Series (rent from your local store)
  • Thank You for Smoking Movie (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0427944/)


In the last unit you were exposed, through an analysis of the taken for granted status of homework, to notions of ideology, indoctrination, and the importance of ideas in determining expectations and actions. As we have seen so far, ideas are critical. As we intimated in the last section, social movements and social action emerge only when people’s ideas about whatever issue(s) the social movement addresses support action. In other words, you have to believe something is important, have to believe you are right about it, and have to believe you have the ability to change things, before your social movements ever get off the ground.

In the last unit we also talked in some detail about ideology and indoctrination. While this is something that we (and by “we” I mean citizens of Western democratic society) like to think happens only in ”communist” countries, in fact when we understand ideology as a set of ideas that guide expectations and actions, and indoctrination as the simple repetition of ideas with the intent (conscious and voluntary, or unconscious and involuntarily) of them becoming taken for granted and ingrained, then we see that even in the West we are exposed to ideology and indoctrination. As noted in the last unit, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing.

In this unit I want to build on what we learned in the last unit by taking a close look at the western public relations industry. We will do that by reading A Century of Spin which is an excellent critical and historical overview of the public relations industry in western nations. The book covers three historical epochs and answers the questions what is public relations, what are its historical roots, and what is it used for.

Now at first glance it may not seem obvious why, in an introductory course on social movements, we’d look at the public relations industry. However, once you get started with the book, it shouldn’t take too long for you to realize that public relations[1] is an integral part of the exercise of power in our society. You will recall that in the last unit we defined power as the ability to get things done. Well, when it comes to getting things done in our western society (whatever getting things done might mean), public relations and communication through dominant media channels (i.e. television, print, and more recently the Internet) has been an essential tool. Remember what I said in the last unit “The ideas in our head, whether they are ideological or not, are a key precursor[s] to the actions we take to build this reality that we live in.” In other words, action in the real world starts with ideas in our head. As a result, how those ideas get there is critical. As we will see in this unit, the propaganda (er..) public relations industry has made it their business to put ideas into our heads.

And what kind of ideas are sent out into the world by the Public Relations industry? Well, as you will come to realize as you read the book, the public relations industry is not an equal opportunity service provider. The public relations industry, and the media that they manipulate, are owned by wealthy individuals with their own unique set of special interests. Put another way, the public relations industry is a central feature of corporate social movements, i.e. those social movements which are formed around the interests of corporations, capital and big money. It is very clear as you read the book that PR is not too often used in the service of the poor and powerless in society who, even if they wanted to, could not afford the PR price tag. PR is generally a tool of the rich and famous and as such is implicated in the construction of elite realities and, other side of the same coin, suppression (as we see in the book when discussing the history of labour in North America) of popular social movements. Put in the context of this course on social movements, the media and the public relations industry provide a powerful instrument that provides those who control it (or who can pay the fee) the power to seed ideas, set expectations, determine the conceptual agenda of society, and make people think and behave a certain way.

And it’s not black magic!

As you read through the book you will see the authors provide a rather detailed and gory history on how the very wealthy organized themselves and used media (amongst other things) to shape public opinion via propaganda or (as they later came to call it) public relations.

Now, I’m not going to rehash what the book says in this commentary. I would like to point though that this whole business of propaganda cum public relations didn’t start in war time. In the Western world we like to locate the emergence of propaganda with the Nazi war machine. When we do this we can hold propaganda at arms length, something that is an aberration of western culture. But that’s not true. The reality is propaganda was first used not by the Nazis or the communists but by industrial leaders and robber barons at the turn of the last century to soften their brutal anti-labour stance. In other words, propaganda has corporate roots! In fact, in 1914 when Rockefeller henchmen massacred 19 miners, their families and children, the Rockefeller’s propaganda team went into overtime smearing Mother Jones (a legendary union organizer and namesake of a long running political magazine) as a prostitute and blaming the union themselves for sending the agitators—both blatant lies it should be noted but both, when put to paper and pamphlet, successful in swaying public opinion.

Of course, the early days of public relations were not only about anti-union sentiment. The practice of public relations has also been brought to bear in the service of product sales. The most infamous example as used in the book was Edward Bernays who was responsible for breaking the taboo of women smoking in public. By convincing women that the unhealthy and self-destructive practice of smoking cigarettes was a sign of their imminent emancipation (i.e. smoking was a sign that they were free and empowered), Bernays was able to open the door for decades of disease, lung cancer, and unnecessary death for women. It took almost a hundred years to turn back public perceptions in North America so that people could see smoking for what it really was, such was the damage done. I suppose what is most disturbing about this is how something like the need for freedom and empowerment can be so be easily attached to something as black as cancer and death. Surely this is a clear and unequivocal testament to the power of a skilful propagandist, er, PR representative. And before you choke on all this, consider that Bernays is also infamous in the history of PR as one of the first to make a direct link between war time propaganda and post-war PR.

When I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace. Edward Bernays (Millar and Dinan, p: 15).

Of course, after the war propaganda was a dirty word. The world had seen what propaganda was all about as Hitler used it to fuel a murderous rage against anybody not like him. In this light everybody, including the general public, knew there was something wrong with propaganda. You couldn’t let a few people just indoctrinate others with ideology and “mind control” them into war. Propaganda was clearly about manipulation and everybody knew it. So what the burgeoning corporate propaganda industry to do? The solution was to give it a better name. In a classic example of PR spin, propaganda became public relations. Public relations was a much softer term and didn’t have any of the negative connotations of manipulation and control that the word “propaganda” did. In fact, the term “public relations” gave the whole business (which didn’t change at all with the new name) a positive spin. Instead of being about manipulation and control public relations was, the pundits could now claim, about relationships and information sharing. The PR people were actually doing you a favour! They were befriending you and educating you! It really was a successful renaming. Not only did it obscure critical public discourse but it even erased critical academic inquiry. Any work done on PR in the hallowed halls was now in broad support. As the authors of this weeks’ reading note:

Let us be clear about this. We do mean that most academics have been ‘persuaded’ and have come to see things in terms conducive to great power. (Millar and Dinan, p: 180).

Redefining propaganda as PR was a major propaganda coup and allowed for the proliferation of PR firms that now span the globe. At the turn of the 21st century, public relations, also known as propaganda, has become a common feature of our western democratic societies. As one of the all time greatest PR gurus himself states, without a hint that he is aware of the contradiction between “democracy” and conscious manipulation of the masses:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised 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. Edward Bernays (quoted in A Century of Spin, p: 32).

And what, you may be asking, does all this have to do with social movements. Well, as you see when you read the book, public relations representatives have been in bed with everybody from corporate CEOS to military dictators. Public relations pundits have done everything from market cigarettes, to make the world safe for neo-liberal market reforms, to dismantling the mechanics of functional democracy in developing nations! Indeed, PR pundits are responsible for more public manipulation than even George Orwell could have foreseen. When they put their mind to it, these folks literally move mountains through the imposition of ideas and ideology which set the expectations and determine the actions of large groups, or movements of people. When you think about it, what the public relations pundits have been able to do is the essence of our study of social movements. They are able to determine what is right and wrong, determine how people think, and even mobilize large groups into action. The truth is, if you want to understand about social movements and how to build and activate them, looking at the public relations industry is an ideal place to start.

Now as I’ve said, I don’t want to cover the gory details of public relations. However there are a couple of more things I’d like to highlight. First of all, after reading the book you should be able to clearly see the link between ideology, indoctrination, and public relations. Despite the fact that PR peeps might not like the connection being made, public relations has all the features of ideology and indoctrination, from repetition of message to the simple intent to control activity. Public relations is engaged, with a passion, in the indoctrination of the planet’s population. In these post WWII, post-1984 days of media saturation, PR is often about selling products, the consumer lifestyle and, as we’ll see in the next unit, the dominant corporate ideology of competition, but that’s not the only function of PR. PR is also involved in politics and economics in a big way. This of course raises some serious questions about our so called democracies. Are we really living in a functional democracy when the primary communications we receive are ideological and designed to control?

Second, from our brief look at public relations we can also see the clear importance of ideas in the mobilization of resources (i.e. human labour power). We intimated this in our examination of homework, but as we examine the history of propaganda, it becomes obvious and blatant here. How we think about things is critical and if we are going to mobilize resources and build social movements the first thing people must pay attention to is ideas. The people who own the public relations firms of this planet know this, intimately, even if they do not talk about it openly.

Third, as we will clearly see once we’ve read the assigned readings, when it comes to the mobilization of resources we can also see the importance of networking. In order to propagate ideas, in order to move forward, there has to be contact and exchange. The authors of the book point out the many ways that the elites of this planet get together to discuss and exchange. From the regular meetings of the G8 nations to the Bilderberg conference and all the other shoulder rubbing opportunities, contact is important. The authors take the time to point out, of course, that there is no direct corporate conspiracy and indeed there is no reason to postulate there is. The drive to get together and meet is as benign as a bunch of people with specific interests getting together to discuss how to forward those interests. It happens all the time from the Freemasons meeting to the Girl Scout troop. The only difference is that in this case the interests are political and economic and the players have a lot of power already so when they meet, they are interested in moving forward their political and economic interests.

Fourth, and although it might go without saying at this point, but money and resources are also critical to the mobilization of social movements. It is quite obvious in the case of the public relations industry. The way things are currently set up, the prophets of public relations are not going to get your message out unless you have the money to pay, and the fees are substantial. As you see in the book, public relations is effective and so if you have money then the mobilization of resources and the construction of “movements” becomes relatively straightforward and easy. This is not the case for people on the economic outs. As we will see in unit five, there are lot of interests and lots of groups without the money or power to engage the public relations industry,  meet others, fly around the globe, or do the things necessary. Of course as we will see in unit five, this doesn’t mean that those without money and power cannot organize. There are other ways, but it’s a lot more hard labour and the dedication and resolve required are intense.[2] However, as we’ll explore in Unit five and six, nowadays, and with the emergence of the Internet and the WWW, getting an alternative message out is a bit easier, but getting the message heard amidst the fluff, detritus, and even psychopathology of some of the Internet based sources can be another matter altogether. But, I’m jumping ahead.

Fifth, the issue of democracy is also important here. We all have this perception, driven into us by two decades of classroom based flag waving and anthem singing, that we live in these functioning democracies and to a certain extent that is true. However, an examination of social movements, leading as it does to questions about power, ideology, money, and propaganda, clearly qualifies our understanding of western democracies. Simply put, there is a lot going on beneath the surface of our so called “democracies.” Our television and radio and newspapers typically don’t talk about this, but the reality is there. Democracy works it may be true, but it works better for those with the money and power to mobilize resources.

I have one last comment before moving on to the next unit, and this is perhaps the most important point. A famous linguist by the name of Chomsky once said that it is all about the manufacture of consent. The media, news papers, radio, public relations firms and all that jazz are all about the manufacture of consent, he said. They send us their glitzy messages and get us to agree with “the system” by a process of PR propaganda that leads us into agreement. However, and as this book points out, that is not all true. Consent is not a requirement of a fully functioning system. The truth is, you don’t have to agree with the way things are going. You don’t have to agree with the war in Afghanistan, for example, or put your moral support behind the occupation of Iraq, in order for these conflicts to continue. Indeed, you don’t have to agree with anything that is happening around you. The system allows for that! You just need to not do anything about it. As the authors point out, the secret isn’t consent, it is compliance! Disagree all you want, just sit there and comply.

The insight the authors provide on this is important. As noted in introductory text, when it comes to social movements, questions surrounding the mobilization of resources are important. Here we can see the other side to this coin. If we can mobilize resources we can also demobilize resources, which is exactly the process described in this week’s reading. Public relations and the media machine can be used to both mobilize and demobilize resources. What good is a functioning democracy if we don’t stand up for the things we believe in.

A couple of examples from Hollywood will clarify this. In this unit you have a choice of viewing two movies. One is Thank you for Smoking and the other is The Matrix Trilogy. Both of these provide excellent examples of how media is used to demobilize resources.  The movie Thank you for Smoking shows how PR representatives for the tobacco industry pushed their unhealthy habit by both mobilizing the masses in favour of smoking, but also demobilizing those who were critical of the habit. I still remember this process from my childhood quite well. Every time a study would come out linking smoking to cancer, some other study (typically paid for by the tobacco industry) would come out suggesting there was no link. This suggestion was always coupled by admonitions to be fair and look at the evidence and “be balanced” (as if one study in favour of smoking could be a “balance” against a thousand that weren’t). This strategy of sowing doubt in the research was effective. It didn’t matter that the studies proving a link between cancer and smoking outnumbered those other studies, the net result was to sow doubt in the minds of critics, and undermine their argument. Supporters of smoking could always point to that one study that failed to find a link, and use that to undermine the arguments of critics. Even in a sea of research demonstrating the link, it only took one negative study. In this way people who would otherwise have been active critics were silenced and demobilized.

The Matrix Trilogy also provides an example of this. The movie starts out seeming to be quite progressive. The movie is about a society ruled by energy sucking computers that have wired humans up to be big batteries to power their energy hungry machine bodies (a metaphor for modern capitalist society if there ever was one)! The humans are waiting for a saviour (shades of Christianity) to come save them. This saviour comes in the form of Neo (the new one) who for some reason can understand the machine psyche world better than others and is therefore able to perform miracles. The Trilogy follows Neo’s struggle to awaken to his inner saviour, find his power, and free the humans, which he eventually does. It’s a cool movie that has all the accoutrements of being about resistance. But while it all seems to be a very timely and critical view of modern society, in fact the movie functions to demobilize criticism and support the status quo. At the end Neo dies, sacrificed to the machine god, so that others may be free,[3] if they want! As it turns out, the primary message of the movie is reactionary. According to the machines, who interestingly enough get the last few seconds of air time, not everyone wants to be free! According to the directors, some people actually like being sold into energetic slavery. This argument is introduced in the first movie when the Zionites are betrayed by one of their own who would prefer a digital steak sandwich over the gruelling underground freedom. The argument reaches its gory culmination in the last few seconds of the move when the machines point out they will free those who “want: to be free while everyone stays plugged into the system as a comatose human battery.

The result?


While the criticism of capitalist society is obvious in the movie, nevertheless by the end of it you are not jumping out of your seat saying “fight The Man.” On the contrary, by the end of it you are left with the feeling that everything is ok and all you have to do is sit around and wait for things to unfold, as they should. I can be free of the system if I want to be, so I can just go on with my life and not worry. The message of the movie is simple. We don’t need to struggle or mobilize or fight for those who stay hooked up because, well, they don’t want to be free. According to the machines, they like the slavery. It’s a perfect end to a propaganda masterpiece which resonates with people’s displeasure and distaste for the system, but leaves them happy and content “knowing” that things are changing when nothing has changed at all. The movie totally removes the motivation for collective struggle, makes the choice personal, and blames the slaves for remaining connected in the system. You may not like what’s being done to others, but you accept it because, well, it’s their choice.

The movie is demobilizing in other ways as well. The parallels between Neo and the Church version of Jesus Christ are as remarkable as they are transparent. The miracles he performs, his desire to free the slaves, and his crucifixion at the end is a textbook parallel of the story Christians are told about Jesus Christ.  And what is demobilizing about Neo? Well, he’s the only one with the power. In the end he’s special and everyone else is, well, merely human. It’s an incredibly disempowering message. We can’t do anything against the system until somebody with special powers comes along to save us. Christians have been waiting for that guy for 2,000 years and one can wonder whether “the one” will ever come. In fact we can ask the question, is setting up the idea in our mind that we need a saviour, and telling us that this saviour will have special powers, really nothing more than a transparent attempt to demobilize us by getting us to sit on our haunches as wait? In the movie the poor Zionites couldn’t do anything until “Neo” came along to save them.

It is all very demobilizing when you think about it. If the movie was actually functioning as most people thought, i.e. as an active criticism of modern life, the ending would have been different (i.e. all people would have been freed) and Neo wouldn’t have taken all the glory for himself but would have taught everyone how to take their own power back, get into the machine, and change things for themselves. But that wasn’t the story. The story was an old one. Stand around and wait for a saviour, and blame everybody else for wanting to stay a slave.

So where does that leave us? Well, in this unit we have looked at the PR industry. We’ve read the assigned reading and now understand that PR = Propaganda. You also know the link between PR and ideas, and ideas and social action (developed in the previous unit on homework). As I’ve said:

The ideas in our head, whether they are ideological or not, are a key precursor[s] to the actions we take (or do not take I might now add) to build this reality that we live in

I suppose now we need to take a deeper look at the ideas that we are given that either support or, more accurately, undermine our ability to mobilize. In particular in the next unit I want to look at the ideology of competition, what that’s about, where it comes from, and the effect that this has on our collective consciousness and well being. As we’ll see in the next unit, competition isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Indeed, and as we will see in the next unit, the whole idea of competition is the complete antithesis of collective action and mobilization.

Study Questions

Answer the following questions and then submit your answers to your tutor for marking. Expected word counts are provided in brackets after each question. Two hundred words equals a paragraph or two, four hundred words is a page, eight hundred words is two pages, and so on. Use these word estimates as guides only. The goal is to right a lucid, grounded, and comprehensive answer for each of these questions.

  • What is propaganda? Why is it significant to a study of social movements? (200)
  • What is structural advantage? Why is it significant? (p. 6 of text) (200)
  • What does it mean to manufacture compliance? Is consent a necessary feature of compliance? Why or why not. (400).
  • What is a corporate social movement? What are the three waves of corporate political action? What did each wave achieve? (400).
  • Do you think corporate PR is compatible with functioning democratic societies? Why or why not (be sure to read ch 11). (400)
  • What role did/does corporate PR play in the selling of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Give specific examples. (400).
  • Choose either The Matrix series of movies, or Thank You for Smoking and watch the movies. Discuss these movies in relation to concepts introduced in this unit and this course. Post your answer on the course forums. (400)

[1] Or propaganda as it used to be called until Public Relations agents couldn’t shake the ugly feeling people would get when they considered the nature and function of propaganda…