Unit 3: Media and Ideology | The Socjournal

Note: Before we begin, we ask that you contact the Athabasca University Library to request that either the film Thank You for Smoking [Reitman, J. (Dir.). (2005). Los Angeles: Room 9 Entertainment, TYFS Productions & ContentFilm.] or the Matrix trilogy [Wachowski, A. & Wachowski, L. (Dir.) (1999-2003). Burbank, CA: Warner Brother Pictures et al.] be sent to you. You will be asked to watch either the film or the trilogy later in the unit. [You may find it faster and easier to obtain these items from your local video rental establishment.]

In Unit 2, you were exposed, through an analysis of the taken-for-granted status of homework, to the concepts of ideology and indoctrination, and to the importance of ideas in determining expectations and actions. As we have seen, ideas are critical. Social movements and social action emerge only when people’s ideas about whatever issues the social movement addresses support action. In other words, you have to believe that something is important, that you are right about it, and that you have the ability to change things, before your social movement ever get off the ground.

In the last unit, we also talked in some detail about ideology and indoctrination. While these are things that we (and by “we” I mean citizens of Western democratic societies) 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 having them become taken-for-granted and ingrained, then we see that, even in the West, we are exposed to both. As noted in the last unit, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of.

In this unit, I want to build on what we learned in Unit 2 by taking a close look at the Western public relations industry. The unit reading, A Century of Spin, 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?”

It may not seem obvious why, in an introductory course on social movements, we would look at the public relations industry. However, once you begin to read the book, it shouldn’t take too long for you to realize that public relations1 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 (television, print, and more recently, the Internet) have been essential tools. Remember what I said in the last unit: “The ideas in our head, whether they are ideological or not, are a key precursor to the actions we take to build this reality that we live in.” In other words, actions in the real world start 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 head.

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 PR industry, and the media that it manipulates, 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 that are formed around the interests of corporations, capital and big money). It is very clear as you read the book that PR is not often used in the service of the poor and powerless, who, even if they wanted to, could not afford the price tag. PR is generally a tool of the rich and famous, and as such, is implicated in the construction of elite realities, and conversely, the 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, the media and the public relations industry together provide a powerful instrument that gives 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 that the authors provide a rather detailed and gory history of how the very wealthy organized themselves and used media (among other tools) to shape public opinion. I will not rehash what the book says here, but I would like to point out that this whole business of propaganda cum public relations didn’t start in wartime. In the Western world, we like to equate the emergence of propaganda with the Nazi war machine. When we do so, we can hold propaganda at arms’ length, as something that is an aberration within Western culture. But that’s not true. The reality is that 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 the public perception of their brutal anti-labour stance. In other words, propaganda has corporate roots. In fact, in 1914, when Rockefeller sympathizers in the Colorado National Guard massacred five miners and union leaders, two miners’ wives and 12 children,2 the Rockefeller’s propaganda team went into overtime, smearing Mother Jones (a legendary union organizer, for whom a long running political magazine was named) as a prostitute, and blaming the union itself for sending agitators. Both claims were blatant lies, it should be noted, but both, when put to paper and pamphlet, were 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 was also brought to bear in the service of product sales. The most infamous example, as used in the textbook, was that of Edward Bernays, who was responsible for breaking the taboo against women smoking in public.

By convincing women that the unhealthy and self-destructive practice of smoking cigarettes was a sign that they were free and empowered, Bernays was able to open the door to decades of disease and unnecessary death for women. Such was the damage done by Bernays and his followers that it took almost a hundred years to turn back public perceptions in North America to the point where people could see smoking for what it really was. I suppose that what is most disturbing about this example is how something like the need for freedom and empowerment can be so be easily attached to something as harmful as death by cancer. 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, quoted in Millar & Dinan, 2008, p. 15).

Of course, after the war, “propaganda” was a dirty word. The world had seen what propaganda was all about, and in this light, everybody, including the general public, knew there was something wrong with it. 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 was the burgeoning corporate propaganda industry to do?

The solution was to find a better name. In a classic example of PR “spin,” propaganda became public relations. Public relations was a much softer term, without any of the negative connotations of manipulation and control of the word “propaganda.” 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!

The renaming was very successful: 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 unit’s 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 & Dinan, 2008, p. 180).

Redefining propaganda as PR was itself a major propaganda coup, and allowed for the proliferation of PR firms that now span the globe. At the turn of the twenty-first century, PR has become a common feature of Western democratic societies. As one of the all time great PR gurus himself states, without a hint that he is aware of the contradiction between “democracy” and the “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 Millar & Dinan, 2008, p. 32)

And what, you may be asking, does all this have to do with social movements? Well, as you will 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 marketing cigarettes, to making 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 by imposing ideas and ideologies that 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 define 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 all of the gory details that Miller and Dinan discuss. However there are a few more things I would like to highlight. First of all, after reading the book, you should be able to see clearly the links between ideology, indoctrination and public relations. Despite the fact that PR peeps might not like the connection to be made, public relations has all the features of ideology and indoctrination, from the repetition of a 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 is not its only function. PR is also involved in politics and economics in a big way. This fact, 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 (in the sense of human labour power). We considered this topic briefly in our examination of homework, but as we examine the history of propaganda, it becomes obvious and blatant. 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 you will clearly see once you have read the assigned readings, when it comes to the mobilization of resources, networking is crucially important. In order to propagate ideas, in order to move forward, people must engage in contact and exchange. The authors of the unit textbook 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 one. People with specific interests get together to discuss how to forward those interests all the time, from a Freemasons’ meeting to a Girl Scout troop gathering. The only difference is that, in this case, the interests are political and economic, and the players have a lot of power already. When they meet, they are interested in advancing their political and economic interests.

Fourth, and although it might go without saying at this point, 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 will see in the unit textbook, public relations is effective; so, if you have money, 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 5, there are lots 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 to advance their agenda. Of course as we will also see in Unit 5, this fact doesn’t mean that those without money and power cannot organize. There are other ways, but it’s a lot harder, and the dedication and resolve required are intense.3 As we’ll discuss in Units 5 and 6, the emergence of the Internet and the WWW make getting an alternative message out a bit easier, but having the message heard amid 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 a functioning democracy, 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 changes our understanding of Western democracies. Simply put, there is a lot going on beneath the surface of our so called “democracies.” Our television, radio and newspapers typically don’t talk about this, but the reality is there. It may be true that democracy works, but it works better for those with the money and power to mobilize resources.

I have one last comment, and this is perhaps the most important point. A famous linguist and political activist by the name of Noam Chomsky once said that it is all—the media, newspapers, radio, public relations firms and all that jazz—about the manufacture of consent (see Herman & Chomsky, 1988). They send us their glitzy messages and get us to agree with “the system” by a process of PR propagandizing that leads us into that agreement. However, as this unit’s textbook points out, that is not entirely 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 do nothing about it. As the authors point out, the secret isn’t consent, it is compliance. Disagree all you want, just so long as you sit there and comply.

The insight the authors provide on this point is important. As noted in the textbook you read in Unit 1, when it comes to social movements, questions surrounding the mobilization of resources are important. Here we can see the other side of this coin. If we can mobilize resources, we can also demobilize them, and that is exactly the process described in this unit’s reading. Public relations and the media machine can be used both to mobilize and to 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 point. In this unit, you have a choice of viewing either Thank You for Smoking or the Matrix trilogy. Both 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 mobilizing the masses in favour of smoking, and also by demobilizing those who were critical of the habit. I 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,” to 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). The 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, 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 the same process. The first movie starts out seeming to be quite progressive. The movie is about a society ruled by energy sucking computers that have wired humans up as 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 rescue 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.

They are cool movies that have all the accoutrements of resistance. But while it all seems to be a very timely and critical view of modern society, in fact the movies function to demobilize criticism and support the status quo. At the end, Neo dies, sacrificed to the machine god, so that others may be free—if they want!4 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 realities of underground freedom. The argument reaches its gory culmination in the last few seconds of the move, when the machines undertake to 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 trilogy, nevertheless by the end of it you are not jumping out of your seat saying “fight The Man.” On the contrary, 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 peoples’ 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 churches’ 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 provide 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 2000 years, and we 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 and wait?”

It is all very demobilizing when you think about it. If the movie was actually functioning as most people thought—that is, as an active critique of modern life—the ending would have been different (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, this unit focuses on the PR industry and the links between propaganda and PR, between PR and ideas, and between ideas and social action. As I’ve said:

The ideas in our head, whether they are ideological or not, are a key precursor to the actions we take to build this reality that we live in.

As we proceed through the course, we will need to take a deeper look at the ideas that we are given that either support or, more frequently, undermine our ability to mobilize. In particular, in the next unit, I want to look at the ideology of competition, what it’s about, where it comes from, and the effect it 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, the whole idea of competition is the complete antithesis of collective action and mobilization.


On completing this unit, you should be able to

  1. discuss the significance of “compliance” in Western societies, and the role of the PR industry in manufacturing this compliance.
  2. discuss the links between propaganda, public relations, ideas and social action.
  3. outline the three phases of the history of propaganda in Western societies.

Reading and Viewing Assignment

Note: You may wish to read through the “Study Questions” provided at the end of this unit, and keep them in mind, along with the unit objectives, as you complete this reading and viewing assignment.

Read the textbook identified below; it is included in your course package.

Miller, D. & Dinan, W. (2008). A century of spin: How public relations became the cutting edge of corporate power. London: Pluto Press.

Watch the film or the trilogy identified below. You should have requested your choice from the Athabasca University Library, or obtained it from your local video rental service.

Reitman, J. (Dir.). (2005) Thank You for Smoking. Los Angeles: Room 9 Entertainment, TYFS Productions & ContentFilm.

The Matrix trilogy, consisting of:

Wachowski, A. & Wachowski, L. (Dir.). (1999). The matrix. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, Village Roadshow Pictures, Groucho II Film Partnership & Silver Pictures.

Wachowski, A. & Wachowski, L. (Dir.). (2003). The matrix reloaded. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, Village Roadshow Pictures, NPV Entertainment & Silver Pictures.

Wachowski, A. & Wachowski, L. (Dir.). (2003). The matrix revolution. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers, Village Roadshow Pictures, NPV Entertainment & Silver Pictures.

Study Questions

Answer each of the questions below, and 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, 400 words is a page, 800 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 question.

  1. What is “propaganda”? Why is it significant to a study of social movements? (200)
  2. What is “structural advantage”? Why is it significant? [See especially, page 6 of the Miller and Dinan textbook.] (200)
  3. What does it mean to “manufacture compliance”? Is consent a necessary feature of compliance? Why or why not? (400)
  4. What is a corporate social movement? What are the three waves of corporate political action? What did each wave achieve? (400)
  5. Do you think corporate PR is compatible with functioning democratic societies? Why or why not? [Be sure to read Chapter 11 in the unit textbook.] (400)
  6. What role did or does corporate PR play in the selling of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Give specific examples. (400)
  7. Discuss either the Matrix trilogy or Thank You for Smoking in relation to concepts introduced in this unit and this course. (400) Post your discussion on the unit forum, and respond to the discussion presented by another student.