The Engineering of Consent

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For the documentary series episode, see The Century of the Self.

"The Engineering of Consent" is an essay by Edward Bernays first published in 1947,[1] and a book he published in 1955.


Bernays explained, "Professionally, [public relations] activities are planned and executed by trained practitioners in accordance with scientific principles, based on the findings of social scientists. Their dispassionate approach and methods may be likened to those of the engineering professions which stem from the physical sciences."[2]

The threat of engineered consent in democracy has been expressed in a textbook on American government:[3]

Under modern conditions of political advertising and manipulation, it has become possible to talk of the engineering of consent by an elite of experts and professional politicians. Consent that is thus engineered is difficult to distinguish in any fundamental way from the consent that supports modern totalitarian governments. Were the manipulated voter to become the normal voter, the government he supports could hardly be said to rest on his consent in any traditional sense of that word.

To some observers, consumer psychologists have already made the choice for people before they buy a certain product. Marketing is often based on themes and symbols that unconsciously influence consumer behavior.

The "Engineering Consent" chapter of Christopher Bryson's book The Fluoride Deception describes how Bernays helped the water fluoridation campaign in the USA.


In 1955 University of Oklahoma Press published Bernays' book The Engineering of Consent. In fact Bernays contributed only the first chapter (22 pages) "The theory and practice of public relations: a resume". The seven other chapters were by his associates: Objectives by Howard Walden Cutler, Research by Sherwood Dodge, Strategy by Nicholas Samstag, Themes and Symbols by Doris Fleischman and H.W. Cutler, Organization for public relations by John Price Jones, Planning by Benjamin Fine, and The tactics of public relations by A. Robert Ginsburgh.

The longest chapter, the one on strategy, begins with sociological and psychological observations on human motivation drawn from Karl Menninger and Vilfredo Pareto. Samstag illustrates varieties of strategy with sample cases before the public. He details aspects of timing, forbearance, approach, surprise, participation, association, disassociation, crossroads, personalization, bland withdrawal, apparent withdrawal, apparent runner-up, omission, reversal, mosaic, and understatement.


A. Edgar Schuler[4] called the book a "convenient and compact introduction to the field of public relations." He singles out Samstag’s chapter as "interesting, enlightening, provocative, and poignant."

M. Weisglas reviewed the book for International Communication Gazette,[5] panning it saying "Bernay’s and company have deluded their readers with false hopes about public relations- truths."

Women’s smoking[edit]

As a practical example of Edward Bernays’ theory, detailed in his essay, George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, hired Edward Bernays in 1928 to lead a campaign to entice more women to smoke in public.[6] The campaign is believed to have helped converting attitudes towards women’s smoking from a social taboo to a more socially acceptable act.[6] Bernays did this by associating women’s smoking with the ideas of “power” and “freedom” which he did by using the slogan “Torches of Freedom” during a famous parade in New York City.

The idea of “Engineering of Consent” was motivated by Freud’s idea that humans are irrational beings and are motivated primarily by inner desires hidden in their unconscious. If one understood what those unconscious desires were, then one could use this to one’s advantage to sell products and increase sales.


The Engineering of Consent also applies to the pioneered application of Freudian psychoanalytic concepts and techniques to business—in particular to the study of consumer behavior in the marketplace. Ideas established strongly influenced the practices of the advertising industry in the twentieth century.

The techniques applied developing the "consumer lifestyle" were also later applied to developing theories in cultural commodification; which has proven successful in the later 20th century (with diffusion of cultures throughout North America) to sell ethnic foods and style in popular mainstream culture by removing them from geography and ethnic histories and sanitizing them for a general public.

Ernest Dichter applied what he dubbed "the strategy of desire" for building a "stable society," by creating for the public a common identity through the products they consumed; again, much like with cultural commodification, where culture has no "identity," "meaning," or "history" inherited from previous generations, but rather, is created by the attitudes which are introduced by consumer behaviors and social patterns of the period. According to Dichter, "To understand a stable citizen, you have to know that modern man quite often tries to work off his frustrations by spending on self-sought gratification. Modern man is internally ready to fulfill his self-image, by purchasing products which compliment it."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Edward L. Bernays (1947), The Engineering of Consent, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 250 p. 113.
  2. ^ Bernays 1955 page 4
  3. ^ John C. Livingston & Robert G. Thompson (1966) The Consent of the Governed, 2nd edition, page 11, Collier Macmillan
  4. ^ A. Edgar Schuler (1956) Review: The Engineering of Consent, Rural Sociology 21(1):80, link from Cornell University Core Historical Literature of Agriculture
  5. ^ M. Weisglas (1956) "Review: Engineering of Consent", International Communication Gazette 2:59
  6. ^ a b 1929 Torches of Freedom, The Museum of Public Relations, retrieved March 11, 2014