An overview of some of Stuart Ewen’s concepts

(Nov 2017) 26 minute youtube, Chris Hedges interview with Stuart Ewen:  Trump is a product that speaks to what is missing in people’s lives…he embodies the cult of the self at the core of consumerism.  It’s all about me.  Acquisitive Individualism.  People project onto a leader what they feel missing themselves.  The everyman who has become successful.  Saying what has been submerged the last 50 years — embodies anger and hatred, offers people permission to be who they may have wanted to be (and this expression has increased in the last two years as found in some research, such as the Colorado Narrative Project).  There were two people running on appeals to community, family, decency and so on, and Bernie Sanders was not worried about simply presenting facts.  He was interested in talking with people and reaching them for who they are.  The political establishment made war on that and is still.

Stuart Ewen (born 1945) is a New York-based author, historian and lecturer on mediaconsumer culture, and the compliance profession. He is also a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, in the departments of HistorySociology and Media Studies. He is the author of six books. Under the pen name Archie Bishop, Ewen has also worked as a graphic artistphotographerpamphleteer, and agitprop activist for many years.[1]  As a young man, in 1964 and early 1965, Ewen was a field secretary for the civil rights organization the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). After working as a volunteer in the Freedom House in Columbus, Mississippi, he became part of the SNCC staff, earning the standard pay of $9.66 per week. After working in Columbus, he and Isaac Coleman, who was the project director, opened up a new field office in Tupelo, Mississippi. In 1966, Ewen was one of the founding editors of an early underground newspaper, Connections, in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was a student.[2]

Captains of Consciousness offers a historical look at the origins of the advertising industry and consumer society at the turn of the twentieth century. For this new edition Stuart Ewen, one of our foremost interpreters of popular culture, has written a new preface that considers the continuing influence of advertising and commercialism in contemporary life. Not limiting his critique strictly to consumers and the advertising culture that serves them, he provides a fascinating history of the ways in which business has refined its search for new consumers by ingratiating itself into Americans’ everyday lives. A timely and still-fascinating critique of life in a consumer culture. Some feedback on the book:

  • Prof Ewen uncovers a missing area in the field of communications and media studies; his inquiry into the phenomenon of “consumerism” unearths many interesting historical pieces, including the Committee on Public Information, which was created during WWI as a tool for manipulating the public.Persuasion this is called in communications theory. All the distastefulness that one can suspect behind advertising and our “consumer culture” is explained herein.
  • Previously, people in our culture were raised to value craftsmanship, quality, and thrift. These values became unsuitable, and had to be replaced with acceptance of disposability and debt. Tradition was replaced by trends. Also, people had to be made perpetually dissatisfied with themselves and everything around them, so they could be made to buy things which promised fleeting satisfactions.  The transformation has been so complete we are almost unaware of it. We take consumer culture so much for granted. Consider: Cultures used to have one book or central legend that lasted them for hundreds of years. Now every single day brings a new “Most Viewed” item on YouTube. Movies that lead the box office two weeks in a row are uncommon. A number one bestselling book or album spends only days at the top of the charts. This is clearly no sustainable economy!  The acceleration of this process seems almost asymptotic. The most significant event in the future history of the world may not even be perceived by anyone, because it will only last for a fraction of a second.
  • The insight to the pre-industrial world and the illustration of sprouting consumerism creates a vivid picture of a world can never know. It’s important to understand these backgrounds to gain understanding to the “social roots of consumer culture” and how the “captains of consciousness” continue to manipulate the playing field today. The game hasn’t changed a bit it seems, the masses are still pushed and pulled through fear, although today the “captains” are faced with very little resistance from the public sector. A vital aspect of the study is the way children were targeted in the consumerization process. The examples supply a firm grip on how consumerism permeated the generations, how we got to today, where it’s first nature to buy buy buy and never ask any questions. A very useful read for anybody. Before I read it I remember one reviewer saying that this book is enough to constitute a full education, and I can’t say that I disagree. Retrain your Brain.
  • Stuart Ewen…made his impact largely by looking up what the surprisingly frank corporate magnates of the late 19th and early 20th century were saying about what they were doing. Asserting that advertising was intended to remold the American people into the kind of consumer that the new mass-production industries needed sounds like a crazy left-wing conspiracy theory, but the quotes that Ewen has found to this effect are from prominent businessmen like Edward Filene or sources such as the advertising trade journal Printers Ink. Similarly, the idea of mass consumption as an ideology that could safely absorb and redirect the liberatory impulses of socialism and feminism sounds a lot less like paranoid raving when it’s being argued by some of the people who invented modern advertising. Ewen is also good on the ways that advertising changed the media business, especially newspapers (and especially the foreign-language press), and he draws the obvious connections to political propaganda, especially via Edward Bernays. The final section, on advertising and the family, was also interesting, if slightly less persuasive: it could have stood to be longer, probably. In fact, the whole book gives the impression of being a short introduction to a deeper topic, and could probably have been at least half again as long as it is without damage. Ewen finishes with an impassioned denunciation of advertising’s promotion of conformity and a call to free ourselves from corporate propaganda, lest it become the only source of social change. His most prescient criticism was perhaps of the way that various forms of resistance to the powers that be were already (in the mid-70s) being appropriated by advertising: “we are offered the idiom of our own criticism as well as its negation — corporate solutions to corporate problems.” As it happens, though, he may not have been sufficiently cynical about the ways that resistance to corporate control could be used to sell corporate products. In an earlier passage, he writes that in the 50s, advertising was making it unacceptable “[t]o look different, to act different, to think different . . . .” There’s no evidence that Apple’s advertisers had this passage in mind when they created the “think different” slogan, but if they did, that would just about kill irony.
  • In this book, Ewen makes the argument that advertising has more power in our collective “consciousness” than we give it credit for. He starts with the industrialization of America, and how that influenced advertising. He speaks of how the image of the woman, the man, and the family was altered in this consciousness by the ubiquity of ads.   In summary, he wants us to realize that ads aren’t just there to be there. They have been carefully constructed by advertisers to perpetuate their agendas. It certainly altered my own consciousness about how I understand ads.
  • This is a sassy little book. I enjoyed every word of it. It strikes right at the heart of consumer culture, leaving no uncertainty about the health and crisis of Capitalism. Ewen delivers crucial context to the advertising and marketing strategies of the early 20th century, leaving you with several frames of reference to add to your analytical toolkit. His use of critique of the nuclear/industrial family is spot on. 

In 1989, his book All Consuming Images provided the basis for Bill Moyers‘ four-part award-winning series, “The Public Mind.” In 2004, another of his books, PR! A Social History of Spin, was the foundation of a four-part BBC series, “The Century of the Self,” produced by Adam Curtis.  

  1. “Happiness Machines” (originally broadcast 17 March 2002)[2]
  2. “The Engineering of Consent” (originally broadcast 24 March 2002)[3]
  3. “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads; He Must Be Destroyed” (originally broadcast 31 March 2002)[4]
  4. “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering” (originally broadcast 7 April 2002)[5]

The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of consumerism and commodification and their implications. It also questions the modern way people see themselves, the attitudes to fashion, and superficiality.  The business and political worlds use psychological techniques to read, create and fulfill the desires of the public, and to make their products and speeches as pleasing as possible to consumers and voters. Curtis questions the intentions and origins of this relatively new approach to engaging the public.  Where once the political process was about engaging people’s rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs as a group, Stuart Ewen, a historian of public relations, argues that politicians now appeal to primitive impulses that have little bearing on issues outside the narrow self-interests of a consumer society.

The words of Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in 1927, are cited: “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.[7]

In part four the main subjects are Philip Gould, a political strategist, and Matthew Freud, a PR consultant and the great-grandson of Sigmund Freud. In the 1990s, they were instrumental to bringing the Democratic Party in the US and New Labour in the United Kingdom back into power through use of the focus group, originally invented by psychoanalysts employed by US corporations to allow consumers to express their feelings and needs, just as patients do in psychotherapy.

Curtis ends by saying that, “Although we feel we are free, in reality, we—like the politicians—have become the slaves of our own desires,” and compares Britain and America to ‘Democracity’, an exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair created by Edward Bernays.

Stuart Ewen has become a spokesman against violations of academic freedom in the period since 9/11, and is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Center at NYU.


  • Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
  • Channels of Desire: Mass Images and the Shaping of American Consciousness (co-authored with Elizabeth Ewen), New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.
  • All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture, New York: Basic Books, 1988.
  • PR!: A Social History of Spin, New York: Basic Books, 1996.
  • The New Media Reader: Introduction to Media Studies Critical Texts, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. ISBN 0-618-15230-X
  • Typecasting: On the Arts and Sciences of Human Inequality (co-authored with Elizabeth Ewen), New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006. ISBN 1-58322-735-0

Articles and essays

Crystallizing Public Opinion is a book written by Edward Bernays and published in 1923. It is perhaps the first book to define and explain the field of public relations.[1]  Bernays defines the counsel on public relations, as, more than a press agent, someone who can create a useful symbolic linkage among the masses. Appropriate messages should be crafted based on careful study of group psychology, and disseminated by not merely purveying but actually creating news.  He gives examples from his early career and cites ideas from theorists including Walter Lippmann and Wilfred Trotter.


Part I—Scope and Functions

Bernays describes how he solved various problems as a public relations counsel. These include:

  • Helping a hotel to defeat a rumor it was closing, by publicly renewing the contract of the famous and well-paid maître d’hôtel. (pp. 14–16)
  • Selling bacon by asking a physician to conduct a survey confirming the dietary soundness of eating bacon for breakfast. (pp. 16–17)
  • Resolving a labor shortage in the Kansas wheat harvest by promoting the job, through the War Department and the Associated Press, to soldiers returning from World War I. Appealing to business men to hire soldiers in general. (pp. 21–24)
  • Promoting Lithuanian national identity by forming a Lithuanian National Council, disseminating information of interest respectively to intellectuals, politicians, sports fans, and other demographically profiled groups. Thus: “He reflected to those communities whose crystallized opinion would be helpful in guiding other opinions, facts which gave them the basis for conclusions favorable to Lithuania.” (pp. 24–27)
  • Bolstering the League of Nations by forming a diverse committee to advocate for it. “The public relations consultant, having assisted in the formation of this committee, called a meeting of women representing Democratic, Republican, radical, reactionary, club, society, professional and industrial groups, and suggested that they make a united appeal for national support of the League of Nations.” (pp. 31–32)

Public opinion, he writes, is becoming more and more a matter of interest, as people seek out information about the world, and as various organizations attempt to create favorable impressions. Especially interested in public opinion are those companies—the public utilities—which especially are supposed to serve the public. (pp. 41–46).  The public relations counsel is a student of psychology, but also “a practitioner with a wide range of instruments”: the circumstances he creates, followed by advertising, movies, letters, booklets, parades, articles, etc. (pp. 52–54)

Part II—The Group and Herd

“Public opinion”, according to Bernays, is an amorphous group of judgments which are not well elaborated even in the head of a single average individual. He extracts a quotation from by Wilfred Trotter, which states that this average man has many strong convictions whose origin he can’t explain (Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War, p. 36). People’s minds have “logic-proof compartments” which must be approached by means beyond the rational. (pp. 61–68)

After discussing the mutual influence between the press and the public, suggesting that the public relations counsel should understand the established public opinion in its complexity. He invokes the concept of “stereotype” described by Walter Lippmann, noting that the stereotypes people already hold govern what new facts they will absorb. He cites Everett Dean Martin‘s 1920 book The Behavior of Crowds, discussing how herd mentality can exaggerate people’s unconscious urges, lower inhibitions, and heighten antagonism to other groups. Educated people can display this mentality just as the ignorant can. Bernays quotes Trotter stating that herd mentality affects people all the time, not only when they are part of an actual mob in the street. (pp. 98–110)

The public relations practitioner, therefore, must tap into the current of group energy. (pp. 118–122) 

Part III—Technique and Method

Modern America’s size and heterogeneity “make it necessary to-day for the proponent of a point of view to engage an expert to represent him before society, an expert who must know how to reach groups totally dissimilar as to ideals, customs, and even language. It is this necessity which has resulted in the development of the counsel on public relations.” The skilled public relations man provides a valuable service in overcoming heterogeneity to influence millions of people in the same way. This is done by using established communication media to communicate the right facts at the right time. (pp. 125–138)

People should be targeted as members of “interlapping groups” which involve different aspects of their identity. (139–146) For example, in promoting silk: silk was represented as fashionable to women’s clubs, artistic to art-lovers, and historically interesting to schools. These different angles could appeal to different aspects of people’s identity:

The school teacher was appealed to in the schoolroom as an educator, and after school hours as a member of a women’s club. She read the advertisements about silk as a woman reader of the newspapers, and as a member of the women’s group which visited the museums, she saw the silk there. The woman who stayed at home was brought into contact with the silk through her child. (p. 146)

Highlighting the correct group identity for the purpose at hand is much more effective than trying to change the stance of an individual group. Emphasizing changing external conditions, such as new technology, is also effective. Universal instincts such as self-preservation and sex can also be usefully invoked. Or, instinct-emotion pairs like flightfearrevulsiondisgust, pugnacity-anger, and others. (pp. 146–153)

“The public relations counsel sometimes uses the current stereotypes, sometimes combats them, and sometimes creates new ones.” (p. 162)

As the methods of psychological influence are many and various, Bernays proposes to focus on fundamentals. He encourages the public relations counsel to imagine himself in turn as a member of the different groups he must reach, and thereafter construct a campaign which will appeal to as many as possible. For example, a hotel wishing to demonstrate its prominence can hold a public celebration with carefully chosen guests —(including “a leading banker, a society woman, a prominent lawyer, an influential preacher, and so forth until a cross section of the city’s most telling activities is mirrored in the committee.” (166–169).

The public relations counsel must therefore generate news, “no matter what the medium which broadcasts this news.”

The public relations counsel must lift startling facts from his whole subject and present them as news. He must isolate ideas and develop them into events so that they can be more readily understood and so that they may claim attention as news.

Once interesting news is created it will propagate itself through media channels which already seek to capture public attention. (p. 171)

Part IV—Ethical Relations

Bernays continues his discussion of news and observes that journalists see public relations practitioners as important sources of newsworthy information. He stresses the centrality of newspapers to culture and writes that the public relations counselor must supply “truthful, accurate, and verifiable news” to remain in the journalists’ good graces. (p. 177–183)

The definition of “news” is not settled and varies from newspaper to newspaper. Bernays quotes William Henry Irwin‘s definition that news is “a departure from the established order”. Then, he quotes Irwin’s list of principles for newsworthiness, which he points out may somewhat contradict the definition:[2]

  1. “We prefer to read about the things we like.” (“Power for the men, affections for the women.”)
  2. “Our interest in news increases in direct ratio to our familiarity with its subject, its setting, and its dramatis personæ.”
  3. “Our interest in news increases in direct ratio to the general importance of the persons or activities which it affects.”

Often, Bernays quotes Lippmann, an “overt act” is necessary to clarify a state of affairs so that it can become news. Lippmann wrote that a press agent stands between the event and the press in order to control the flow of information. Bernays writes that a counsel on public relations does not merely purvey news but create it. The resulting material must of course be truthful and accurate—and furthermore it must be well-written and dispensed with sensitivity to the needs of the various media through which it will be broadcast. (pp. 191–198)

Beyond the newspaper, there is radiolecture tours, meetings, advertising (including billboards and any other type of paid space), playscinema, and direct mail. (pp. 199–207)

Defending the role of the public relations counsel as a “special pleader”, Bernays writes that the viewpoints which he fosters are not necessarily worse than those he would discourage. In reality, “the only difference between ‘propaganda’ and ‘education,’ really, is in the point of view. The advocacy of what we believe in is education. The advocacy of what we don’t believe in is propaganda.” He quotes Elmer Davis‘s observation that “the relativity of truth is a commonplace to any newspaper man, even to one who has never studied epistemology.” (pp. 208–213)

“The social value of the public relations counsel lies in the fact that he brings to the public facts and ideas of social utility which would not so readily gain acceptance otherwise.” (p. 216)

Bernays concludes with a quotation from Ferdinand Tönnies which warns that civilization is under threat from lower instincts and that the “higher strata of society” must “inject moral and spiritual motives into public opinion.” (p. 217) 


Commentators acknowledged that Bernays was mapping out new territory with his book, which claimed to define the “counsel on public relations” for the first time. The New York Times called it “the first book to be devoted exclusively to the occupation which is gradually becoming of overwhelming national importance.” Opinions of its merit varied. H. L. Mencken called it a “pioneer book” at the time but later disparaged it. Future senator Ernest Gruening, in a review called “Higher Hokum”, asked whether persuading the public was much preferable to corralling them by heavier-handed means (the “public be damned” approach)—whether the end result would “be greatly different for the public which, while it no longer tolerates being ‘damned,’ guilelessly permits itself to be ‘bunked’? Is seduction preferable to ravishment?”[3] 

Critical analysis

Crystallizing Public Opinion appeared the year after Lippmann’s Public Opinion and can be construed as an application of Lippman’s principles to the active manipulation of public opinion.[4] Whereas Lippmann saw a bigger role for government in steering public opinion, Bernays focused on the corporation and its public relations attaché.[5]

Professor Sue Curry Jansen argues that Bernays distorted Lippman’s work (and that public relations historians such as Stuart Ewen and Larry Tye have uncritically recapitulated Bernays on this point). She writes that Public Opinion is an analysis of the constraints on rationality which confront a democratic society and that “Bernays systematically inverts Lippmann’s critique into an apology for public relations by selectively and deceptively quoting him in support of positions that Lippmann clearly rejects.” Whereas Lippmann treated the stereotype as a sort of blind spot, or obstacle to rational thinking, Bernays viewed it as “a great aid to the public relations counsel” despite being “not necessarily truthful”. She also finds that Crystallizing Public Opinion sometimes attributions quotations to Lippmann which do not match the text of Public Opinion at all.[6] 

Reality-based community  The phrase was attributed by journalist Ron Suskind to an unnamed official in the George W. Bush Administration who used it to denigrate a critic of the administration’s policies as someone who based their judgements on facts.[2] In a 2004 article appearing in the New York Times Magazine, Suskind wrote:

The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.[3]

The source of the quotation was later identified as Bush’s senior advisor Karl Rove,[4] although Rove has denied saying it.  Though some on the left side of the United States political spectrum considered it as a badge of honor,[2][6] the term and the piece of writing where it was revealed to the public were not perceived as significant by conservatives.[7][8] It was given a second life by growth of the so-called post-truth political culture.[9][10][11]

Zbigniew Brzezinski in his book, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower considered the manner in which “the senior Bush aide derisively dismissed criticism from what he called “the reality based community” as demonstration of the “arrogance that swept the Bush White House”.[12] International Relations scholar Fred Halliday wrote that the phrase reality-based community (in contrast to faith-based community) was “a term of disparagement in the Bush Administration for those who did not share their international goals and aspirations”.[2] According to liberal media critic and journalism professor Jay Rosen, “Many on the left adopted the term. ‘Proud Member of the Reality-Based Community,’ their blogs said. The right then jeered at the left’s self-description.”[13]

Danie du Plessis (ed), Introduction to Public Relations and Advertising; Lansdowne: Juta Education, 2000; ISBN 0-7021-5557-8; p. 12.

Will Irwin, “What is News?“, Collier’s Vol. 46, 18 March 1911, p. 16.

Larry TyeThe Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations; New York: Crown, 1998; ISBN 0-517-7043-8 Parameter error in {{isbn}}: Invalid ISBN.; pp. 96–99.

Stuart EwenPR! A Social History of Spin; New York: Basic Books (Perseus), 1996; ISBN 0-465-06179-6; p. 164. “In 1923, just a year after Lippmann published his tome, Public Opinion, Bernays answered with his own book, Crystallizing Public Opinion. Five years later—again just a year after Lippmann’s The Phantom Public appeared—Bernays published a second book on public relations, Propaganda.

If Lippmann’s prose was intended to sway the thinking of socially cognizant leaders and intellectuals, Bernays’s writing style was meant for practitioners in the trenches; his primary interest was to frame the job of public relations counsel in ways that would allow practitioners to take advantage of the insights of modern social and psychological thought. Lippmann’s books were filled with intricate ruminations on the processes of human epistemology and theoretical speculations on how these processes might pertain to the project of molding public opinion. Bernays’s books were punctuated throughout by vivid narratives—stories of Bernays’s earliest campaigns, public relations feats, and commonplace sales situations—each presented to demonstrate how social psychology, and the social scientific approach more generally, might be employed in the everyday work of a publicist.”

César García, “Rethinking Walter Lippmann’s legacy in the history of public relations“, PRism 7(2), 2010; p. 4.

Sue Curry Jansen, “Semantic Tyranny: How Edward L. Bernays Stole Walter Lippmann’s Mojo and Got Away With It and Why It Still Matters“, International Journal of Communication 7 (2013), 1094–1111. Sue Curry Jansen: 

For the most part, the way we see things is a combination of what is there and of what we expected to find. The heavens are not the same to an astronomer as to a pair of lovers; a page of Kant will start a different train of thought in a Kantian and in a radical empiricist. —Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922, p. 76)  Lippmann was not the only early critic of public relations, but he may have been the most visible one. As the author of serious books, editor of an influential magazine, advisor to presidents, and a prominent public intellectual, he was a force to be reckoned with.  Bernays was no disciple of Lippmann. Crystallizing Public Opinion loots and vandalizes Public Opinion. International Journal of Communication 7 (2013) Semantic Tyranny 1109 Bernays’ misrepresentation of Lippmann is semantic tyranny: a form of communication that censors critical thought at the source. In explaining this technique in a television interview, Bernays proudly cited the name he gave to the worldwide pseudo-event he created in 1929 for his client, General Electric, to honor the 50th anniversary of Thomas Edison’s invention of electric light, and to increase GE’s sales: “Light’s Golden Jubilee.” Composed only of terms with positive associations, Bernays explained that his semantic tyranny disarmed potential critics. In effect, this is what Bernays does to Public Opinion. Claiming his book is a friendly reading of Public Opinion, Bernays bathes in the reflected glow of Lippmann’s achievements while neutering and censoring Lippmann’s criticism of public relations. It is understandable why some early readers of Crystallizing Public Opinion easily succumbed to Bernays’ “higher hokum.” It is more puzzling why contemporary critical public relations scholars have not interrogated the deceptive rendering of Lippmann by the “father of spin” (Tye, 1998, title page). When they do, they will discover that young Lippmann was actually a prescient ally in their cause, not the evil genius they have constructed from Bernays’ semantic tyranny.