The four-part documentary series The Century of the Self captures the rise of one of the definitive industries of the 20th century, namely, Public Relations (PR). The term Public Relations is somewhat of a euphemism, for far from maintaining healthy relations with consumers the industry actually acts against their interests. It is true that the role of PR is to keep the public contended, but the problem lies in the means it adopts to achieve this end. Instead of addressing genuine public grievances through transparent sharing of information, PR firms specialize in manufacturing misinformation and spinning dubious facts.
The Century of the Self exposes how thorough and scientific the PR industry has become. In its early days the industry concerned itself with selling products by highlighting its features. However, quite soon, as the Unique Selling Propositions (USPs) of competing products decreased, the only way of distinguishing products was through their perceptions. This led to a pervasive trend of promoting products for their qualities and attributes. This is where Sigmund Freud’s theories on psychoanalysis were employed. The advertising industry, from being endorsers of products had now turned into manipulators of individual psychology.
If the choice of psychological manipulation was bad enough for consumers, it was even more portentous when it comes to democracy. The successful party propaganda efforts of Adolf Hitler in the 1930s had set a notorious benchmark. Ever since, political campaigns have come exclusively to depend on marketing success and not on the merits of election manifestos. These days the same PR firms that sell us toothpaste and detergent also sell us our next President. Hence, as The Century of the Self indicated in grave tone, politics today has become an exercise in tapping our primordial fears and instincts. Politics is no more a reasoned discourse on the merits and demerits of policies.
The documentary Toxic Sludge is Good For You is again another indictment of the PR industry. It talks of the unholy alliance between big corporations, political parties and the PR industry. As a result most programs in mainstream media are no more than exercises in creating illusions. As the title ironically suggests, advertisements have become synonymous with spreading falsities. To a large extent even the general public knows it. The documentary alludes to how PR industry had copied some of the strategies used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for international espionage and sabotage. In a strong critique of the state of PR industry, the filmmakers liken it to being part of the corporate-state machinery. Hence, more than being a commercial enterprise, the PR industry is deeply politicized as well. This has implications for democracy, as this politicization invariably interferes with fair democratic processes.