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The engineering of consent

Posted by Simon Parke, 15 May 2017, 10.56am

It was Edward Bernays who coined the phrase, ‘The engineering of consent’.

He took the lessons he’d learned from producing wartime propaganda in 1914 – 1918 into advertising, into consumer selling.

Though today, one of the most efficient engineers sells political parties not soap powder.

Sir Lynton Crosby, nicknamed the ‘Wizard of Oz’ (he’s Australian) has been a successful campaign strategist for various right of centre parties around the world.

He was employed by David Cameron in the last election and has been re-employed by Theresa May.

He works hard. His first strategy meeting with his inner circle is at 5.45am, followed by a second at 6.30am to harden up strategy, followed by a third gathering at 7.30am.

This third one may well include the party leaders, getting their instructions.

And he does hold the leaders to account. If he doesn’t like something he, well, mentions it.

Cameron records frequent early morning ‘WTF?!’ emails.

But he’s mainly good at his job because he listens. He listens to people’s fears and then gives them back to them, a little simplified, in a catchy slogan.

In the last election, he discovered the deep fear people had of Labour linking up with the Scottish nationalists.

He left that dead cat on Labour’s doorstep. And they wasted a lot of time trying to remove it.

The secret is not to try and change anybody, but to harness what people already believe and put it to use.

So this is not the art of persuasion or in any way a crusade.

Rather, it’s the offer to people of what, on some level, they already feel and want; a political programme surfing on voter prejudice.

(‘Strong and stable’ must have scored very high in Crosby’s famed focus groups.)

It interests me how often in this election the Tories don’t bother to put anyone up to rebut a story or give their side.

They don’t feel they gain much from an interview, which may ask unscripted questions; the fear-fuelled slogans and policies are out there, doing their work.

Debate is about persuasion; but Crosby is not about persuasion, there’s no need. Even a dead dog can swim with the tide.

Dumbed-down and simplified mantras are hardly the sole property of the right, of course.

In 1917, the liberal establishment in Russia, understanding people’s fears, tarred Lenin as a ‘closet German’.

He wasn’t.

Neither is it the sole preserve of politics.

Religious history is littered with inanities like ‘Jesus saves’, designed to convert the frightened, to bring consent…rather than change them.

This is the thing about the engineering of consent. It isn’t about changing people; it’s about gaining power over them through use of emotional narratives that chime with their fears.

And it’s part of the disinformation ecosystem we wake up to every morning – a system which relies on a lazy brain looking for short cuts to truth.

So whether right or left, believing or atheist, remainer or brexiteer, let us indeed wake up to it every morning.

The awake are less stupid.

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