In the 1920s, Beech-Nut Packing Company had a problem. Sales of one of their products, bacon, had found itself in a slump. To help solve this problem, Beech-Nut Packing turned to a man named Edward Bernays. Bernays was a PR mastermind. Nephew of Sigmund Freud, he studied and understood the human psyche like few others who worked in the marketing field did. At this time, the American breakfast had typically been pretty modest: some fruit, a roll and maybe a cup of coffee, but very rarely did it consist of meat. Bernays saw this as an opportunity. After confirming with a physician that a heavier breakfast might be better for people than a lighter one, they got to work contacting over 5,000 other physicians nationwide getting them on board with the idea that a heavier breakfast, consisting of bacon and eggs, is better than a light breakfast. This "new finding" was published in newspapers and other publications nationwide. Bacon sales skyrocketed, a new habit was formed and the classic "American breakfast" was born.
While many of us would like to think we are in total control of our own minds and the decisions we make, as it turns out, we aren't. Whether you know it or not, every day mathematicians, psychologists, artists and marketers are working with companies to manipulate your thoughts, feelings and buying habits in order to convince you to purchase their goods. You are being manipulated. And it doesn't end at consumer goods. Careful marketing strategies and psychological manipulation have changed the habits of entire countries and altered their perception of what is and always has been "normal." In this blog post, we are going to explore the origins of some of America's foundational beliefs and see how, or who, helped shape them.
How long have diamonds been forever?
While diamonds may be forever, the tradition of diamond engagement rings is actually a fairly recent invention. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the reason so many of us buy diamond engagement rings today is the result of one of the most successful marketing and social manipulation campaigns in American history.
During the 1940s and 50s, De Beers launched an unprecedented ad campaign that consisted of handing out diamond jewelry to celebrities, visiting schools around America to lecture on the importance of giving diamond engagement rings as a sign of companionship and promise, and the launching of the slogan "Diamonds are Forever" to reinforce the idea that marriage means forever. And you know what? It worked. The number of brides who were given diamond engagement rings grew from just 10 percent in 1940 to over 80 percent in 1990. And in just 40 years, De Beers went from selling $23 million worth of diamonds in 1939 to selling $2.1 billion in 1979. Seeing its success in America, De Beers turned its sights on Japan, where diamond sales for engagement rings were less than five percent of all marriages. Once again, it worked. In less than 20 years, diamond engagement rings became the norm, being purchased in over 60 percent of all engagements and making Japan the second largest diamond market next to the United States.
What is so astonishing about this story is that not only was De Beers able to change the habits and perceptions of an entire country in such a short amount of time, but they were able to do it TWICE with tremendous success. Now, the practice is so engrained in American culture that purchasing a diamond engagement ring is hardly questioned, it just is assumed to be the thing you have to do when you get married. Even more interesting is the fact that many do not remember what life was like before this practice even though it was not that long ago.
Was America founded as a Christian nation?
I'm a Christian. I grew up assuming that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation. It's understandable why we wouldn't assume otherwise. We see reference to God in the Declaration of Independence, we are "one nation, under God" according to the Pledge of Allegiance, and our official motto, "In God We Trust," is plastered on money, monuments and other American totems. Yet many scholars seem to agree that the United States was not founded and rooted in Christianity. That this very notion of a "Christian nation" is a relatively recent fabrication.
Christianity undoubtedly played an important role in shaping the country's history. The Declaration of Independence references God multiple times, most famously proclaiming all men were "endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…" But God is very deliberately left out of the Constitution. In fact, one of the foundations of our country is the idea of separation of church and state.
Kevin M. Kruse, professor of history at Princeton University, wrote in an article for CNN that religion was deliberately kept at arm's length from the state: "Despite their respect for religion and their belief in the divine origins of human rights, many of the Founding Fathers worried that religion would corrupt the state and, conversely, that the state would corrupt religion."
Later, the Treaty of Tripoli would reaffirm the United States' stance on its relationship with Christianity. As Kruse goes on to say:
Begun by George Washington, signed by John Adams and ratified unanimously by a Senate still half-filled with signers of the Constitution, this treaty announced firmly and flatly to the world that 'the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.'
Throughout the 1900s there were pushes by multiple Christian groups to make America more Christian, insisting that America was founded as a Christian nation. It wasn't until the 1950s that the "under God" portion was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and "In God We Trust" was adopted as the nation's official motto and added to paper currency, helping to convince many that America has always a Christian nation and it didn't take long for people to start buying into the concept. Out of its 241-year history, it wasn't until the 1950s that these changes occurred! By continuously being exposed to these subtle cues day-in and day-out our perceptions of what is historically true are effectively altered, building a new reality in our minds without us consciously being aware that is happening.
The Second Amendment and the right to bear arms
America seems to be at a crossroads. While mass shootings perpetrated by American citizens with military-grade weapons is on the rise, two camps have firmly emerged: those who think there should be stricter gun laws and those who think no one has the right to touch their guns, or limit people's access to obtaining them. The pro-gun camp has effectively built a solid wall out of the Second Amendment; stating it is their absolute right to bear arms.
The year 2008 marked a tipping point for the pro-gun activists. In the trial District of Columbia vs. Heller, the Supreme Court upheld the argument that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual their right to bear arms. Interestingly, the majority of judges and scholars before this ruling (almost) always came to the opposite conclusion: the Second Amendment only protects gun ownership for the purpose of military duty and collective security. In fact, most Americans before the 1970s didn't even think the Second Amendment referred to an individual's right to bear arms. So what changed? In his new book, "The Second Amendment: A Biography," New York University's Michael Waldman investigates this very question, diving into the history behind the Second Amendment and how its interpretation has changed through the years.
In order to understand the Second Amendment, one must first know exactly what it says:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
It's crucial to keep in mind that in order to understand context and truly follow what the amendment(s) are meant to say, you cannot pick and choose parts. Many of the current pro-gun lobbyists tend to focus solely on the second half of the amendment, leaving out the crucial first half. Even the NRA, which has the amendment inscribed in its lobby, left off the section about the militia. But the militia part is key here. You see, there was a large focus on militias at the time of the writing of the amendment. Every man was required to be in a militia, own a gun and as such, needed to bring it home.
While there was a need for a well-armed militia, there were also a number of strict gun laws already in place. In Boston, you were not allowed to have a loaded gun in your home, there were lots of limits on who could own guns and regulations on where to store gunpowder. So, while the Second Amendment was written to ensure a well-armed militia, it was not a given that just anyone could own a gun without question or regulation. In fact, before the 1970's the NRA that we know today didn't even support the individual's rights to own and carry firearms without question, their primary mission was simply to teach gun (hunting rifles primarily) safety to boy scouts.
According to Waldman, it was in 1977 when things began to change. In the "Revolt at Cincinnati," a small group of intense, dogmatic activists pushed out the current leadership of the NRA and focused their agenda on trying to reinterpret the Second Amendment over a long 30-year campaign centered around marketing, social manipulation and scholarship. As Waldman describes:
They started with scholarship. They supported a lot of scholars and law professors. They elected politicians. They changed the positions of agencies of government. They got the Justice Department to reverse its position on what the amendment meant. And then and only then did they go to court. So by the time the Supreme Court ruled, it sort of felt like a ripe apple from the tree.
The supreme court's Heller case is a prime example of careful social manipulation crafted by the NRA. Through it's 30 year campaign to manipulate and fund judges, lawyers and scholars they knew that with Scalia on the bench they had enough backing to change the interpretation of the Second Amendment. So, the NRA took out ads in newspapers around the country looking for people who may have cases they could take to court. They interviewed a number of individuals until they found one they thought had a chance of going all the way to the supreme court. Their careful planning paid off. Through all of this effort not only were agencies, judges and politicians persuaded into believing the Second Amendment applied to individual gun rights, but with Scalia's help the supreme court's ruling persuaded the general public too. Over the 30 years of the NRA's campaign, public beliefs shifted and became more polarized. Parts of the Second Amendment started showing up on T-shirts and were printed on posters in support of individual gun rights. It became the shield the general public needed to wield in its argument for gun rights. The American public, including many in government, were successfully manipulated.
History repeats itself
Social media has undoubtedly changed the way we communicate and with it has brought new ways of manipulation. Many people have stopped taking the time to critically think about the images and information they are being presented. So many people now get their news through memes without any sort of further investigation. As a photographer and graphic designer, I know how easy it is to pull an image I have taken out of context, pair it with some text and make people believe something that simply is not true, and it's being done all of the time.
While it may not be possible to completely guard yourself against strategies of manipulation, we can help ourselves against its effects by continuing to teach critical thinking skills and visual literacy. And, even more crucially, we must never stop flexing our critical thinking muscle. This is why education like the liberal arts is so important. Learning how to slow down, step back, ask questions, look for answers and form opinions are exactly the skills we need in an age of quick information, sound bites and memes.
I am nowhere close to an expert on any of this stuff. Most of what I know comes from readings I have done from other experts in the field. If you are interested some articles, here are three places to start: