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Unit 1.12 – The History of Public Relations

Difficulty: Easy/medium

Time: 6 minutes

The following are extracts from Toxic Sludge is Good For You – Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, by John C. Stauder and Sheldon Rampton.


Passage 1

In 1836 legendary showman P.T. Barnum began his career by buying an old Negro slave woman named Joice Heth and exhibiting her to the public as “George Washington’s childhood nursemaid.”

Joice Heth claimed to be 160 years old. Was she for real? The man who coined the phrase, “there’s a sucker born every minute,” kept the public guessing through a clever series of forged letters to the editors of New York newspapers. Written by Barnum himself and signed by various fake names, some of the letters denounced Barnum as a fraud. In other letters, also written by Barnum, he praised himself as a great man who was performing a service by giving the public a chance to see George Washington’s “mammy.” The letters succeeded in stirring up controversy. Joice Heth was discussed in news reports and editorial columns, and the public turned out in droves to see for themselves. Barnum collected as much as $1500 per week from New Yorkers who came to see the pipe-smoking old Negro Woman.

When Joice Heth died, doctors performed an autopsy and estimated her true age at around eighty. Barnum handled the situation like the PR pro that he was. He said he was shocked, deeply shocked, at the way this woman had deceived him.

Barnum knew that in his publicity for “the greatest show on earth,” it didn’t matter whether people called him a scoundrel or a saint. The important thing was that the newspapers spelled his name right, and that they mentioned him often. He was one of the first people to manipulate the news for fun and profit.



1.             In this extract P.T. Barnum is portrayed as:

  • A            Clever but mendacious
  • B            Dishonest but benevolent
  • C            Thoughtful but greedy
  • D            Manipulative but caring



2.             The suggestion that Barnum was performing a public service is ironic because:

  •  A           He was deceiving the public.
  • B            A public service is provided by government to its citizens.
  • C            The show was entertaining.
  • D            He could have easily expanded the ‘service’ to citizens outside of New York.




Passage 2

Born in Vienna, Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud, the “father of psychoanalysis”, and his public relations efforts helped popularize Freud’s theories in the United States. Bernays also pioneered the PR industry’s use of psychology and other social sciences to design its public persuasion campaigns. “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their opinion molding the “engineering of consent.”

One of Bernay’s favourite techniques for manipulating public opinion was the indirect use of “third party authorities” to plead for his clients’ causes. “If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway,” he said. In order to promote sales of bacon, for example, he conducted a survey of physicians and reported their recommendation that people eat hearty breakfasts. He sent the results of the survey to 5,000 physicians along with publicity touting bacon and eggs as a hearty breakfast. His clients included President Calvin Coolidge, Procter & Gamble, CBS, General Electric and Dodge Motors. Beyond his contributions to these famous and powerful clients, Bernays revolutionized public relations by combining traditional press agentry with the techniques of psychology and sociology to create what one author called “the science of ballyhoo.”



3.         An example of a “third party authority” used in the promotion of a car would be:

  •              A         The car manufacturer
  •             B         The car salesperson
  •             C         The Road Safety Authority
  •             D         Existing customers



4.         Passages 1 & 2 suggest that Burnam and Bernays are primarily concerned with:

Burnam   /  Bernays

  • A         Generating publicity   /  Influencing public attitudes and behaviour
  • B         Getting his name in the paper  /  Getting his clients’ names in the paper
  • C         Manipulating the media  /  Studying psychoanalysis
  • D         Forging hilarious letters   /  Promoting bacon sales
  • Answers:
    1: A
    This question is easier if you know that mendacious means deceiptful. Having manipulated so many of New York’s citizens Barnum is clearly clever, dishonest, greedy and manipulative, but there are no suggestions that he was caring, benevolent or, in the general sense of the word, thoughtful.

    This question requires an understanding of irony. An action could be considered ironic when the action itself causes something to happen which is the opposite of what was intended. For example, if you throw a piece of rubbish into a bin with the intention of tidying the room, but in doing so knock over the bin, causing the room to become even more untidy, that would be ironic. In this case a public service is intended to provide a benefit to the community. Answer A is correct because the citizens of New York are paying to be lied to. Their money is being taken for no benefit. Option C is factually correct, in that it was entertaining, but this fact does not contribute to the irony – if anything it subtracts from it. Options B & D are not even necessarily true.

    Lines 12 – 13 provide an example of the usage of a third party authority. From this we can infer that the definition of a third party authority is an authoritative figure who is in no way affiliated with the product. Both the car salesman and manufacturer are directly affiliated with the car. The existing customers – who are of questionable authority anyway – are also arguably biased by their purchase of the car. The Road Safety Authority’s is therefore the correct answer.

    Barnum was primarily concerned with self-publicity. All his actions lend themselves to achieving this goal. To say that he was concerned with ‘Getting his name in the paper’ is just as true as to say he was concerned with ‘Generating publicity’. To differentiate between which is the correct answer we must look at Bernays’ column. We know that, as a public relations executive, he was interested in publicity for his clients. However, his goals were more sophisticated than this. “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their opinion molding the “engineering of consent.” Indicates that he was really interested in was influencing the masses. Answer A is therefore the correct answer.

    Although, manipulating the media, studying psychoanalysis, promoting bacon and forging (arguably) hilarious letters were all things which these men did, they were a means to an end – except for the bacon, which was just a once-off action.

    Gamsat Sample Questions

    May 23, 2012

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