The Greatest Public Relations Coup of All Time

The branding campaign which transformed the labor movement into the "Worldwide Communist Conspiracy"

By Jack Barkstrom

The Rule of Seven

There's an old advertising adage, sometimes called the Rule of Seven, which holds that a consumer needs to be exposed to an advertisement seven times before they will respond by making a purchase. When they first see or hear a message, they ignore it. A second or third time, they remember having seen it before, but not where or when. Next, they may become curious enough to investigate the message. Finally, they will decide to buy the product, or not.

The Rule of Seven was a pared-down version of an 1885 guide called "Successful Advertising," by Thomas Smith, which argued that the number of exposures required was 20.[1] Whether the number is 20 or seven, the core idea is one of repetition. The secret to selling a product, whether it's a vacuum cleaner or even an idea, is to keep repeating the same message over and over.

Whether the writings of Karl Marx gained widespread acceptance by following the Rule of Seven is not known. There is the possibility that his writing was so persuasive that, once understood, it would have carried the day regardless of the marketing method used. Russia, largely rural, was an unexpected success, since Marx focused more on the problems workers faced in an industrialized world. Considering that the 'Communist Manifesto' was not translated into Russian until 1869, and the Russian Revolution occurred in October 1917, it clearly found a receptive and committed audience there. (The only earlier translations, besides the original German,had been in Swedish in 1848 and in English in 1850.[2] [3] It was not as though Marx had a unique message for a Russian audience. Russia likely would have been receptive to any anti-government message. When Czar Alexander II was assassinated in March 1881, it was only the final successful attempt. The society called "The People's Will" had organized seven such attempts, beginning in 1866.[4] Other officials had been assassinated as well, and killings and strikes had marked the Revolution of 1905.

The success of the Russian Revolution in October 1917 and the spread of communism to other places suggest that Lenin and the Bolsheviks ran one of the most successful marketing campaigns in history. In current terminology, it was a 'branding' campaign which established the Communist 'brand' as an ideology to be reckoned with.

There are two sides to every story, or so we've been told. There is a danger, in focusing on Communism alone, that it was telling only one side of the story - particularly if the Capitalist side, rather than the Communists, was controlling the narrative. Was the world hearing the Communist story, as told by the Communists themselves, or as seen through Capitalist eyes? It should be kept in mind that there was not just one marketing campaign going on. Two marketing campaigns were being waged, on a number of different fronts. Each side had its own story to tell and each side had its own interpretation of what the other side's story was - a game of 'I'll tell my story' and 'I'll also tell your story too.'

In a nutshell, the marketing battlefield was divided into two camps. In one camp were the Communists, who sought to portray themselves as champions of labor and justice, while depicting Capitalism as an exploitive system which forced struggling workers to live in slums on wages barely sufficient to keep them from starving. In the other camp were the Capitalists, who emphasized the opportunities their system provided to anyone willing to work hard, while portraying Communism as a system which sought to take away private property, encouraged anarchy, and gave voice to fanatical devotees who would stop at nothing to tear down the fabric of society.

Who came out the winner in this war of words? Both sides continued to attract followers and both sides had their critics. Where did the writings of Marx and Engels fit in? It might be pointed out that both sides drew totally different conclusions from reading the same thing. There might be a variation or two in different versions or translations but the substantive words and phrases were identical. Was Communism the winner because the writings were studied and discussed for Marx's summary of economic theory or because they offered an objective criticism of the capitalist system? Or was Capitalism the winner because of its doubts and skeptical approach to the study of Marxism? Capitalism brought an intensity to the study of the writings of Karl Marx and an increased interest in studies devoted to Communism - all in an attempt to disprove its theories, to understand its appeal, or ultimately to find some idea, argument, or flaw, within the text, which could be used as ammunition against Communism, in order to defeat it. Perhaps Capitalism was the winner because its marketing campaign had convinced the world that Communism was something more than a labor movement with idealistic followers who wanted to make the world better, rather it was a supernatural force allied with the Powers of Darkness. It was one thing to become a member of the Communist Party; it was something else to really 'believe in Communism.'

A twenty-three page pamphlet

At the end of February 1848, a German printer named J.E. Burghard, who ran a print shop on Liverpool Street in London, finished printing eight hundred copies of a pamphlet which another German living in London, a tailor, named Friedrich Lessner, had ordered a few weeks before. It had been written by Karl Marx, who was living in Brussels at the time, although his name did not appear as the author. No author was mentioned anywhere in the twenty-three page document, which contained some 12,000 words. Since it was printed in German, it would not have attracted much attention in England.[5]

On the dark green cover, Burghard printed a title - "Manifesto of the Communist Party," (Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei), a date - February 1848, and his name and the address of his print shop - London - by J.E. Burghard - 46, Liverpool Street, Bishopsgate. While there was an existing organization called the "Communist League," at the time there was no "Communist Party."[6] Had it had a wider audience, it might have alarmed more than a small number of people, since it opened with the line: "A specter is haunting Europe - the specter of Communism." In the middle, Marx summarized Communist theory as "The abolition of private property." He ended the pamphlet with the famous line (or lines): "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains...Working men of all countries, unite!" - usually reversed in the more familiar English version - "Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!"[7]

An influential philosophy

The writings of Karl Marx have been described as some of the most influential in history, referring to "Das Kapital"[8] and Marxism as the most influential social, economic, and political theory of the nineteenth century.[9] Based on the number of declared communist governments or communist-leaning governments in 1975, considered by some to be the high-water mark of communism, Marx's influence should not be underestimated.[10] Russia became the first communist government, when the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917. China was the second when, in October 1949, Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China (PRC). In 1954 a Communist republic was established in Vietnam (North Vietnam) following the withdrawal of the French. Cuba was declared a Socialist Republic in February 1959. Cambodia would become communist in April 1975. These were the 'true' communist governments which had come to power on their own, i.e., through revolutionary movements originating within their borders, rather than puppet governments or movements involving foreign intervention.

Among the group of Communist governments were those which had had communism imposed from outside: Albania in 1945, Bulgaria in 1945, Czechoslovakia in February 1948, Poland in January 1947,and Hungary in August 1947. In Korea, Kim Il-sung declared the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in September 1948. East Germany would be set up as a state separate from West Germany in October 1949. Yugoslavia was a somewhat different situation. Josip Braz, who went by the name Tito, aligned the country with the Soviet Union in 1946 when declaring the country the socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. South Vietnam would become part of Vietnam when it fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.

If the number of Communist states or countries going Communist suggests the growing influence of Marx, the decisions by most of the countries in Eastern Europe were hardly the result of popular or democratic movements. In Bulgaria, with the help of the Red Army, the Communists were able to gain control of the ministry of the interior and the police, a circumstance with parallels to the seizure of power by the Nazis in Germany. Thousands of the Right-wing opposition were arrested and tried by People's Courts. Many were sent to prison camps while others were executed. Those who showed too much independence or power were dealt with harshly. Nikola Petkov, who had run on an independent ticket in the October 1945 elections, was sentenced to death and hanged in 1947.[11]

Eastern Europe was somewhat unique. The Soviet Union's geographical proximity and the continued presence of military units from the war, allowed it to take military action against its Eastern European neighbors. In Western Europe, Soviet influence was more limited. The Allied powers were in a position to counter Soviet military moves with military action of their own. An attempted Communist takeover of Greece in December 1944 failed when the British bombarded Communist strongholds in Athens and Greek Right-wing forces proved stronger than the Communists. Some six thousand activists of the Communist Greek National Liberation Front eventually fled into Yugoslavia.[12] Korea was another area where the presence of Russian troops had made a difference for a Communist victory.

In other parts of the world, there were openly Communist or Communist-leaning governments which did come to power. In Africa, Communist governments came to power in Angola, Benin, Mozambique, and Ethiopia but faced armed opposition and endured years of conflict.[13] In Indonesia the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) attempted a political coup in September 1965, when Communist junior officers murdered six generals. General Suharto and other surviving generals, with the backing of the military, managed to take control of Jakarta and arrest Sukarno, the head of government. The military and some Muslim religious leaders, in retaliation, organized massacres of local Communists. In all, at least half a million people were killed. Many were beheaded, others had their throats slit. The US embassy was implicated in the massacres, said to have supplied the military with lists of Communists.[14]

The Berlin Wall was only symbolic of the power of Communism, but its Fall in November 1989 was quickly followed by the elimination of most Communist governments in the Eastern bloc. The Soviet Union was officially dissolved on December 31, 1991. By 1996, only four Communist regimes remained: China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba.[15] Capitalism had seemingly triumphed over Communism. There were still some vestiges of the ideological struggle which carried over. Capitalism now had to face its critics head-on - and alone. Up to the Russian Revolution, Communism had merely represented a theoretical criticism of Capitalism - an assorted list or collection of capitalist faults but no real concrete solution - unless uniting the workers of the world was considered a real solution. After the Revolution, Russia provided something concrete - a real government - as an alternative to Capitalism. If nothing else, Capitalism found it useful when it needed to rally its supporters.

With the Soviet Union gone, Capitalism had lost a credible opponent. Cuba was still useful because it was only ninety miles away, but it was small. China was still a major Communist power, but it seemed less threatening. It was more interested in developing a trading relationship with the West and the West saw in China a potential new market for its products. The struggle with Communism, when the Soviet Union was the opponent, was an Epic Struggle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. Now Capitalism was reduced to answering mundane criticism: 'If the economy is doing so well, why is it so hard to find work?' 'Why can't I get a raise?' or 'Why isn't the economy generating as many jobs as it used to?' It was true that 'The specter of Communism was no longer haunting Europe,' to paraphrase Marx, but 'the bogeyman of Bolshevism was still hanging around, ready to haunt any new debate.' The failures of the Soviet Union still remain the ultimate answer to criticism - 'Okay - Capitalism may not be perfect, but what is the alternative? Communism - That's even worse.'

The Public Relations Battlefield - Iconic Images, a simple message, and constant repetition

Much of the debate about the appeal of communism has focused on the writings of Karl Marx. What was there about his writings that would attract so many followers? Marx could evoke memorable images when he wanted to. The opening line to the "Communist Manifesto" is one. "A specter is haunting Europe - the specter of Communism."[16] '...[T]he heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls' is another.[17] He could also be brief and to the point: "The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property."[18] But he also could be hard to follow at other times. What did he mean by 'feudal property' or 'bourgeois property' or the 'bourgeois mode of production'?[19] Still longer sentences could be even worse - 'In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed...'[20]

Marx's writings aside, the marketing campaign between Capitalism and Communism was not conducted in an academic setting, as an exchange between professors or university departments. Marx, in his early years had shown more interest in drinking societies, had struggled to stay in school, had trouble deciding on a field which interested him, and could not interest any of the universities he applied to for a paying position. He did like to write and found wealthy individuals, such as Friedrich Engels, or political organizations, willing to employ him as a writer or editor, where he could edit the writings of others.

While Marx championed the ordinary worker, he was disappointed by their lack of interest in his ideas. Few workers were willing to join the organizations he formed. He found a more receptive audience among political exiles, dissidents, and intellectuals. Some of his support probably came from foreign agents, who provided money and staff, in order to keep an eye on his followers and their activities.

The branding campaigns of the Nineteenth (Marx's time), and Twentieth Century, were probably much simpler, more direct, and less complicated than the debate over the meaning of Marx's writings would suggest. Many people today complain that political campaigns have been reduced to a battle of competing sound bites - something short in a speech that can be repeated on the evening news in a 20-second report or is memorable enough to go viral on the Internet. For all the complaints about them, they are still effective. In addition to dominating the news cycle, they are a form of repetition which cumulatively reinforces any image people have of a candidate.

Almost any image, whether it takes the form of a photograph, a sculpture, or a painting, quickly conveys an easily understood message. 'A picture is worth a thousand words' applies especially to the advertising field. At the same time, it does not necessarily require a photograph to create an iconic image. Marx, in his writing, was able to create images in the reader's mind. Gifted public speakers have the ability to use the spoken word to create vivid images and scenes. If there's any advantage to using the words to create an image, it would be found in the ability to tailor the message to an individual. Each person will create a unique image in their mind, different from whatever images other people imagine.

The persuasive power of images is not a recent phenomenon, or a product of the 'Age of Advertising.' Around 550 BC, one of Athens early rulers, Pisistratus, who was out of power at the time, came up with an unconventional marketing device to resurrect his name. He persuaded a tall young woman to dress up as Pallas Athene, the patron goddess of Athens. Wearing a helmet and carrying a spear, she rode ahead of Pisistratus in a chariot, proclaiming his name. Herodotus called it "The silliest trick in history." Silly or not, Pisistratus was soon back in power.[21] Ramesses (Ramses) II, who ruled Egypt from 1279-1213 BC, engaged in an unprecedented program of monument building, prominently featuring statues of himself, his achievements, and victories. The Battle of Kadesh (Qadesh), in 1274 BC, between the Egyptians and the Hittites, essentially a draw, was portrayed as a victory.

The Communists had two images, or a two-in-one image, which effectively conveyed their message. One image was that of the factory towns and cities where the workers had to live. It only took one visit to a city, such as London or Paris, to see children begging in the streets, the filthy conditions in which workers lived, and the overcrowded buildings where their families struggled. In addition, there were the factories themselves, often dark, where workers, even children, had to work long hours, in dangerous conditions, for wages that were barely above subsistence-level. The other image was that of the factory owners, the 'capitalists,' who appeared to do little work, made ostentatious displays of wealth, lived on country estates, and cared little for the plight of their struggling workers. In short, the image of the wealthy confirmed every negative stereotype about capitalism as an uncaring and exploitive system.

Communists did not need to quote Marx, to explain Marx, or even to understand his writings, to understand Capitalism or the problems it ignored. They only needed to experience the problems first hand or to visit one of the factory towns which the Industrial Revolution was creating, to develop a sense of outrage. If Capitalism looked for some mysterious message in socialist or Marxist literature, which might explain its appeal, it could find the answer within walking distance of its factories. If repetition was part of the marketing formula, each additional factory, each additional city, was a new opportunity to repeat the Communist message.

It might be well to consider that many, if not all, of the countries which opted for Communism started out poor. That may explain why they were fertile ground for the Communist message. During the Cold War, or somewhere near the midpoint of the Socialist/Capitalist struggle, the Capitalist argument was essentially 'If you see Communism as the answer, you'll experience poverty and oppression - like the Soviet Union.' Left unsaid was the response - 'If you were Russia, you were experiencing poverty and oppression long before the Bolsheviks came power.' From a marketing perspective, success seems to depend on how the message is packaged.

With all the problems brought on by industrialization, Capitalism would seem to be at a distinct disadvantage in the marketing arena. That, at least, was how it appeared. Capitalism was fully prepared to wage war. The image of the well-fed, top-hatted factory owner, which the Communists used so effectively, was turned on its head. Even conceding the point that factory conditions under Capitalism were abysmal, Capitalism offered opportunity. There was always the hope that if someone worked hard enough they could escape poverty, even join the ranks of the factory owners. There were plenty of success stories - legendary figures such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Cornelius Vanderbilt - who had started out from scratch and made fortunes. There were other stories, particularly in America, of lesser individuals who had overcome obstacles to become successful.

Capitalism was also prepared to go on the offensive. It portrayed the labor movement as a hotbed of anarchism and terror. For images, it could rely on the out-of-control mobs of the French Revolution or the bomb-throwing Bolsheviks within the labor movement. In the US, where many factory workers were immigrants, it tried to associate labor with a 'foreign' element. If a simple message was needed, it did take one idea from Marx - the 'Abolition of private property.' It also had greater control over the media. In Europe, publications could be closed and censors could deny publication. In the US, media outlets were owned by, or controlled by business interests.


(1) David Booth and Corey Koberg, "Display Advertising: An Hour A Day," (Indianapolis, IN:John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012), p. 14.
(2) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, "The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings," (New York:Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005), pp. xix, xx.
(3) Michael Worth Davison, MA, ed., "When, Where, Why & How It Happened," (London:The Reader's Digest Association Limited, 1993), p. 235.
(4) Gordon A. Craig, "Europe Since 1815," 2nd edition, (New York:Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966), p. 432.
(5) Mary Gabriel, "Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution," (New York:Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2011), p.118
(6) Ibid, pp. 118-119.
(7) Ibid, pp. 118-119.
(8) Bertram D. Wolfe, "Marxism: 100 Years in the Life of a Doctrine," (New York:The Dial Press, 1965) p. xiii.
(9) Bertram D. Wolfe, ibid, p. xx.
(10) Patricia S. Daniels and Stephen G. Hyslop, "National Geographic Almanac of World History," 2nd edition, (Washington, D.C.:National Geographic, 2003, 2006, 2011), p. 312.
(11) Odd Arne Westad, "The Cold War: A World History,"(New York:Basic Books, 2017) pp. 80-81
(12) Westad, ibid, pp. 75-76
(13) Patricia S. Daniels and Stephen G. Hyslop, op.cit., p. 312.
(14) Westad, op.cit., pp. 328-329.
(15) Mark Almond, "Revolution: 500 years of struggle for change," (London:De Agostini Editions, 1996), p. 175.
(16) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, op,cit., Opening sentence of "The Communist Manifesto," p. 5.
(17) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ibid, p. 11.
(18) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ibid, p. 21.
(19) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ibid, p. 11.
(20) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, ibid, p. 13.
(21) Nigel Rodgers, "The Complete Illustrated History of Ancient Greece," (London:Anness Publishing Ltd., 2013), p. 93.