originally published August 21, 2014
To be perfectly clear, Edward Bernays was not in advertising. Yes, he was hired by companies, corporations and entire industries to convince the public that they should buy a given product, but there’s a fundamental philosophical difference here. Advertisers want the public to accept a product or service, and then to pay for it. Edward Bernays made use of the public’s sense of morality or their collectively accepted world-view, then manipulated those as needed in order to get us to pay for a product or service.
The correct term for Bernays’ life’s work is ‘public relations’. To say that Bernays invented P.R. would not be an overstatement – in fact, he helped to coin the term in the early 1900’s, and subsequently taught the first course on the subject at New York University in 1923. That we presently live in a society that can be manipulated and swayed by an expertly-placed pile of verbal bullshit is, in part, Bernays’ fault.
But don’t hold it against the guy. He changed the world – and in particular the North American way of life – more than almost anybody else in the 20th century. You may have never heard of him, but you have almost certainly conformed to his machinations, even if only subconsciously. As long as he gets to you – that’s all he needs.
Sigmund Freud, the great grand-pappy of psycho-analysis, was perched upon two branches of Edward Bernays’ family tree. His mother was Anna, Sigmund’s sister, and his father was Sigmund’s wife’s brother. As such, it is little surprise that psychology wormed its way into everything Bernays did. Beginning as a press agent in 1913, fresh out of Cornell University, Bernays tweaked the concept of the ‘press release’ (which at the time was only a few years old) into something magical.
When Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes was touring America, Bernays convinced a number of prominent magazines to write stories about how ballet is fun to watch. His tactic was not to take out ads and smear city walls with posters – such an effort would be viewed by the public as the ballet obviously trying to attract spectators. But by passing along this fresh angle to respected journalists, he was breaking through the collective psyche for free.
Actor Richard Bennett enlisted Edward Bernays’ help when police threatened to break up a 1913 play that supported sex education. Bernays’ solution was to legitimize the opposition to the police by setting up the Medical Review of Reviews Sociological Fund, which was an advocacy group working to fight venereal disease. It wasn’t really – it only existed to support Bennett’s play, but it did the job.
Bernays was making such an impact in the field of public re-focussing, he was invited to be part of the team whose goal was to make the muck of World War I appealing to American citizens. Here was a war that had operated for three years with no direct American involvement, and now the US government had to convince the voting populace that sending their kids overseas to get shot at was a good and noble thing. Bernays’ solution? America was going to “bring democracy” to Europe – the same shtick that has been used to justify every war since. And it worked.
It was clear to Bernays that employing fear to motivate the masses was an effective strategy. He’d learned from the words of Gustave LeBon, who had studied the psychology of crowds, and from Wilfred Trotter, who was a pioneer in the concept of herd mentality. Bernays cultivated a carefully-funnelled fear into the public perception of communism, which came to dominate the national dialog for the entirety of the Cold War.
Bernays felt that propaganda was the key to the public’s soul, though as glaring acts of propaganda came to be associated with German war efforts in the early part of the century, he aimed to be more subversive. He was a lobbyist, a loudspeaker and a pitch-man, all in the guise of a civilian. In what may be the first major political media event, he staged a ‘Breakfast with Coolidge’ event prior to the 1924 election, bolstering the would-be president’s popularity. Everyone wanted Edward Bernays on their side, pushing their agenda.
As critical as we might be of Bernays’ societal manipulation, we’ve got to give him credit for helping out one industry in particular.
A survey was sent out (by Bernays) to thousands of medical professionals, asking if a “hearty” breakfast would be healthier than the typical American repast of coffee or tea with a slice of toast. The answer, as expected, was an overwhelming yes. This is how Edward Bernays helped to establish an entirely new identity for bacon and eggs: as a breakfast food. He also arranged for several focus groups to figure out why housewives weren’t leaping all over Betty Crocker’s instant cake mixes. Turns out they didn’t feel it was legitimate cake, since all they had to do was add water. Bernays suggested removing the powdered egg and instructing housewives to add an egg – this felt more like actual baking, and launched sales through the roof.
That’s right, you only add an egg to cake mixes in order to feel useful.
Bernays’ campaigns – which, once again, were not advertising campaigns – were pure art in action. Soap-carving and soap-floating contests were held all over the country to promote Ivory soap for Procter & Gamble (better than the competition or not – Ivory soap could float). The Aluminum Company of America successfully won over the public in their bid to inject fluoride into the water supply, primarily because Edward Bernays had enlisted the American Dental Association’s support.
Charged with the freedom to vote, and to dance really goofy jigs in undercranked black & white films, women were still frowned upon when they opted to smoke in public in the late 1920’s. Enter Edward Bernays. In the 1929 Easter Parade in New York City, Bernays dispatched a number of models, then advised the papers that the women marching in the parade would be igniting “Torches of Freedom.” Those torches? Lucky Strike cigarettes. The New York Times splashed the event into public eyes, and the taboo against women puffing in public disappeared.
In this sense, one could argue that Bernays was a champion of women’s rights. His hosting of the first NAACP convention in 1920 and handling the organization’s P.R. throughout the decade could be seen as a fight for minority rights. His blatant propaganda for the United Fruit Company, which helped to expedite the overthrow of the government of Guatemala and install an American-friendly (albeit violent and evil) banana republic could be seen as… no, that was just dickish. The point is, Edward Bernays was a champion of his own bottom line and a master manipulator of public thought.
Does that make him evil? Evil is a matter of perspective. What is inarguable is that Edward Bernays became one of the most influential human beings of the last century, solely on his talent for influencing others for a living.
Though if you ask me around breakfast time, when my palate is crying for the savoury salty manna of sizzling pig-fat, I’ll tell you the man was a hero.