When Edward Bernays died in 1995 at the age of 103, he was eulogized as the “father of public relations” in his New York Times obituary. The intellectual was a pioneer in this field and throughout a glittering career his clients included multiple American presidents, General Electric and the American Tobacco Company. But more importantly, Bernays’ campaigns shaped public opinion in a manner unlike anything that had come before.
Bernays’ tactics differed greatly from those used by traditional advertisers before him. When he signed up to work on a client’s campaign, he wouldn’t endeavor to promote a product or concept in the usual way that an advertiser would.
Bernays instead believed in altering the general public’s opinion by appealing to our unconscious desires – instead of our rational minds. He called this process “the engineering of consent,” and the idea was that this would drive demand for his client – as people now thought differently about it.
Though Bernays’ theories were often applied to advertising, he was also a propagandist who felt that controlling public opinion was utterly necessary. In his 1928 book Propaganda, he wrote, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.”
Bernays expanded on the idea of controlling minds in a manner which many may find controversial nowadays. He continued, “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
Chillingly, Bernays added, “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of… It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.” In Propaganda, Bernays goes on to argue that the titular concept isn’t just important in a functioning society – it is crucial.
But where did Bernays come from and how did he develop his revolutionary ideas? Well, he was born in Vienna, Austria, to a Jewish family in November 1891 and moved to New York City a year later. Interestingly, Bernays was also the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis.
Bernays’ mother Anna was Freud’s younger sister, and his father Ely was also the brother of Freud’s wife Martha. The family connection ran deep; though it’s not clear how much direct interaction Bernays had with Freud while he was growing up. All that is known is that he did travel to visit his uncle in Vienna when he was a young man.
Bernays’ father Ely made a success of himself in New York as a grain merchant, and he subsequently wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. To that end, on his dad’s insistence, Bernays went to Cornell University to attain a degree in their agriculture program.
Bernays was not happy at Cornell, however, which was an institution attended predominantly by the sons of successful farming dynasties. Nevertheless, he graduated and wrote for the National Nurseryman, before working at the New York City Produce Exchange. Following that, he later took a job reading grain cables in Paris. In 1912 Bernays then returned to New York City and chose a very different career path; he became co-editor of the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette and the Medical Review of Reviews.
It was during his tenure at these publications that Bernays first tried his hand at “public relations.” It all started with actor Richard Bennett, who was starring in a play entitled Les Avariés – or Damaged Goods in English – which was banned in its native France.
Les Avariés was controversial due to its subject matter – which included sexually transmitted infections and sex work. Bernays wrote to Bennett, telling him, “The editors of the Medical Review of Reviews support your praiseworthy intention to fight sex-pruriency in the United States by producing Brieux’s play Damaged Goods. You can count on our help.”
Bennett accepted the aid, and Bernays set about turning the play into something more than actors telling a story on stage. Instead, he he made it a cause for people to rally around. Bernays also formed the Sociological Fund Committee, which obtained public praise for the play from influential figures such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Franklin Roosevelt.
Bernays subsequently became a press agent and began working for clients in the creative arts industry. But his career would then take another dramatic turn. When the U.S. entered into World War I in 1917, he was enlisted by Woodrow Wilson’s government to garner support for the conflict. And through this role, Bernays managed to promote the idea that American intervention in WWI was to secure democracy on the European mainland.
Bernays worked for the U.S. government’s so-called Committee of Public Information (CPI) during the conflict. It shaped public opinion by recruiting American companies with operations overseas to disseminate leaflets and other literature detailing the United States’ justifications for joining the war. However, Bernays’ time with the committee would be short-lived.
When WWI ended, Bernays joined a publicity team working for the CPI and went to the Versailles Peace Conference – which set the peace terms for Germany. However, he found himself in hot water after using the word “propaganda” in a press release which was shared at the event. According to the New York World, the release said that the CPI’s role there was “to interpret the work of the Peace Conference by keeping up a worldwide propaganda to disseminate American accomplishments and ideals.”
Two days later, the newspaper published a negative story entitled “To Interpret American Ideals.” George Creel, head of the CPI, was apoplectic and the organization was soon disbanded. But beyond the scandal, Bernays learnt a crucial lesson from his time with the CPI that would help define his career going forward.
Bernays learned that if propaganda could be used so effectively during wartime to mold public opinion, there was no reason it couldn’t be used in normal civilian life. Bernays detailed this line of thinking with author Scott M. Cutlip in his 1994 book The Unseen Power: Public Relations: A History.
Bernays told Cutlip, “There was one basic lesson I learned in the CPI – that efforts comparable to those applied by the CPI to affect the attitudes of the enemy, of neutrals, and people of this country could be applied with equal facility to peacetime pursuits.”
“In other words, what could be done for a nation at war could be done for organizations and people in a nation at peace,” Bernays continued. However, the term “propaganda” would, in subsequent years, pick up very negative associations. Therefore, Bernays would come to coin a new designation for his work: “public relations.”
From the 1920s onwards, Bernays parlayed what he had learned during the war into his work with high profile clients. And as a result, he designed and executed some of the most revolutionary campaigns in history. For example, Bernays employed his skills to alter the image of President Calvin Coolidge and used methods that were far rarer at the time.
Coolidge had a certain image that he projected to the world: he was serious, reserved and a man of few words. In fact, during his time as vice president, he gained the nickname “Silent Cal,” and jokes about his dour personality were rife. So, he enlisted the help of Bernays, who organized events that would portray Coolidge in a different light.
Bernays put together “pancake breakfasts” at the White House and also held concerts there. They featured Broadway performers and even stars such as Al Jonson, who was labelled “The World’s Great Entertainer” at the height of his career. Coolidge was pictured at these events having a good time and he won the 1924 election a short time later.
In 1929 Bernays was hired by the American Tobacco Company to combat the public’s rejection of the idea of female smokers. After World War I, smoking had become popular among women, but society generally still regarded it as unbecoming of the fairer sex. And this stigma was especially true of women seen smoking in public.
Bernays’ first salvo was convincing the American public that smoking could help with weight loss. He used magazines, photographers, newspapers and artists to spread the idea that being thin was a sign of beauty and something women should strive for. To support this, Bernays sought medical authorities to promote smoking cigarettes rather than eating deserts or candy.
Bernays spoke with psychoanalyst Abraham Brill – a disciple of Sigmund Freud – and he concluded that women saw cigarettes as symbols of their newfound freedom. Their wants and needs had been suppressed by society for so long that smoking cigarettes was now akin to “torches of freedom,” Brill told Bernays. And armed with this insight, the latter’s next step was even more ambitious.
At the 1929 Easter Sunday parade in New York City, Bernays hired fashionable women to be seen smoking in public. According to Larry Tye in his book The Father of Spin: Edward L.Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations, he even specifically enlisted women who were “good looking” but not “too model-y.” The fact that the women would be viewed as normal and representative of most of society was key.
Bernays hired a photographer and the women were purposefully pictured next to well-known New York landmarks, such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral. But, as Tye wrote, Bernays was adamant that the women shouldn’t “smoke simply as they come down the church steps.” Instead, “They are to join in the Easter parade, puffing away.”
And Bernays’ heavily stage-managed publicity campaign got exactly the results he was looking for. Indeed, the New York Times ran with the page one sub-headline, “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom” the very next day. When asked, Bernays’ women made sure to call their smokes “torches of freedom” and asserted that they were “lighting the way to the day when women would smoke on the street as casually as men.”
Bernays’ smoking campaign paid dividends and tobacco sales to women increased all over the country. But his involvement with the tobacco industry was not yet finished. In 1934 Bernays was tasked with finding a way to sell the Lucky Strike brand of cigarette to women, who had deemed the red and green packaging to be unfashionable.
Bernays first asked George Washington Hill, the head of the American Tobacco Company, to simply change the color of the packaging. But Hill said no, as millions had already been spent on advertising it. Subsequently, Bernays came to a realization: he had to make the color green desirable among women.
Bernays put together the Green Ball, a social event hosted by suffragist Narcissa Cox Vanderlip at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. Famous women of the era attended wearing green dresses, and intellectuals were recruited to extol the virtues of the color. Bernays did his job promoting tobacco once again; yet, in private, he tried to convince his wife Doris to quit smoking.
However, Bernays also helped with much murkier campaigns. In the early 1940s he began working for the United Fruit Company and was hired to promote banana sales in the U.S. However, the firm had huge business interests in Guatemala and was alarmed when the country elected Jacobo Árbenz Guzman. Bernays flooded the press with claims that the country was falling into communism and spread propaganda to each member of Congress. And during the CIA-instigated coup in 1954, Bernays was the main supplier of information for the news wires. Furthermore, after the overthrow, he even helped improve the image of Guatemala’s next president, Carlos Castillo Armas.
But Bernays’ revolutionary methods have naturally come under fire over the years. For example, the magazine Editor & Publisher described him as the “young Machiavelli of our time.” Chancellor’s Professor of Medicine at IUPUI Richard Gunderman went even further, meanwhile, suggesting in The Conversation that Bernays’ techniques amounted to “the manipulation of the American mind.” He continued, “By convincing people that they want something they do not need, Bernays sought to turn citizens and neighbors into consumers who use their purchasing power to propel themselves down the road to happiness.”
The inherent morality of Bernays’ work was certainly questioned more than once. For instance, Supreme Court Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who served the court from 1939 to 1962, made his feelings on Bernays and his colleagues obvious. According to The Conversation, he described them as, “professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism, and self-interest.”
Disturbingly, Bernays’ work also served as a major inspiration for Joseph Goebbells, who was the minister of propaganda in Nazi Germany. He had become a follower of Bernays’ writings in the 1920s – despite Bernays being Jewish. The latter eventually found out about the Nazis using his methods for their own gain in 1933.
In his 1965 book Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays, he said, “[The Nazis] were using my books as the basis for a destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me, but I knew any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.”
Bernays was a very interesting man to study; though some may struggle to reconcile the implications of his work. In his article in The Conversation, Richard Gunderman wrote, “What Bernays’ writings furnish is not a principle or tradition by which to evaluate the appropriateness of propaganda, but simply a means for shaping public opinion for any purpose whatsoever, whether beneficial to human beings or not.”
Elsewhere, in a 1991 interview with The New York Times, Bernays gave his scathing verdict on PR people of the modern age. He said, “Public relations today is horrible. Any dope, any nitwit, any idiot can call him or herself a public relations practitioner.” Indeed, even in his advancing years, Bernays wasn’t someone to mince his words.
It is difficult quantify Bernays’ massive legacy on the dissemination of information. What he pioneered was a type of “branding,” and with his techniques he developed the notion of being able to engineer consent among the general public. And with those skills, Bernays showed that you could build public support for a whole host of things – whether it be women smokers or garnering support to overthrow a democratically elected government.