Edward Bernays is one of the most influential persons in the 20th century. He is considered the father of “Public Relations” and changed how we think of mass marketing and advertising at scale. And, yet, it is likely you’ve never heard of him.
Despite his enduring impact on the world, there are many reasons for this lack of popularity. However, chief among them is a reluctance among the folks in his industry to talk about his work. So, you don’t hear Marketing professors or advertising executives mention him or his work. Not doing so denies some fascinating lessons that might shape how we think about the attention economy.
Edward Bernays and Propaganda
Edward Bernays was an Austrian American whose family moved to the United States in the 1890s. He spent the early part of his career as a Medical Editor and Press Agent. In both these roles, he showcased an ability to take strong positions on certain causes and successfully solicit support from the public — among them elite figures like the Rockefellers and the Roosevelts.
After the US entered World War I, he was recruited by the US Government’s “Commission on Public Information” to build support for the war domestically. Since a large portion of Americans had just fled Europe, this didn’t make much sense. But, Bernays coined a phrase — “Make the World Safe for Democracy” that became the meme President Woodrow Wilson needed. It gave the senseless war a higher purpose. And, Bernays began referring to his work as “psychological warfare.”
Bernays also added significant artillery to his propoganda techniques. He did this by incorporating the lessons from a then-infamous psychologist uncle who’d published work about how individuals are driven by unconscious needs, desires, and fears. Sigmund Freud, until then, was a relative unknown as he had been scorned by European society. But, his nephew, Edward Bernays, made him and his work famous in the United States and ensured he attained fame and prestige. Bernays applied his uncle’s insights to great effect by manipulating public opinion through mass media. As he became the world’s foremost expert in propaganda, he realized it was as powerful a tool in peacetime as it was during war.
So, after the war, he moved to New York and decided to counsel companies in propoganda. However, since the word propoganda was controversial and since its alternate “advertising” was too mundane, he decided to rename it “Public Relations.”
Why tobacco and bacon are great for you
Sadly, Bernays’ counsel was sold to anyone who cared to pay him well for it. And, chief among his clients were the tobacco companies and the pork industry. In his work with them, he demonstrated his skills as a master campaign strategist.
For example, he staged the “Torches of Freedom” event during the 1929 Easter Day Parade as a means of conflating smoking and women’s rights. Tens of millions of women threw off their shackles to claim their right to smoke in public.
His media strategy involved persuading women to smoke cigarettes instead of eating. He began by promoting the ideal of thin women by using photographers and artists in newspapers and magazines to promote their “special beauty.” He, then, had medical authorities promote the cigarettes over sweets.
Bernays also pioneered the covert use of third parties. For instance, he conviced a doctor to write to 5,000 physicians asking them to confirm that they’d recommend heavy breakfasts. 4,500 physicians wrote back and agreed. He arranged for these findings to be published in every newspaper across the country while stating that “bacon and eggs should be a central part of breakfast.” Sales of bacon went up.
The Engineering of Consent
Bernays called his brand of mass manipulation the “engineering of consent.” He worked with every major political power during his day to help provide the tools to non-coercive control of the mind. In 1928, he crystallized some of his lessons in his book “Propoganda.” Here’s a passage that describes his thought process about the importance of his work in society —
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
Enid Blyton and Bernay’s popularity
When I was growing up in India, books from “Enid Blyton” (a British children’s authors) were recommended reading for all kids. I was a huge Enid Blyton fan myself. One of the enduring memories I have of her storytelling is her focus on food and her insistence — via various characters in the book — that “bacon and eggs was the best breakfast in the world.” As I grew up and learnt more about bacon, I couldn’t understand why she said that.
Now I do.
Edward Bernays held the masses in contempt. That’s why we don’t know much about Bernays. He simply didn’t care about popularity in the eyes of those who he held in contempt. As is evident from the Enid Blyton story, the impact of his techniques on society are undeniable. Every marketing and PR campaign since has used his techniques to shape our minds. We study his work in every case on mass marketing — without ever referring to him.
The incredible jump in the proportion of British workers who voted “leave” in the 2 months before the EU referendum would not have been possible if it wasn’t for Bernays techniques.
3 notes to ponder
(1) Many column inches in the past year have been devoted to the role ads and social media have played in the tumultous political climate in the past couple of years. Here’s what scares me — a large proportion of the population is responding by consuming and discussing events on private messaging tools like Whatsapp. The Reuters Insititute confirms this trend among younger Americans. If you think polarized social news feeds can be propoganda carriers, you haven’t experienced the power of Whatsapp in spreading lies (see this and this).
(2) How would we go about learning marketing and public relations if we studied the life and work of Edward Bernays? I understand why professors and executives don’t want to talk about Bernays. Discussing his beliefs and techniques can seem akin to touting the power of the dark arts. But, every useful tool has its dark sides. And, the founding story of the PR industry is a great example of that. It is not an example we should avoid. Instead, it is a story we must learn from. It’ll make us all better marketers and, perhaps, better human beings.
(3) I was one among many who was surprised by the size of the impact of social media tools on the global politics. In retrospect, there were many warning signs. But, hindsight is always 20:20. That said, I don’t think I’d have been anywhere as surprised if I’d read the Edward Bernays story. The story of the propoganda maestro from a hundred years ago, it turns out, is very relevant today.
History doesn’t repeat itself — but it rhymes. It is why any attempt to understand the present and predict the future is futile if it isn’t preceded by an understanding of history.
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