How Edward Bernays’ Manipulation Through Propaganda Became Marketing History

A towering figure who defined the industry as we know it today

Edward Bernays in 1917 by Bain News Service [Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain]

Ever seen people who make sales pitches?

Some of their slogans would be like: “Buy the only medication for happiness,” or “The courses for guaranteed employment,” or “Counselling that keeps sadness at bay,” and more. By observing keenly through the finesse of advertisements, we either get swayed and eventually purchase the product or get trapped and end up getting manipulated.

Nevertheless, both cases deal with public relations and can be a great way of establishing a bond with society. This bond can be attained through information delivery mechanisms like writing social media content, designing campaigns, working with the press, ghostwriting memos and speeches, organizing conferences, slogans, and other marketing activities. Here, the sole aim is to benefit a large section of society through information dissemination.

However, if the same agenda is vested with selfish motives, this humane act becomes potentially dangerous.

Edward Louis Bernays honed the art of public manipulation and is often referred to as “the father of public relations.” His skills in manipulating the American people were so firmly affirmed that they blindly trusted his voice. Through his campaigns, he became the foremost successful salesman of the twentieth century.

Born in Austria in 1891 to an American Jewish family Edward Bernays was the “double nephew” of Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist, and psychoanalysis founder. Bernays’ mother Anna was Freud’s sister, and his father Ely Bernays was the brother of Freud’s wife, Martha Bernays Freud.

The Bernays family moved to the United States soon after his birth and carried on with their livelihood in the American atmosphere. Later, Bernays graduated from Cornell University with a degree in agriculture, however, he chose journalism as his initial career. With his knowledge, he helped Woodrow Wilson’s administration advocate the idea that the United States’ role in World War I was only to bring democracy to Europe.

He mastered the skill of persuasion to the core.

In 1928, Bernays published his influential work Propaganda where he mentioned the importance of public relations as a necessity and not a gimmick. Having witnessed propaganda’s effectiveness during war scenarios, he wondered how likely it was that it would be significant during peacetime. In reality, he didn’t stand with the ideas he preached in his work.

Bernays’ public relations propaganda pioneered on a broad range of subjects. To persuade the public, he got inspired by the subjects of psychology and social sciences. He believed that by understanding the mechanism, motive, and functioning of a human mind, one could easily influence the masses. Scientifically, he referred to this technique of brainwashing or opinion moulding as the engineering of consent.

He did this because an engineering approach makes it easier to bring about situational analysis. Therefore, according to Bernays, by applying scientific principles and experiments, people can be easily convinced to support any idea or program.

Public relations form an essential component of Sociology. Bernays knew very well that an individual is a cell formulated in a social unit. By affecting their subconscious part, an automatic response from the organism can be derived that later can be observed. His knowledge about society and their social behavior patterns helped him win people over with his nefarious propaganda.

Additionally, the study of philosophical sciences was used by him to trigger the instincts of the masses. His vision was that of a utopian society, where individuals are driven by their biological desires, emotional and psychic energies, and finally, their instincts. He considered these traits as animal urges that can potentially be dangerous to society if left unequaled.

Furthermore, Bernays described the masses as irritational, driven by desires and herd instincts, who can easily fall prey to the vicious motives of skilled intellectuals persuading them. Thus, according to him, crowd psychology and psychoanalysis can help people in better persuasion skills that might fuel intent — either beneficial or unfavorable.

Bernays manipulated America through his propaganda. He acquired an impressive list of clientele ranging from media outlets like CBS to corporate clients like Cartier Inc., the American Tobacco Company, and Procter & Gamble. He even manipulated the politicians.

In one of his propaganda campaigns, he changed President Calvin Coolidge’s stern public image by organizing “pancake breakfasts” and White House concerts where several Broadway performers participated. The event got comprehensive media coverage under the title “President Nearly Laughs.” With Bernays’ support, President Calvin Coolidge won the 1924 elections.

Bernays’ publicity campaigns were legendary with every propaganda of his bringing increased revenue and economic growth to his clients.

“Girl in Red” advertisement for Lucky Strike; shot by Nickolas Muray, a photographer enlisted by Bernays to help popularise feminine thinness and cigarette smoking. [Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain]

In one of his campaigns, he wanted to increase the sale of cigarettes among women. During those days, women smoking in public was considered taboo. To reach a positive outcome, Bernays consulted with a psychoanalyst who cited that cigarettes symbolized “torches of freedom” for women whose feminine desires were suppressed by their role in the modernized world. Consequently, on Easter Sunday 1929, Bernays organized a parade in New York asking a group of women to smoke cigarettes as “torches of freedom.”

He promoted Lucky Strike by convincing women that the cigarette pack came in fashionable colors, and that it played multiple roles like soothing the throat, slimming, and adding to feminine beauty. As much as Bernays was popularising it as a social necessity among women, he kept his wife distant from cigarettes. Perhaps, he knew that smoking is injurious to health.

He used similar sales tactics for children. To convince kids that bathing can be a fun-filled activity, he organized soap sculpture competitions and swimming contests. Other manipulative skills used were instilling fear, building rapport, and more.

Bernays used propaganda to sell his products, however, he never imagined that the Third Reich would use his writings on public relations. Despite Bernays being a Jew, Joseph Goebbels, a German Nazi politician became an avid admirer of his literary work. On becoming the minister of propaganda for the Third Reich, Goebbels tried exploiting Bernays’ ideas and work.

Bernays was left shocked that the Nazis were using his books as a destructive campaign against German Jews. What Bernays’ writings proposed was not ideals or traditions that would help evaluate propaganda’s efficacy. Instead, he used it as a weapon to mould public opinion in any desirable manner, whether or not it was beneficial to humankind. Both he and his colleagues were considered professionals who poisoned the public mind and ended up exploiting them.

Today, Bernays is widely eulogized as the “father of public relations,” however, his propaganda reflected a different motive at its core. The money-making desire fuelled its underlying purpose. By turning people into his consumers through his persuasive skills, he eventually used their purchasing power to convince them to buy the products. And people fell prey to the trap, thinking the product might be beneficial.

While branding can positively influence, it also comes with a probability of cheating the masses. Advertising that lacks moral and ethical codes of conduct is likely to make humankind skeptical and eventually lead to their downfall rather than uplifting them up. In the words of the author Bangambiki Habyarimana:

“If someone can change your mind, he has won you over without raising his hand against you. This is the future of warfare.”

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Swati Suman

Swati Suman

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In the rhythm of words, I try to unfold life. Thoughtful expressions in Philosophy, Science, Humanities. Compassion above All. Email: swatis.writes@gmail.com