Edward Bernays is hailed by many to be the founder of Public Relations as a discipline. Whether or not that is true, he certainly was it’s first major intellectual and figurehead. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and applied his psychology to the masses in order to drive them to buy things. His approach was to influence people to adopt a lifestyle that would necessitate them buying the product he was pitching, rather than appealing to common sense. Among other things, he figured out how to popularize cigarettes, even though he himself never smoked, made bacon and eggs breakfast food, and was the brain behind dozen of other advertising campaigns that still to this day define ‘normal’.
Larry Tye is a critical biographer who manages to maintain a respect for his subject even while pointing out his many personal flaws and inconsistencies. For instance, he was a social butterfly without close friends. He didn’t spend time with his children. He adored hos wife but neglected and suppressed her, even while advocation women’s liberation. The book leaves you unsure of who this man was and why he did what he did, but no doubt that he continues to have a profound influence on American life.
Also check out the fantastic documentary, “The Century Of The Self”
Bernays was the man who, more than any other, got women to smoke and who put bacon and eggs on the breakfast tables, Ivory and soapdishes, books in bookshelves, and Calvin Coolidge back in the White House. Although most Americans have never heard of Edward L. Bernays, he nevertheless had a profound impact on everything from the products they purchased to the places they visited to the foods they ate for breakfast.
In doing so, Bernays demonstrated to an entire generation of budding PR men and women the enormous power that lay within their grasp. If housewives could be guided in their selection of soap, so could husbands in their choice of a car. And voters in their selection of candidates. And candidates in their political posturing. Indeed, the very substance of American thought was mere clay to be molded by the savvy public relations practitioner, or so it seemed.
With the stakes so high, however, even Bernays needed help. So he turned to his uncle, Sigmund Freud. Much as Freud had revolutionized the way the world thought about individual behavior, so Bernays was able to transform attitudes toward group action. He used his uncle’s ideas in the commercial realm to predict, then adjust, the way people believed and behaved. Never mind that they didn’t realize it. In fact, all the better. And just as Freud was rewarded with the title Father of Psychoanalysis, so Bernays became known around the world as the Father of Public Relations.
Not even a wedding ring—a symbol, to such freethinking youth in 1922, of the spousal slavery they were determined to resist.
“Perhaps Cornell was the right place for me after all,” he decided later, “because it furnished, in a negative way, a test for aptitudes and adjustments…I was looking for something that was not there and found something better.”
Eddie’s stints in journalism had also shown him where he could cut corners. Would a reader recognize that the ballet’s press person had written the Vanity Fair story about the ballet? No problem, he would shuffle the letters of his name around and became Aybern Edwards.
“I urged Revalles to make a pet snake her trademark and never to travel without one,” he recalled. “She hesitated, but agreed—show people intuitively adjust themselves to getting publicity for themselves, whatever the method. When I saw how easily Revalles became a national celebrity, I recognized how necessary it was to look behind a person’s fame to ascertain whether the basis was real or fictitious. Public visibility had little to do with real value.”
Eddie was also fascinated by the public’s adoration of Caruso. And, in a lesson he’d learned while working with the Ballet Russe and that he would later apply in behalf of corporate moguls and American presidents, he realized that such impressions could easily be fashioned or reshaped. “The overwhelming majority of the people who reacted so spontaneously to Cariso had never heard him before,” Eddie wrote. “The public’s ability to create its own heroes from wisps of impressions and its own imagination and to build them almost into flesh-and-blood gods fascinated me. Of course, I knew the ancient Greeks and other early civilized peoples had done this. But now it was happening before my eyes in contemporary America.”
He viewed activities with which he was involved in epic terms, as events that helped shape American and world culture, whether it was the Paris Peace Conference or the U.S. tours of Caruso and the Ballet Russe. He was exceedingly proprietary about his role in those events, seeing himself as having battled for the public good as others succumbed to temptation, and doing all he could to ensure that history would see him in the same heroic light. And he always got the last word because he outlived contemporaries like Creel, who died twelve years before Eddie wrote his autobiography and therefore was unable to defend himself.
When America joined the war, cigarettes were considered unsavory, if not unmanly; most men preferred cigars, pipes, or chewing tobacco. But cigarettes produced a milder and more appealing product, and Uncle Sam began putting cigarettes in soldiers’ rations, with the result that many doughboys changed their smoking habits. Cigarettes were manly things now, the stuff of warriors.
Bernays didn’t invent fashions like the pursuit of a svelte figure, but he was becoming the acknowledged master of accentuating such trends and capitalizing on them for his clients, a process he termed “crystallizing public opinion.”
Magazines and newspapers also were furnished with the latest findings on the get-thin trend. For fashion editors, that meant photo after photo of slender Parisian models in haute couture dresses. For news editors, it meant testimonials like one from the former chief of the British Association of Medical Officers of Health warning that sweets caused tooth decay and advising that “the correct way to finish a meal is with fruit, coffee and a cigarette. The fruit,” Dr. George F. Buchan continued, “hardens the gums and cleans the teeth; the coffee stimulates the flow of saliva in the mouth and acts as a mouth wash; while finally the cigarette disinfects the mouth and soothes the nerves.”
Hill was happy. Which isn’t surprising since, as Hill exulted in a December 1928 letter to Bernays, American Tobacco’s revenues rose by $32 million that year, and Luckies “show a greater increase than all other cigarettes combined.”
Bernays himself never smoked, although his wife Doris did for several years. And the man who helped persuade tens of thousands of Americans to give up sweets in favor of cigarettes admitted later in an interview, “I didn’t like the taste of tobacco. I prefer chocolate.”
The uproar he’d touched off proved enlightening to Bernays. “Age-old customs, I learned, could be broken down by a dramatic appeal, disseminated by the network of media,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Of course the taboo was not destroyed completely. But a beginning had been made.”
“emphasis by repetition gains acceptance for an idea, particularly if the repetition come from different sources.”
But Bernays specialty was determining why the public preferred certain things, then reengineering those preferences to coincide with his clients’ needs.
Quashing gossip-mongering was another area where Bernays was becoming an expert. One rumor in the 1930s had Lucky Strike firing all its salesmen, an especially inflammatory charge in the midst of the depression. Bernay’s first rule in deflating rumors was never to repeat them publicly, for fear of fanning them. A related precept held that the best antidote was to publicize facts and figures showing the rumor couldn’t be true, which is this case meant letting people know about the large number of salesmen still working for American.
He used a similar strategy in 1930 when he went to work for Simon and Schuster, Harcourt Brace, and other major book publishers. “Where there are bookshelves,” he reasoned, “there will be books.” So he got respected public figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes—which is why so many homes from that era have built-in bookshelves.
The Bernays touch also shaped the world of medicine. Shortly after he signed on with the Multiple Sclerosis Society, he pointed out that the name of the illness was more of a mouthful than most Americans could digest. He urged pruning it back to MS, which the society did, helping transform an obscure ailment into a favorite cause.
Bernay’s tactics differed, but his philosophy in each case was the same. Hired to sell a product or service, he instead sold whole new ways of behaving, which appeared obscure but over time reaped huge rewards for his clients and redefined the very texture of American life. Some analysts have referred to his methods as strategic or lateral thinking—mapping out a solution based on a client’s standing in the wider economy and society rather than on narrow, vertical considerations like how they were faring against other bacon makers or booksellers. Bernays preferred the phrase “appeals of indirection,” plotting a path to a client’s goal that seemed roundabout but ultimately removed underlying as well as immediate impediments.
Advertisers had always pressed consumers to pick one product over another, and press agents had shilled stories for clients, but now Bernays and a band of colleagues were skillfully manipulating symbols and trends in ways that affected what average Americans ate for breakfast, what sorts of homes they bought, and what colors they chose. And the PR men were doing it so adeptly that most people never realized it was happening and couldn’t have conceived of how it was transforming the country.
Today, thanks to records made available upon Bernay’s death in 1995, we can look backstage and see what strings he was pulling. And in the process we can better understand the dramatic world of public relations, a universe that has come to include hundreds of thousands of publicists, pollsters, advertising executives, and strategic planners, and that plays a more profound role than ever in our lives.
The formula was simple: Bernays generated events, the events generated news, and the news generated a demand for whatever he happened to be selling.
Bernays’s Mack campaign also set a model for lobbying that is still used in today’s world of high-priced political action committees. He managed to unite disparate elements of an industry, in this case trucking, to battle a common enemy, the railroads. He realized that his greatest challenge was to rally the public to his cause, he knew the way to do that was to appeal to pocketbook issues, and he proved that in the face of such an onslaught, Congress could be persuaded to spend billion of taxpayer dollars.
That was the first time Bernays was fired, or the last. His short tenure with client after client suggests he didn’t always make the impact he claimed, and even a thirty-year relationship like the one he had with Proctor and Gamble ended with his dismissal.
“I had the unhappy task of telling him,” Gale recalled. “His whole approach was indirect, and that just kind of fell by the wayside as far as we were concerned. It no longer was pertinent.”
Never, judging from his writings, was he fired for anything that was his fault.
Yet if his short tenures reflect his shortcomings, the fact that he continually landed new, bigger clients attests to his reputation for producing results, to his resiliency, which let him bounce back from falls that would have kept down less resourceful men, and most of all to his ability to persuade prospective clients that his troubles with earlier clients weren’t his fault.
Bernays’s stories almost always began with a factual account, then were puffed up as he recounted his own role or insisted that whatever happened was a “first of its kind.” As his granddaughter Hester Kaplan says, “I never doubted his stories; I just doubted their magnitude.”
Bernays was an original thinker, but his theories weren’t conceived in a vacuum. To understand his ideas it’s essential to understand his times. America in the 1920s seemed blessed with limitless horizons. The economy was soaring. Lindbergh had shown how far man could fly, and RCA was showing how loud a man’s voice and ideas could resonate. Ford was turning out a Model T every ten seconds, and the average American could finally afford a car, the ultimate sign of modernity in a decade that celebrated things modern. Bernays, meanwhile, was learning that the technological and psychological forces that helped him shape public opinion for Caruso and rally America against the German kaiser could be tapped to do much, much more.
All that economic growth and technological change brought with it new public attitudes and social norms. Americans were beginning to view the captains of capitalism in a less flattering light. Muckraking journalists dug up proof of just how venal John D. Rockefeller and his robber baron pals were, of how William Henry Vanderbilt hadn’t been kidding when he’d scoffed “the public be damned,” and of how corrupt politicians had condoned their actions. At the same time the social fabric was fraying as people migrated from farms to cities, abandoning old ties of community, looking for new associations to bind them, and demanding an unprecedented accountability from leaders in business and government.
Bernays’s ideas, here as elsewhere, reflected the profound influence of his uncle Sigmund. He talked about the use of symbols, as Freud did, and of the centrality of “stereotypes, individual and community, that will bring favorable responses.” He was as driven as his uncle to know what subconscious forces motivated people, and he used Freud’s writings to help him understand. But while the esteemed analyst tried to use psychology to free his patients from emotional crutches, Bernays used it to rob consumers of their free will, helping his clients predict, and then manipulate, the very way their customers thought and acted—all of which he openly acknowledged in his writings.
Bernays laid out what would become a famous eight-part formula for a PR campaign: define your objectives; conduct research; modify your objectives based on that research; set a strategy; establish themes; symbols, and appeals; create an organization to execute your strategy; decide on timing and tactics; and carry out your plans. Individually each element sounded obvious enough, but putting them together the way Bernays did set him apart from his contemporaries, and the essay rings as true today as it did forty years ago.
In July 1929 Eddie approached his uncle with another proposal, this time to publish his autobiography, with the promise of an advance payment of “somewhat over $5,000.00.” Freud responded that “this proposal is of course an impossible one. An autobiography is justified only on two conditions. In the first place if the person in question has had a share of interesting events, important to all. Secondly, as a psychological study. Outwardly my life has transpired quietly and without content and can be dismissed with a few dates. A psychologically complete and sincere life recital would, however, demand so many indiscreet revelations about family, friends, adversaries (most of them still alive), with me as everyone else, that it is precluded from the very outset.”
Whether he acknowledged it or not, Eddie was one of Freud’s most faithful students and most frequent imitators. He shared Freud’s disdain for religion in general and for the Judaism of their forefathers, which both saw as superstitious. he rebelled, as did Freud, against the superego, feeling it stopped om the way of his becoming the self-made man he was determined to be. He followed Freud’s lead by writing books that laid a framework for his profession. Most of all, Eddie borrowed his uncle’s insights into symbols and other forces that motivate people, using them as building blocks for the art and science of public relations.
In the end, however, Eddie was preoccupied with the public arena while Freud was captivated by matters private and inward-looking. Eddie was, in essence, a sociologist while Freud remained a committed psychologist. And while Freud sought to liberate people from their subconscious drives and desires, Eddie sought to exploit those passions.
The taxi rides already had served their purpose, however, yielding a list of streets he liked, and a friend followed up with letters to seven hundred homeowners, asking if they’d sell. Seventy replied but, as Eddie told a reporter afterward, none agreed to part with their dwelling.
“One of the letters, however, offered ‘condolences’ on my search,” he recounted, “and pointed out that the only way houses came on the market in Cambridge was when the owner died. So I changed my method, and began going to as many cocktail and dinner parties in the Harvard Square as I could. At the third dinner party, my hostess mentioned that a woman she knew had just died, and that she had owned a lovely house on Lowell Street. We’re living in it now.”
He’d never been an equal partner at home, and he never was willing to give Doris the credit she deserved for he pioneering work in public relations. He’d never truly consulted her before deciding to move to Cambridge or before any of their many moves in New York. So while she relished spending more time with him in retirement, it was also a strain. She confessed to her son-in-law Justin Kaplan, that she sometimes felt “like a prisoner. I think she meant imprisoned by Eddie. He wouldn’t let her sit out in the backyard by herself. He kept a short leash on her.”
Eddie insisted he was simply protecting her after their robbery and a mugging nearby, but really it had as much to do with his insecurities as wanting to protect her. He cherished her support and friendship, but wanted them all to himself. He was overprotective of her in overt ways but didn’t protect her nearly enough from physical and emotional pain.
Eddie seemed to have forgotted that he’d spent much of his life touting the merits of psychoanalysis as practiced by his uncle Sigmund. “He was an ambivalent keeper of the flame, to say the least,” says his daughter Doris, herself a therapist. “He could see psychoanalytic theory or Freudian theory in its applicability to groups, its sociological applicability, and he was a very quick study in that sense. In a more personal sense, he didn’t have a clue what it was all about. He never understood it.”
His wife’s death was the hardest adjustment Eddie ever had to make. As had happened with so many other things in his life, his reaction was brimming with contradictions.
Bernays clearly wasn’t the first modern PR practitioner. Ivy Lee deserves that title, or maybe George Michaelis. But Bernays was the profession’s first philosopher and intellectual. He saw the big picture when few others did, and he was the first to appreciate the nexus between theory and practice or, as he would have said, between the art of PR and the science. And in doing so he was the first to demonstrate for future generations of PR people how powerful their profession could be in shaping America’s economic, political, and cultural life.
If he can claim credit as PR’s progenitor, however, Eddie Bernays must also accept at least some responsibility for what his progeny have done. For he remains, in the end, a role model for propagandists who take us to war as well as those who work for peace. He inspires corporate strategists who peddle deadly tobacco products as well as those who are convinced that doing good is good for their business. And he is the father of the spinmeisters who manipulate our perceptions of politicians as well as those who inspire officeholders to serve the public who elected them.