Edward Bernays gave himself the title "The Father of Modern Public Relations," a clever way to erase the contributions of those who came before them and solidify his legacy. Clever because it was technically true: he created the term "public relations" after the Germans had, as he put it, "given the word propaganda a bad name."
Bernays is better known than his predecessor Ivy Lee, in part because Lee died so young, while Bernays lived to over 100 and continued to work, write, and think about PR almost to his dying day. He's a central figure in the documentary The Century of the Self, which provides fascinating insight into who Bernays was as a person and what he believed, namely that the masses needed to be controlled because most of them were too stupid to know what was good for them, and certainly to know what was good for the country.
Bernays's uncle was Sigmund Freud—on both sides, in a bizarre and some might say Freudian twist (Edward's mother was Freud’s sister, and Freud was also married to Edward's father’s sister). Bernays grew up in Vienna, hearing all about Freud’s theories on the deeply buried human impulses that drive behavior. As a young man, he was very interested in the performing arts, particularly ballet and theater and he began to work in that world as a new sort of publicity man, less focused on posters and ticket sales and more on making his clients a major topic of conversation at dinner parties. His work in that realm attracted the attention of George Creel, who was heading up the government's WWI propaganda effort, and Bernays headed to Washington to join the effort.
It was here that he saw the real power in propaganda and became a bit drunk with his own ability to manipulate the masses. Bernays chaired the Committee on Public Information's Export Service, meaning his job was to help sell Europe on the idea of America as an ally and a savior. There is very little documentation of what Bernays actually did during WWI, but unlike his predecessor Ivy Lee, Bernays was all about promoting himself as much as his clients, and he spun a narrative for decades that he was integral to the Committee's success.
Bernays and Lee represent two archetypes that we see over and over again in PR history, with Lee preferring to operate behind the scenes and Bernays seeing value in being as visible himself as his clients were. Which is why, in addition to crowning himself the father of public relations and playing up his role in the Creel Commission, Bernays also consistently referenced his uncle and his relationship to him, creating the impression that he had a special understanding of human psychology and behavior by virtue of that family connection.
If Bernays was good at selling himself, he was also very good at delivering big wins for his clients. And he fundamentally changed many aspects of American society without Americans really knowing it. His list of successes includes:
- Convincing American men to wear wrist watches (the prevailing social norm was that anything worn on the wrist was feminine and the masculine thing to do was carry a pocket watch)
- Making smoking in public acceptable for women (more on that below)
- Making bacon and eggs the classic American breakfast (on behalf of a bacon client, naturally)
These examples show Bernays' genius at work and highlight the techniques he contributed to the information ecosystem:
Torches of Freedom (the first example of astroturfing)
In 1929, the head of the American Tobacco Company called Bernays up and said "we're losing half of our potential market—there's a taboo against women smoking, what can we do to break down that taboo?" Bernays asked if he could go talk to a psychoanalyst about it and got the green light. Through that conversation he came up with the idea of cigarettes being associated with female empowerment (and, yes, penis envy). So he called up a few stylish and influential young women he knew, asked them if they would be interested in staging a little protest, walking up and down 5th avenue smoking, and they agreed. Once he knew the "protest" was on, Bernays notified all the newspapers and magazines. His "Torches of Freedom" protest spread like wildfire and within a year the taboo on women smoking had been permanently lifted.
Here's Bernays telling the story himself decades later:
American Breakfast (using paid experts)
In the 1940s, Beechnut Packing Company, the country’s biggest bacon producer, tapped Bernays to help them with plummeting sales. In the 19th century, when manual labor was the norm—from farming to mining to building the railroads—Americans ate enormous breakfasts, mostly modeled on the English breakfast: eggs, meat, pasties and so forth. By the 1940s, however, work was less physically demanding. Needing less fuel to get through their days, and wanting to stay slim, Americans had whittled breakfast down to just a piece of toast and orange juice or a cup of coffee.
Bernays had a medical doctor on his agency's payroll by this point. So he asked the firm's MD, a well-known New York physician, if a hearty breakfast might actually be healthier. The doctor, knowing the answer Bernays wanted, said yes and Bernays asked him to get other doctors, all over the country, to weigh in as well. He got more than 5,000 doctors to agree that a heavy breakfast was, in Bernays' words, “scientifically desirable.” That survey was published and sent out to every newspaper, magazine, and radio station around the country. Six months later, Beechnut's sales had boomed, and the classic breakfast was back.
Here's Bernays telling the story:
Making Wristwatches Manly
In 1918, a watch manufacturer contacted Bernays. They had the opposite problem to American Tobacco: they made wristwatches, which only women would wear. There was a taboo against men wearing wristwatches, which, because of their similarity to bracelets, were seen as feminine. At the time, men would only wear wristwatches to indicate that they were homosexual. So, Bernays did some research. He discovered that American soldiers were all carrying pocketwatches, and that actually lighting a match to see their pocketwatch was a good way to attract attention and get killed on the frontlines. He convinced the U.S. Army that wristwatches could save soldiers lives. The watches became standard issue in the Army, obliterating the taboo and sending sales soaring.
Creating the Need for Disposable Cups (fake experts)
On behalf of his client Dixie, Bernays created the Committee for the Study and Promotion of the Sanitary Dispensing of Food and Drink, which ran various campaigns about how unsanitary using regular old glasses was. And, true to form, Bernays incorporated subtle sexual messaging as well. One ad emphasized that with disposable cups you never had to wonder if someone else's lips had touched your cup. Others connected imagery of overflowing non-disposable cups to subliminal images of vaginas and sexual disease. It was all in service of one message, convincing people that disposable cups were more sanitary.
Bernays' Freudian Car Ad
Bernays on Letterman in the 80s:
Bernays interview at Ball State University
Bernays interview with Bill Moyers
Bernays in Adam Curtis's "Century of the Self"