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, advertising at scale and consumerism.
And, yet, strangely it is likely you have 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 reluctance among the colleagues 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, public relations and marketing.
So who is Edward Bernays?
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 get support from the public , among them elites 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 did not make much sense. But, Bernays coined a phrase : “Make the World Safe for Democracy” that became the slogan 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 published work about how individuals are driven by unconscious needs, desires, and fears.
Sigmund Freud [Bernays’s uncle], until then, was a relative unknown as he had been shunned by the 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 realised it was as powerful a tool in peacetime as it was during war.
How do we get people to buy more goods, even if they don’t need more? Get Edward Bernays to do the job.
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 smoking and bacon are great for you?
Sadly, Bernays’ advice was sold to anyone who cared to pay him well for it.
And, the bulk of his big 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 convinced a doctor to write to 5,000 other doctors asking them to confirm that they’d recommend heavy breakfasts.
4,500 doctors 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 crystallised some of his lessons in his book “Propoganda.”
Here is 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.”
Edward Bernays held the masses in contempt. That is 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.
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 was not for Bernays techniques.
We vote for Presidents because we have been “engineered to consent” for them.
I have reservations about marketing and PR because in the back of my mind, Marketing and PR is about lying, about propaganda and manipulating people.
You see an AirBnB advert, it looks fantastic, the wording and the advert ticks all the boxes, and then you get to the place and it’s not what you expected it is.
Social media has amplified people “engineering” their images to look more fantastic than they are, and then you meet them and you realise they are not what they claim to be.
When a war or military coup is imminent, the first thing those in control do is take over the state broadcaster.
If you watched South Africa during apartheid years from a distance through eyes of the media, you will be forgiven to think that it is a peaceful country.
Advertising and marketing has used to run campaigns to shape [engineer consent] thoughts and views of people and in the process creating unrealistic lifestyles.
Today we have campaigns like Black Fridays.
Black Friday was a deliberate invention of the National Association of Retailers. It was not only the perfect way to promote stores during a super slow news day, but had the side benefit of creating a new cultural norm.
People like doing what other people are doing. People don’t like being left out. The media likes both and uses that to engineer society to behave in a certain manner, in this case to go shopping.
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 will make us all better marketers and, perhaps, better human beings.
As Mark Twain has said before: 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 is not preceded by an understanding of history.
The reason I the history of things, [revolutions, marketing, accounting etc] is because history has a way of explaining to us why we behave we way we do.