Edward Bernays

propaganda

Edward Bernays (1891 – 1995) was a pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, referred to in his obituary as ‘the father of public relations.’

He combined the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud. He felt manipulation was necessary in society, which he regarded as irrational and dangerous as a result of the ‘herd instinct’ that Trotter had described.

His mother was Freud’s sister, Anna. Bernays, working for the administration of Woodrow Wilson during World War I with the Committee on Public Information, was influential in promoting the idea that America’s war efforts were primarily aimed at ‘bringing democracy to all of Europe.’ Stunned by the degree to which the democracy slogan had swayed the public both at home and abroad, he wondered whether this propaganda model could be employed during peace time. Due to negative implications surrounding the word propaganda because of its use by the Germans in World War I, he promoted the term ‘Public Relations.’ Bernays felt that the public’s democratic judgment was ‘not to be relied upon’ and he feared that ‘they [the American public] could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing, so that they had to be guided from above.’ This ‘guidance’ was interpreted by Anne to mean that her father believed in a sort of ‘enlightened despotism’ ideology.

This thinking was heavily shared and influenced by Walter Lippmann, one of the most prominent American political columnists at the time. Bernays and Lippmann sat together on the U.S. Committee on Public Information, and Bernays quotes Lippmann extensively in his seminal work ‘Propaganda,’ which argued that the scientific manipulation of public opinion was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society

Bernays’ public relations efforts helped to popularize Freud’s theories in the United States. Bernays also pioneered the PR industry’s use of psychology and other social sciences to design its public persuasion campaigns: ‘If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.’ He called this scientific technique of opinion-molding the ‘engineering of consent.’

Bernays refined and popularized the use of the press release, following its invention by PR man Ivy Lee, who had issued a press release after the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck. One of the most famous campaigns of Bernays was the women’s cigarette smoking campaign in 1920s where helped the smoking industry overcome one of the biggest social taboos of the time: women smoking in public. Women were only allowed to smoke in designated areas, or not at all. If caught violating this rule, women would have been arrested. Bernays staged the 1929 Easter parade in New York City, showing models holding lit Lucky Strike cigarettes, or ‘Torches of Freedom.’ Bernays created this event as news, which, of course, it wasn’t. Bernays convinced industries that the news, not advertising, was the best medium to carry their message to an unsuspecting public.

One of Bernays’ favorite techniques for manipulating public opinion was the indirect use of ‘third party authorities’ to plead his clients’ causes. ‘If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway,’ he said. In order to promote sales of bacon, for example, he conducted a survey of physicians and reported their recommendation that people eat heavy breakfasts. He sent the results of the survey to 5,000 physicians, along with publicity touting bacon and eggs as a heavy breakfast.

Bernays used the ‘Freudian Theory’ to deal with the public’s conception of communism, as he believed that we should not be easing the public’s fear of communism, but rather promote that fear and play with the public’s emotions of it. This theory in its own was so powerful that it became a weapon of its own during the cold war.

The belief that propaganda and news were legitimate tools, and his ability to offer philosophical justifications for these beliefs that embraced the democratic way of life, in Bernays’ mind set his work in public relations apart from what ad men did. Bernays regarded advertising men as special pleaders, merely paid to persuade people to accept an idea or commodity. The public relations counsel, on the other hand, he saw as an Emersonian-like creator of events that dramatized new concepts and perceptions, and even influenced the actions of leaders and groups in society.

At times he was depicted negatively, and he and other publicists were often attacked as propagandists and deceptive manipulators, who represented lobby groups against the public interest and covertly contrived events that secured coverage as news stories, free of charge, for their clients instead of securing attention for them through paid advertisements.

Bernays had a particular gift for the marketing strategy called the ‘tie-in’ — in which one venue or opportunity or occasion for promoting a consumer product, for example, radio advertising, is linked to another, say, newspaper advertising, and even, at times, to a third, say a department store exhibition salesroom featuring the item, and possibly even a fourth, such as an important holiday.

Bernays’ most extreme political propaganda activities were said to be conducted on behalf of the multinational corporation United Fruit Company (today’s Chiquita Brands International) and the U.S. government to facilitate the successful overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala, General Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Bernays’ propaganda branding Arbenz as communist, was published in major U.S. media. The term ‘banana republic’ originated in reference to United Fruit’s domination of corrupt governments in Guatemala and other Central American countries.

Much of Bernays’ reputation today stems from his persistent public relations campaign to build his own reputation as ‘America’s No. 1 Publicist.’ During his active years, many of his peers in the industry were offended by Bernays’s continuous self-promotion. According to contemporary Scott Cutlip, ‘Bernays was a brilliant person who had a spectacular career, but, to use an old-fashioned word, he was a braggart.’ ‘When a person would first meet Bernays,’ says Cutlip, ‘it would not be long until Uncle Sigmund would be brought into the conversation. His relationship with Freud was always in the forefront of his thinking and his counseling.’ Bernays liked to think of himself as a kind of psychoanalyst to troubled corporations.

Bernays’ celebration of propaganda helped define public relations, but it did not win the industry many friends. In a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described Bernays and Ivy Lee as ‘professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism and self-interest.’ And history showed the flaw in Bernays’ identification of the ‘manipulation of the masses’ as a natural and necessary feature of a democratic society. The fascist rise to power in Germany demonstrated that propaganda could be used to subvert democracy as easily as it could be used to ‘resolve conflict.’

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