Edward Bernays – The Father of Public Relations

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Still Edward Bernays is widely unknown in general public. But this innovative expert for all sorts of propaganda has shaped the western world in a decisive way in his span of live for over hundred years


By Hermann Ploppa

“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.

These are strong words, indeed. With these words Edward Bernays is opening his most important book in 1928, which he gave the upfront-title ‘Propaganda’. It’s the good side of Bernays that he makes no bones about. No doubt, one of the most successful entrepreneurs for public relations of all times put the things in straight language. When he includes himself into the scores of the manipulated and clandestine blindsided individuals by saying ‘we’ you can take it as pure rhetoric. He introduced the term only for taking the reader with him on his journey.
When we – and now I seriously mean ‘us’, the common people – watch James Bond in a movie driving through the scene with a demonstratively unobtrusive positioned car of the BMW brand, then we are talking about ‘product placement’. This is an invention of mister Edward Bernays. When families make their holy pilgrimage into the showrooms of the local car dealers on Sundays, and make a halt, full of religious ecstasy, just to worship an off-roader with a cowcatcher in front of its bonnet, so this pious adoration for an inefficient scrap of metal we can also ascribe to mister Bernays.
And when we – after over eighty years – are now witnessing laws for smoking which acknowledge explicit the deathly poisonousness of nicotine, so this we also owe the effective procrastination of this finding to – Edward Bernays. And when the local cultural managers consider themselves naked if they don’t impel their citizens to the shopping malls several times a year under the pretext of the fashionable label ‘event’ or ‘city festival’ for the only purpose that some carnival barkers could sell their new, entirely worthless junk goods; then the communal managers prove themselves as docile disciples of Bernays. And they are doing that without any knowledge of Edward Bernays.
So he is an important man, indeed. This man consulted 435 corporations in matters of public relations. Among them were many of the biggest corporations of the world.
Edward Bernays was born in Vienna in the year 1891. His mother was the sister of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. The family of Bernays soon emigrated to the U.S. Until World War One Edward Bernays promoted successful concert tours for the famous tenor Enrico Caruso through the US, or for the Russian ballet company of Sergei Diaghilev featuring the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. When the USA joined the Great War, Bernays signed on the public private partnership Council on Public Information. The Council had to do the hard work to change the pacifist mood of the people in the US into a jingoistic bloodthirsty delirium as soon as possible. These endeavors were of limited success.
On the board of the CPI Bernays had to make the Americans sympathetic with the new Baltic Republic of Lithuania. Ceaselessly he is manufacturing articles about the music scene, literature or sports in Lithuania. By the way in these articles it is apparently incidentally mentioned, the young Baltic republic is positioning itself as a bulwark against Bolshevism, and that it thereby has a very important task to fulfill in the fight for freedom and democracy. Editors all over the US willingly insert these cost-free ‘editorials’ in their newspapers. This example has set a precedent. Nowadays newspapers over the globe are loaded with such fill-in articles which are offered by neoconservative and market radical think tanks and foundations in a seemingly altruistic manner.
After the armistice in the autumn of 1918, Bernays has made his homework in such a perfect manner that he joins the baggage of US-president Wilson on the way to Paris as an adviser for the peace negotiations. And he was flabbergasted as Wilson was hailed by the enthusiastic French crowd like a hero. Because he knew firsthand that the famous fourteen points, though seeming excellent at first glance, are promising everybody nearly everything. But he knew also very well, that Wilson had no idea to implement those fourteen points. Bernays knew exactly that Wilson would be nothing more than a medium of symbols and ideas charged with emotions. The excited masses only celebrated their own wishes and dreams. <2>
Back in the US, Bernays is pondering: if you succeed to win the masses by their emotions instead of their minds during the Great War, why not exploit this mechanism in civil life in times of peace, too? Could you also sell automobiles and even soap by exactly the same pattern instead selling those irrational dreams of freedom and democracy? Bernays opens one of the first bureaus for public relations in the center of New York. His first customers doubtfully raise their eyebrows. Until now goods have been propagated by explaining that the shoes of the brand XY are extremely durable and that they are sewed with a double fissure. The hard liquor AB in contrast to the hard liquor CD of the competitor generates no hangover the next morning. Such a dowdy instruction about the practical value of a certain good was not clever enough for Bernays.
And now Bernays is exactly the right man in the right moment. The economy is such accelerated by the war that it will inevitably implode if productivity will not expand by other means. Because of that factories now have to manufacture goods for civil life. Demand has to be produced artificially. A TV documentary by the BBC <3> cites a CEO of the former American major bank Lehman Brothers who wrote at that time: “We have to change America from the culture of demand into a culture of desires. The people have to be conditioned to desire new things even when the old ones are not entirely consumed. We have to build a new mentality in America. The desires have to replace the demands of the people.”
Of course the people of the lower classes have to earn more money for consuming. That is now possible because a new profession of manpower studies, with Frederick Winslow Taylor and the German psychologist Hugo Münsterberg as their avant-garde, developed new techniques to raise productivity in an explosive speed. So if the worker can produce four times more than before by the reforms of Taylorism, you can pay him 60 per cent more wages. Henry Ford pays to his employees – in case they are male and older than 22 years – a bonus payment of ten million dollars in January 1914. A great portion of the workers in the US can afford a little bit more than a meager budget to survive after the Great War.
At that time gigantic trusts have been built. The primary goal of trusts is to sell products with maximum profit rate. Articles which people really need but offer less profit, the trusts like to leave to medium-sized companies or cooperatives. The consumer shall buy what the trusts offer. Because the consumers will not accept this at once, the public relations experts must avoid the method of rational persuasion but instead lead the customers to their decision to buy goods via secret path. They have to combine with the commodities some connotations which don’t have anything to do with the practical value or exchange value of them.
The emancipation of women for instance. A classic example of the great success of Bernays. After the Great War the suffragettes achieved the right to vote for women. Bernays remembers this in the year 1929 when he was asked by George Washington Hill, at that time head of the cigarette company American Tobacco, how to leverage the stagnating sales of the brand Lucky Strike. Bernays engages ten young models for the Easter Parade in New York in 1929. These models shall light their cigarettes in a publicity effective manner in front of the crowd. Of Course “Eddie” Bernays gave notice to all pressmen in advance that there will be an event with photogenic girls. His clerk Bertha Hunt sends a telegram to the public: “For the sake of emancipation of women and to battle against another gender-taboo, I and other young women will ignite a new torch of freedom by smoking cigarettes while promenading along Fifth Avenue.”
Equating cigarettes with the Torch of Freedom of New York – this is strong stuff indeed. Until then smoking cigarettes by women in public had been looked at as indecorous. But why should anyone relinquish half of mankind as consumers? After this Lucky Strike rose up to the top of the sales. This became possible by a new innovation which Bernays introduced. He hired physicians who certified as independent experts the innocuousness of smoking cigarettes in medical journals and in tabloids as well. Those physicians praised – for a considerable fee, to be sure – the slenderizing effect of inhaling nicotine. From the medical point of view, after dinner there can be no better thing than smoking cigarettes, Dr. George F. Buchan pleads in the year 1929: “the right way to finish a meal: fruit, coffee, and a cigarette … the cigarette disinfects the mouth and calms down the nerves.” <4>
In the meantime Bernays is stockpiling a lot of scientific expertise which substantiate the innocuous effects of nicotine – only to be prepared for the worst case of their publication in the US. Nevertheless Bernays is a non-smoker, and he wants his chain smoking wife to finish that by all available means.
But Bernays is not only an extraordinarily cunning expert for public relations. He wants to polish up the dingy job of sales promoters into a respected profession with its own instruction course and with self-imposed qualitative and ethical standards. He gives his new defined profession the title: Public Relations Counsel. Since the early twenties Bernays gave lectures and seminaries in universities. He explains his theory of public relations – the term ‘propaganda’ has been desecrated by the Germans in the war in his point of view – in many books. His book ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion’ was published in 1923. But in 1929 he returns to the taboo-word by naming his next book ‘Propaganda’.
Bernays never formulated a new theory. He only examined developed theories for their practicability and then translated them into concrete PR. The basic question of his predecessors was: how to work with the masses? More and more people were living in the cities. There they assembled to masses. That horrified the privileged. The horror of the Storming of the Bastille of 1789 had also been a thorn in the side for Gustave Le Bon. In his magnum opus ‘The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind’ of 1895 he conceptualizes a dark image of the capabilities of the new mass public. The crowd is generally more stupid than the individuals who assemble into it. The crowd is ‘effeminate’ and has no principles. The crowd is a capricious beast, and Le Bon is lucky to watch that beast from a safe distance.
Also the crowd theorists of the US hang on to a pessimistic concept of the crowd which only generates chaos, stupidity and perdition. They persistently ignore the fact that in the overwhelming majority of all mass demonstrations of the labour movement there was a ceremonious spirit of civil obedience and morality. But the concept of mass-chaos was indispensable to justify interventions by the upper classes.
The British neurosurgeon and social psychologist Wilfred Trotter opines that a mass of humans acts just like a herd of animals. Simultaneously the concept of the group context in the modern industrial society is more refined. William McDougall observes that an individual feels himself obliged to more than one group context with quite different ethical values. And Walter Lippmann states that the common people are not interested in a qualified participation in social developments at all. A handpicked elite of ‘wise men’ has to premeditate all difficult tasks of politics in a manner that the common people only have the option to answer to prefabricated questions with ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
A keyword in this paternalism is the term ‘public opinion’. The elites feared public opinion because it opted against the big trusts or against warmongers. But now they more and more realized that public opinion is a material to work with. That’s Bernays: “If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it… 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.”
Certain events have to be manufactured which induce a desire in the people. But the people are not aware that their desires are artificially generated, that is the trick: “Men (people) are rarely aware of the real reasons which motivate their actions.” A harmless example out of the toolkit of Doctor Bernays: he noticed that women don’t like the green wrapping of Luky Strikes. Because of that Bernays organizes a resounding charity ball in the Waldorf Astoria of New York which has the color green as motto. The entire high society is clothed in green color and the mobbed-up press announces: this will be a green season! Nobody knows that behind the hype are standing Bernays and American Tobacco. The turnover of Lucky Strike was improving.
But not so harmless is the trick with the destabilization of foreign governments, which could provoke in the population the desire for an iron fist. In 1954 Bernays manages the public relations of the American corporation United Fruit for the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. Guzman tried to achieve better wages and conditions for the workers on the banana plantations. And he tried to end the lopsided dependence on United Fruit. Alongside tactics of attrition belonged to the destabilizing of the Arbenz government also the portrayal as a puppet of the Soviet Union. Bernays engages linguists who shall detect consonances in the diction of the Guzman people and the Kremlin. He distributes to the right radical American Legion the treatise ‘Communism in Guatemala – 22 Facts’. Some time before he is said to have engaged agents provocateurs who staged rioting in the streets of the capital exactly at that day as pressmen from the US arrived in Guatemala to produce the appropriate impression in the USA.
When a corporation selling bacon wished to boost its turnover, Bernays engaged the necessary expertise of medics who recommended: there must be hearty stuff for a good breakfast. Since that day US-citizens are loading bombs of calories consisting of scrambled eggs and bacon on their plate in the morning. Bernays engaged Maurice Chevalier to praise jewelry of Maison Cartier and introduced thereby product placement. He assured the reelection for the agonizingly boring US-president Coolidge by engaging artists for a show at the White House. The mobbed-up press announced that the boring head of state was nearly laughing. Suddenly the voters could imagine him as humane.
Nevertheless there was a president of the USA who wanted to replace the paternalistic rule for an honest participation of citizens: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The businessmen of the US, in front of them the businessmen’s association NAM, were shooting fusillades of propaganda against Roosevelt who notwithstanding could achieve landslide victories at elections. But the World fair of 1939 in New York was a gigantic manifestation of power of the capitalistic paternalism. It showed a brave new world of high-tech gadgets in which the citizen had his place only as a consumerist and not as an autonomous creator of his environment. In this fair Bernays designed the techno-dome ‘Democracity’.

The monument of paternalistic capitalism, an idea of Bernays: „Democracity“

And finally here is a savory punchline in the life of over hundred years of Edward Bernays. Extraordinarily disciples of the inhumane doctrines of Bernays have been Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. The correspondent to Europa of the Hearst-press Karl von Wiegand once was telling Bernays that he found in the bookcase of Goebbels his book ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion’. Bernays seemed to be shocked, because Bernays was a Jew. His ‘uncle Sigi’ Freud had to flee from Vienna after the Nazi invasion.
But for the sake of a successful marketing of politics the Nazis ignored questions of race. Hitler admits in his book ‘Mein Kampf’ quite frankly that he has learned a lot from American propaganda. One of these lectures was that you don’t have to win the people by their ratio but by their unconscious. A verdict of Hitler was that politics have to be marketed by the same rules like soap. That was absolutely new in Germany at that time.
Bernays learned from Everett Dean Martin that you can attract the masses by showing fights. So at Nazi events there was always action. Famous were their brawls at political meetings or the infamous invasion of the ‘leftist’ town of Coburg. They were in the media. Hitler was not seen with exchange of arguments but with iconic consumer items. Hitler salutes in a car. Hitler flies over Germany. His events were stylized like rock concerts. To say it clearly: the Nazis conquered the masses by using PR-methods from America.
They created chaos to sell ‘order’.