Edward Louis Bernays (November 22, 1891 – March 9, 1995) nephew of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, was considered the father of the field of public relations, and was named as one of the one hundred most influential Americans of the twentieth century by Life magazine. Bernays was one of the first to attempt to manipulate public opinion using the psychology of the subconscious. He defined the public relations professional as a "practicing social scientist," who applied sociology, social psychology, anthropology, history, and so forth in his craft. Bernays is and was held in high regard by some, and thoroughly despised by others even today, as Bernays, his clients, and other public relations professionals who learned from him used the techniques and ideas that he developed for selfish gain at the expense of others. However, just as Bernays himself suggested that as propaganda had been used for war it should be used for peace, so public relations, which has been used to deceive and exploit the public, should be used to establish and maintain a healthy society of happiness and prosperity.
Bernays was born on November 22, 1891, in Vienna, Austria. He was a blood nephew and a nephew-in-law to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. His parents were Ely Bernays (brother of Martha Bernay, Freud's wife) and Anna Freud (Sigmund Freud's sister). When he was one year old, his parents moved to New York City. He enrolled in Cornell University at age 16, where he studied agriculture to please his father.
After working briefly in the agricultural sector, from 1913 to 1917, Bernays did publicity work for theatrical associations. When the United States entered World War I, he offered his services to the government's Committee on Public Information, also known as the Creel Committee. The committee was designed to generate public support at home and overseas for America's itinerary on the war.
In 1919, after some very productive and patriotic service with the American Peace Commission in Paris, Bernays returned to New York to apply his methods from the committee to the world of free enterprise. He was of the opinion that if propaganda could be used for war, you could certainly use it for peace. He partnered with a journalist named Doris E. Fleischmann, whom he married two years later. For some years entertainers and corporations had employed "press agents" to secure favorable notice in the newspapers. True to his title as the world's initial "counsel on public relations," Bernays had a broader vision for fame and glory. He sought to shape and mold public opinion in the interests of his clients, consciously incorporating his Freudian school-of-thought manipulation methodology.
In the early 1920s, Bernays arranged for the U.S. publication of an English-language translation of Freud's General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. In addition to publicizing Freud's ideas, Bernays used his association with Freud to establish his own reputation as a thinker and theorist—a reputation that was further enhanced when Bernays authored several landmark texts of his own, most notably Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928).
Bernays continued working in New York City until 1963, and single-handedly styled himself as an entrepreneurial "public relations counsel." He had very pronounced views on the differences between what he did and what advertising men did. A pivotal figure in the orchestration of elaborate corporate advertising campaigns and multimedia consumer spectacles, he is among those listed in the acknowledgments section of the seminal government social science study Recent Social Trends in the United States (1933).
It is impossible to grasp completely the social, political, economic, and cultural developments of the past one hundred years without some understanding of Bernays and his professional heirs in the public relations industry. As a result his legacy remains a highly contested one, as evidenced by the 2002 BBC documentary The Century of the Self, where he is described as "undemocratic." Public relations is a twentieth-century phenomenon, and Bernays—widely eulogized as the "father of public relations" at the time of his death on March 9, 1995—played a major role in defining its philosophy and methods.
Bernays' papers contain a wealth of information on the founding of the field of public relations in the 1920s. In fact, his 1965 publication, The Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel, contains one of the very best overviews of the decade.
Bernays was a philosopher of promotion, and it was probably that philosophical quality, evident in his writings and speeches, as well as the sheer exuberant creativity and intelligence of his publicity blitzes, which enabled him to impart to his own efforts and to the field more generally a sense of stature, scope, and profundity. In addition to his uncle Freud, Bernays also used the theories of Ivan Pavlov, most notably alluding to the theory that people can be conditioned like Pavlov's dogs. In Bernays' Propaganda, written in 1928, he talked about the invisible governance by manipulation:
The basis upon which all of us are being manipulated, whether we realize it or not, rests on Freud’s basic theory that deep down, all human beings possess dangerous fears and desires that need to be controlled. The goal is to condition us like Pavlov’s dogs! The moment we hear our cue, we, in perfect unison, are motivated to think and act as we have been conditioned to do, even if the conditioning we received was outside our conscious awareness.
One of Bernays' favorite techniques for manipulating public opinion was the indirect use of "third party authorities" to plead for 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 hearty breakfasts.
Whether promoting product publicity or national programs, Bernays used everything from community relations, crisis communications, public affairs, and media campaigns to advance the position of many large industrial companies. His endorsement techniques were used to aid prominent corporations such as Proctor & Gamble, The American Tobacco Company, and General Electric. Bernays emphasized the "coincidence of public and private interest, of the supremacy of propaganda of the deed over the propaganda of the work, of the desirability of a large corporation assuming constructive leadership in the community," through both thought and deed. Indeed his word-of-mouth reputation earned him many illustrious titles, including the most aptly known "godfather of the field of public relations."
The belief that propaganda and news were legitimate tools of his business, and his ability to offer philosophical justifications for these beliefs that ultimately embraced the whole democratic way of life, in Bernays' mind set his work in public relations apart from what advertisers did. His essays “A Public Relations Counsel States His Views” (1927) and “This Business of Propaganda” (1928) show that 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.
Bernays' magisterial, philosophical touch is evident in Crystallizing Public Opinion where he wrote:
This is an age of mass production. In the mass production of materials a broad technique has been developed and applied to their distribution. In this age, too, there must be a technique for the mass distribution of ideas (Bernays 1928).
Yet he recognized the potential danger in so grand a scheme and in “This Business of Propaganda” (1928), as elsewhere, sounded the great caveat that adds a grace note to his ambitious vision: a public relations counsel "must never accept a retainer or assume a position which puts his duty to the groups he represents above his duty to 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. (Bernays 1928).
Notwithstanding such seeming probity, Bernays and other publicists were often attacked as propagandists and deceptive manipulators who represented special interests 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' brilliance for promotion in this vein emerges clearly in Bernays’ Typescript on Publicizing the New Dodge Cars (1927-1928), "Two Sixes," the story of how he managed to secure newspaper coverage for the radio programs he developed to promote the Dodge Brothers' new six-cylinder cars.
As is evident from his campaign to publicize the Dodge cars, Bernays had a particular gift for the marketing strategy called the "tie-up" or "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, for example, “Thrift Week.”
A corporate booster who espoused a strong code of professional ethics, Bernays emphasized the importance of doing nothing that would harm the social fabric. In addition to famous corporate clients, Bernays also worked on behalf of many civic-minded and non-profit institutions and organizations. These included the Committee on Publicity Methods in Social Work (1926-1927), the Jewish Mental Health Society (1928), the Book Publishers Research Institute (1930-1931), the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (1933), the Committee for Consumer Legislation (1934), the Friends of Danish Freedom and Democracy (1940), the Citywide Citizens' Committee on Harlem (1942), and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (1954-1961). He also worked under President Calvin Coolidge and his Emergency Committee on Employment (1930-1932). Bernays’ amusing Typescript on Public Relations Work and Politics, (1924): "Breakfast with Coolidge" shows that President Coolidge too was among his clients, having been hired to improve Coolidge's image before the 1924 presidential election.
Essentially, Bernays built both the theoretical and practical foundation of modern public relations, beginning with his promotion of women's smoking. In the 1920s, working for the American Tobacco Company, Bernays sent a group of young models to march in the New York City parade. He then told the press that a group of women's rights marchers would light "Torches of Freedom." On his signal, the models lit Lucky Strike cigarettes in front of the eager photographers. This helped to break the taboo against women smoking in public.
In October 1929, Bernays was involved in promoting "Light's Golden Jubilee." The event, which spanned across several major cities in the U.S., was designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb (although the light-bulb was in fact invented by Joseph Swan). The publicity elements of the Jubilee—including the special issuance of a U.S. postage stamp and Edison's "re-creating" the discovery of the light bulb for a nationwide radio audience—provided evidence of Bernays' love for big ideas and "ballyhoo."
Bernays helped the Aluminum Company of America and other special interest groups to convince the American public that water fluoridation was safe and beneficial to human health. This was achieved by using the American Dental Association in a highly successful media campaign. Beyond his contributions to these famous and powerful clients, Bernays revolutionized public relations by combining traditional press agentry with the techniques of psychology and sociology to create what one writer has called "the science of ballyhoo."
Public relations historian Scott Cutlip described Edward L. Bernays as
...perhaps public relations' most fabulous and fascinating individual, a man who was bright, articulate to excess, and most of all, an innovative thinker and philosopher of this vocation that was in its infancy when he opened his office in New York in June 1919. (Cutlip 1994)
The 2002 BBC documentary, The Century of the Self, described Bernays as "undemocratic," and a primary contributor to an unnecessary force of social repression.
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' continuous self-promotion. According to Cutlip, "Bernays was a brilliant person who had a spectacular career, but, to use an old-fashioned word, he was a braggart" (Cutlip 1994). "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." He took Freud's ideas on people's unconscious, psychological motivations and applied them to the new field of public relations. According to Irwin Ross (1960), "Bernays liked to think of himself as a kind of psychoanalyst to troubled corporations." Bernays' public relations efforts helped popularize Freud's theories in the United States. Bernays also pioneered the 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. (Bernays 1928)
He called this scientific technique of opinion-molding the "engineering of consent."
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, United States 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."
In his autobiography, entitled Biography of an Idea, Bernays recalls a dinner at his home in 1933 where:
Karl von Weigand, foreign correspondent of the Hearst newspapers, an old hand at interpreting Europe and just returned from Germany, was telling us about Goebbels and his propaganda plans to consolidate Nazi power. Goebbels had shown Weigand his propaganda library, the best Weigand had ever seen. Goebbels, said Weigand, was using my book Crystallizing Public Opinion as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. ... Obviously the attack on the Jews of Germany was no emotional outburst of the Nazis, but a deliberate, planned campaign. (Bernays 1965)
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