One hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud’s nephew invented Donald Trump.
While selling World War I to America via George Creel’s Barnum-esque Committee on Public Information, Edward Bernays saw America’ future. Tapping into his uncle’s psychological insights, media power, mass gullibility, celebrity magic, and the alchemy of symbols, Bernays realized that “government by propaganda worked.”
He could manipulate people’s desires, engineer consent. He could conjure up politicians and political causes, sway the mob. In peacetime, the “psychological warfare” he had mastered could transform politics—and consumerism.
Of course, leaders have been misleading the led since Adam and Eve, making politics the world’s second oldest profession. Edward Bernays wasn’t the first press agent. But whoever names and frames a phenomenon often wins historical glory. With the spark of a Houdini, the seductive cynicism of Mad Men’s Don Draper, and the scientific sweep of Freud, Edward Bernays articulated what other artful admen did naturally, becoming known as “the father of public relations,”
Born in Vienna in 1891, and moving to New York City a year later with his elegant parents, Bernays grew up in a family defined by their connection to his double uncle. Bernays’ mother, Anna, was Sigmund Freud’s sister. His father, Ely, was the brother of Martha Bernays, Freud’s wife.
Starting in 1919, Bernays, who lived 103 years until 1995, played America’s heartstrings like a maestro. Calling himself a “public relations counsel,” Bernays was no mere press agent. Flacks before him sought public attention; but using surveys, polls, psychology, and pranks, Bernays changed public opinion.
His clients suddenly “met” the new needs he created to suit them. He used celebrity endorsements from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Franklin Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt. His moves were reinforced by the illusory authority from the portentous-sounding “Medical Review of Reviews Sociological Fund Committee,” which he established to pitch more showering and more sophisticated sex education. He had the government require hairnets for hygiene to boost Venida hair-net sales.
After wondering “who influences what the public eats,” he ran ads saying that “4,500 physicians urged bigger breakfast,” which helped make bacon and eggs a morning staple. Always happy to stir fears, weaving in subliminal images of vaginas and venereal disease, Bernays had Americans buying Dixie Cups because disposables were supposedly more sanitary.
Bernays launched Ivory soap sculpting contests, with medical testimonials saying Ivory was healthiest. He would write about that campaign: “As if actuated by the pressure of a button, people began working for the client instead of the client begging people to buy.”
A clever adaptation for Betty Crocker had woman adding eggs—not just water—to an instant cake recipe. Otherwise, it was too easy. It didn’t feel like baking.
A longer campaign overcame the social taboo against women smoking. Using research that women saw men’s smoking as a symbol of power, Bernays called Lucky Strike cigarettes “Torches for Freedom” fighting “an ancient prejudice.” When consumer feedback suggested the Lucky Strike logo was too green, Bernays hosted a “Green Ball” at the Waldorf Astoria that made green the color of the season.
An intellectual showman, Bernays, explained his strategy beautifully yet brutally. This child of the 20th century believed that propaganda helped people manage their data overflow and decision overload. He, too, feared “the manipulation of news, the inflation of personality, and the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness of the masses.” The “instruments … may be misused,” he added, but they “are necessary to orderly life.”
Believing his uncle Freud that many “thoughts and actions are compensatory substitutes for desires” which society suppresses unnaturally, Bernays sold goods that liberated impulses. Buying a car wasn’t just for “locomotion.” It could be “a symbol of social position, an evidence of … success in business.”
In his 1928 classic Propaganda, Bernays said propagandists constituted “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…in almost every act of our daily lives…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
In an era of “manipulation of public opinion,” Bernays believed the people’s “voice” had come to be the “inherited prejudices and symbols and cliches and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.” He understood: “Good government can be sold to a community just as any other commodity can be sold.” But bad government could be sold, too. Anticipating Ronald Reagan—and Donald Trump—Bernays recommended sending young politicos “to work for Broadway theatrical productions or … as assistants to professional propagandists before recruiting them” to politics.
Inevitably, Bernays turned to politics. Running for re-election in 1924, Calvin Coolidge was as stiff as the boards in his Vermont farm house, but without the Maple’s sweet sap. Bernays arranged a “pancake breakfast” with Vaudeville stars like Al Jolson. It worked: Silent Cal smiled. But when the Depression hit in 1932 even Bernays couldn’t make Herbert Hoover re-electable.
Although Freud and Bernays were Jewish, the Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels applied their insights in cultivating Hitler’s “Führer cult.” The Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter warned President Franklin Roosevelt against relying on Bernays and other “professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism, and self-interest.” Bernays, who helped out in World War II at the United States Information Agency and in the military, realized that “any human activity can be used for social purposes or misused for antisocial ones.”
Bernays was a classic American liberal. He trusted experts, information, and the goodness of American democracy. He worked for the NAACP, celebrating black contributions to Southern white life. He advised the People’s Congress Party of India to adapt a Bill of Rights. And, as a liberal Cold Warrior, he libelled the government of Guatemala in the 1950s as Communist-inspired. This move pleased the State Department and his generous patron, the United Fruit Company.
Bernays lived long enough to see the damage he caused and tried to correct it. He supported anti-smoking campaigns. He called for licensing of PR professionals, saying in 1991, while celebrating his centenary: “Public relations today is horrible. Any dope, any nitwit, any idiot can call him or herself a public relations practitioner.”
Still, it’s too easy to caricature Bernays and other mass manipulators as agents of the devil. This is more than a tale of Freud’s nephew messing with our minds, perverting our hearts. These people don’t succeed because they are satan’s assistants. Edward Bernays was a smart, sophisticated, generous, idealist. He—and others less scrupulous than he—understood how to reach the devil within us all.
Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations, 2002.
Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928.
Edward Bernays, The Engineering of Consent, 1947.
Lisa Held, Psychoanalysis Shapes Consumer Culture, 2009.