ONE 6 • Edward Louis Bernays: Doctor Freud’s PR whiz nephew

Edward Louis Bernays: Doctor Freud’s PR whiz nephew

Have you heard of this man? If, not, read on . . .

There are many names that have become an integral part of history, political ones like Napoleon, George Washington or Churchill, literary ones like Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe, intellectual ones like Darwin, Marx or Freud; but many whose historical role might be just as great get forgotten after their own time because what they accomplished has become such an accepted part of the present that it no longer sticks out like those mentioned above. Such a one is Edward Louis Bernays, who only accidently came to my attention recently because a book about twentieth century history singled him out as a major figure that has influenced the course and nature of modern life as well as world events.

Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who left Vienna as a young man and in America used his uncle’s discoveries of the role of the unconscious in forming our opinion and thought patterns to make a career in the new profession of public relations — a phrase that he invented — following and using the parallel discoveries of other psychologists, especially Le Bon and Trotter. His brilliant and successful career enabled both commercial and political interests to benefit so much from his understanding of the herd instinct that it justified Richard Milton’s statement which attracted my attention to him that his “influence on the 20th century was arguably greater than his famous uncle’s.” Among his successful commercial promotions was the first American tour of the Diaghilev Ballet. At the time ballet was considered an effeminate un-American art and the Bernays campaign promoted the question “Are Americans afraid to be graceful?”, suggesting that good manners and gracefulness was the best way for men to appeal to the opposite sex. He soon represented many aspects of theatrical and arts activities until he was taken up by big business. His clients included many of the biggest American corporations, including Dodge Cars, Procter and Gamble, General Electric, United Fruit Company, American Tobacco Company and hundreds of others, as well as numerous special interest groups and campaigns promoting such controversial issues as the fluoridation of drinking water. Among his more colourful promotions, at a time when women were subject to a general taboo on smoking in public or at all, he paid a large group of attractive women models to take part in a public parade under the banner “A March For Freedom,” and at a given signal to all light cigarettes as they marched. This helped to break the taboo and as a result there was a massive increase in cigarette sales, Lucky Strike in particular quadrupling their turnover in a very short time. Another, to promote the bacon industry, was a campaign to convince the medical profession that good health depended on a heavy breakfast and led to the general belief that the “all-American breakfast” was bacon and eggs, which survives to this day. His use of suggestion to appeal to the unconscious mind was directly based on his uncle’s theories, as well as those of French psychologists related to the manipulation of consent in general and of mass opinion on certain issues in particular.


“There are many ways to decipher Bernays if you’re of a mind…
But you’ll have to enquire with dear uncle Freud as to whether or not you’re the right kind.”


Bernays started his career as a press agent in 1913, promoting mainly the performing arts, but during the First World War he became involved in the influencing of public opinion to support the war that President Woodrow Wilson was against, but Congress, pushed by the armaments industries, wanted. He became deeply involved in propaganda, which later became the title of his most important book, which did not have the negative connotation at the time that it acquired later. In 1919 he opened a new office, describing himself as a Public Relations Counsel and four years later started a course at New York University on Public Relations, his own coined phrase, and at the same time published his first book Crystallizing Public Opinion. He thought of himself more as a social scientist than as a commercial exploiter and all his many books have the tone of serious philosophy and even moral righteousness. He always described himself in his many autobiographical writings as engaged in social engineering to improve the world and extend, like his uncle, our knowledge of human behavior and the workings of the mind. He was appalled when he learned that his most devoted reader was Joseph Goebbels, who had all his books in his library up to 1939, and had used his techniques to build a mass hatred of the Jews in German mass opinion. Bernays himself was Jewish.

Edward Bernays was a controversial figure and although he is no longer known to most educated people today, he is still disputed among those who have followed him in the profession of influencing mass opinion. There were many politicians among his clients, including Calvin Coolidge and he is largely credited with helping to bring about his election to the presidency in 1924. None of the elected presidents during the 1920s did much more than occupy the White House. It was an un-political decade until the Wall Street crash, but this benefitted Barnays again, because he was able to convince his clients that they had to move with the changing public opinion of the times to sell their products. He styled himself a “Public Relations Counsel”, modest sounding, but he was accused by his rivals of being anything but modeSt He was an excellent and convincing speaker, gave frequent lectures and courses, and his many publications explained the psychological and philosophical thinking that lay behind his activities, as well as the whole history of persuasion, vote-getting and the promotion of ideas, products and information, from the earliest recorded times to the present. He understood the American mass mind perfectly and could always manipulate it according to his brief, but he stressed that there had to be an underlying truth that appealed to what people wanted to think and believe, and that blatant advertising which ignored this simple precept would fail. Over and over he was proved right and the problematical depression years of the thirties gave those who followed his advice great advantage over those who did not. His social vision was in essence utopian. He believed that by harnessing to the productivity of big business what people desired most was socially desirable and by using the right psychological methods to control the worst aggressive and animal impulses, he was bringing American democracy to a higher and more desirable level of reality. His sense of responsibility was strong and recognizing the dangers in allowing the science of propaganda, as he saw it, to get out of control, he taught that “a public relations counsel must never accept a retainer or assume a position that puts his duty to the groups he represents above his duty to society.”

He understood well enough and emphasized in his book Propaganda (1928) that a democracy is ruled by an invisible government which is the real ruling power. “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, 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 mind.”

Edward Bernays lived a very long life, dying at 103 years. His many books were supplemented by articles and shorter writings, some of them in collaboration with his wife (née Doris Fleishman). His 1945 book Public Relations, reprinted by Indiana University Press with an added preface eight years later, surprisingly has no information in the preliminary pages about his other publications or copyright information and might well be a pirate edition, and is suspect in other ways. It makes no mention of the way his theories were developed and used by the Nazis although it does go into much world history, so the dated preface to the later edition, which seems to be the only available publication to be found at present, may well be spurious. But its deeply philosophical tone gives a good idea of the author’s self-evaluation as a major figure in furthering the good of the human race and the evolution of science.

His more questionable activities consisted in the work he did for the American government to further its imperialistic interests, especially in South America which had seen many non-benign regimes supported or helped to power, and linked with it are the commercial interests of some of his clients, such as the United Fruit Company, which exploited slave labour to produce cheap bananas for the US, hence the aptly named “banana republics”.

Not surprisingly he had as many detractors as admirers, not entirely caused by envy, and his work attracted the ire of socially-conscious writers such as Pablo Neruda. Some denounced him as a braggart and his work as the “science of ballyhoo”. He was adept at using science, sometimes dubiously, as when he engineered the campaign to get water fluoridation accepted — still a controversial issue — and manufactured probably false medical opinion to promote the “all American breakfast”.

His influence is still evident today, for instance in American government propaganda in foreign affairs where Americans are persuaded by biased or untrue information to accept the illegal invasion of other countries and acts that go against all the laws of civilised society. It is also evident in the slanders that are now making the American presidential campaign the dirtiest ever. The anti-Obama campaign is being conducted in exactly the ways that Bernays devised.

However he is looked at, Edward Bernays is a name one should know and his books read, if only to understand the invisible forces that steer our so-called democracies in ways that only move them closer to mobocracies and dictatorships. He was dismayed by the ways Goebbels became his most apt disciple and avoided pointing out, except in the most generalised way, the dangers of using his methods malignantly. He understood well-enough the evil that is always present in the complexity of the human mind, but never gave much time to think out ways of controlling or diverting or transforming that evil into something positively creative. Ultimately it was the power of money that he followed and from which he mostly benefitted.

Born in Vienna in 1891 and dying in New York in 1995, Life Magazine named Bernays as one of the 100 most influential Americans of the century and there have been many documentary films and writings about him apart from his own autobiography. Much charitable work must be added to his record.

— John Calder 25/8/08