By Bruce Poli
Edward L. Bernays
Sigmund Freud, “Uncle Sigi” to Bernays
In the early 1940s my mother had lunch with Edward L. Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and uncle of Peter Bernays, her “beau” (and Freud’s great nephew). She was to be interviewed the next day as a pioneering woman advertising copywriter.
Edward carefully described publicity and public relations to her, a concept which he and his “Uncle Sigi” had developed over the previous two decades, as the “manipulation of the subconscious mind.” Today it’s called public relations—“marketing”—and is the bane of our capitalist society.
Yes, Freud was behind the creation of “persuasive communication,” for good or evil, though he kept his renowned name out of its popular history.
The next day at my mother’s interview, the first question was:
“How would you define publicity?”
She summarized exactly what she was told by Bernays, the godfather of PR.
“You’re hired!” was the response. It was that simple.
In the 1920s, Edward Bernays had Lucky Strike Cigarettes as a client. The challenging question was, “How do we get women to smoke?” (Yes, I am cringing as well!)
Bernays conducted a national survey, asking, “What’s your favorite color?”
The answer was green (no surprise there…money and nature…).
So he gathered hundreds of beautiful women, all dressed in green outfits and smoking cigarettes, and put them on parade in Paris, London, Milan, and New York…and VOILA! Women began smoking by the thousands all over the world.
Bernays’ contribution—and more importantly his influence on American life and culture—cannot be overstated. He was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life Magazine. An entire film series was devoted to his impact on our lives.
As described in Wikipedia: The Century of the Self, a 2002 British television documentary series by filmmaker Adam Curtis, focuses on the work of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud, and PR consultant Edward Bernays. In episode one Curtis says, “This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.”
If we are to understand the full scope of the profound connection between psychology, the mind, and our lives (and the dangers of capitalism’s effects on us), there is an epiphany we all need to experience as we approach the many crises before us (including climate change, the pandemic, and global social and economic unrest).
It’s the story of the id, the ego, and the superego, and why we have 80 million unvaccinated people and 3,000 deaths a day across America. And why a lying ex-president who says the election was stolen has a hold on a large part of the American public. And why conspiracy theories are pervasive in our society. And why we are in a social civil war in politics. And why a great publication like WestView has to struggle to survive…
The mind, as the saying goes, is a terrible thing to waste. Let us, in the coming century, eliminate the danger of unconscious manipulation and horrific oppression.
Let ideas flourish and our talent for truth in communication dominate our future, so our grandchildren will not experience a living hell.
The next few decades will determine the future of the human race; it’s our future to lead.
As Dylan said, “Don’t follow leaders, watch your parking meters.”
And don’t smoke…
Background info from Wikipedia:
Edward Louis Bernays; November 22, 1891−March 9, 1995) was an Austrian-American pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, referred to in his obituary as “the father of public relations.” Bernays was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life. He was the subject of a full-length biography by Larry Tye called The Father of Spin (1999) and later an award-winning 2002 documentary for the BBC by Adam Curtis called The Century of the Self. His best-known campaigns include a 1929 effort to promote female smoking by branding cigarettes as feminist “Torches of Freedom,” and his work for the United Fruit Company in the 1950s, connected with the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government in 1954. He worked for dozens of major American corporations including Procter & Gamble and General Electric, and for government agencies, politicians, and non-profit organizations. Of his many books, Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928) gained special attention as early efforts to define and theorize the field of public relations. Citing works of writers such as Gustave Le Bon, Wilfred Trotter, Walter Lippmann, and Sigmund Freud (his own double uncle), he described the masses as irrational and subject to herd instinct—and outlined how skilled practitioners could use crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control them in desirable ways. Bernays later synthesized many of these ideas in his postwar book “Public Relations” (1945), which outlines the science of managing information released to the public by an organization, in a manner most advantageous to the organization. He does this by first providing an overview of the history of public relations, and then provides insight into its application.