Freud’s nephew and the unstoppable rise of the public relations industry-in memory of Edward Bernays‘ 130th birthday
Author: Dr. Wolfgang Sachsenröder
While Sigmund Freud’s teaching and psychoanalysis are less discussed internationally, the practical applications of his theories are celebrating ever new triumphs. On the one hand it is about the booming public relations industry, for which a hundred years ago Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays significantly paved the way in the USA, and on the other hand it is about the manipulation of the masses in politics. Bernays was declared one of the most influential personalities of the 20th century in a special edition of Life magazine in 1990. It remained largely unknown in Europe, although here too it contributed to considerable and controversially discussed changes in the economy and politics. Who was this Edward Bernays, who was born 130 years ago, on November 22, 1891, in Vienna and died in 1995 at the age of 103? Bernays was related twice to the famous „Uncle Sigi“. His mother was Sigmund Freud’s sister and his father was the brother of Freud’s wife Martha. The family emigrated to the USA in 1892, where father Eli Bernays started a successful grain trade. Edward studied agriculture at Cornell University, but began a journalistic career after graduating, which he soon expanded into a consultancy activity. He celebrated his first inspiring successes for a concert agency with the promotion for Daddy Langbein and the singer Caruso. His outstanding practical and theoretical intelligence and, last but not least, the stimulating exchange with “Onkel Sigi” in Vienna, whose works Bernays made known in the USA, were helpful. Like no other of his American contemporaries, he understood the mechanisms of the unconscious and the origin of individual desires and their satisfaction. Sigmund Freud had the pioneering ideas of the French Gustave Le Bon on mass psychology, published in 1895 as “Psychology of Foules”, integrated into his theory, which he published in 1921 in “Mass Psychology and Analysis of the Ego”.
Bernays recognized the practical possibilities of this new knowledge and soon began to translate it into a lucrative business model. Le Bon had worked out the differences between normal human logic and the mental processes, which sometimes differ greatly from it, in different groups and in politics. Bernays brought such mass psychological findings together with Freud’s discoveries of the unconscious and developed new techniques for influencing and manipulating the masses. Early on in his unusually long career, which spanned more than eight decades, Bernays used his findings both for sales-promoting applications, i.e. marketing, and in the area of political manipulation. President Wilson struggled to justify US entry into World War I to a skeptical population. Bernays became a member of the „Committee on Public Information“, which supported the entry into the war with propaganda and, in the long term, transformed American isolationism into global interventionism. This was ideologically underpinned as an almost missionary action to spread democracy, which in the 20s and 30s also became important domestically against its own fascist tendencies.
Bernays wasn’t the only pioneer in the new business field. One of his colleagues in the Committee on Public Information had founded the company Carl Byoir & Associates, which in 1934 was supposed to polish up the image of Nazi Germany in the USA for $ 6,000 a month, paid for by the German embassy in Washington. In the meantime, Bernays had published two successful books, „Crystallizing Public Opinion“ in 1923 and „Propaganda“ in 1928. As he describes in his memoir, the German-American journalist Karl von Wiegand reported to him that of all people Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, used Bernay’s findings to spread National Socialist ideology and to intensify anti-Semitic propaganda. One of the key sentences from the propaganda book must have electrified Goebbels: “Propaganda controls the spirit of the masses in a similar way to the way command in the military subjects soldiers physically.” Even in World War I, the propaganda was heavily charged with hatred on both sides, at the latest After the outbreak of war in 1939, however, the term fell into disrepute that Bernays successfully switched to „public relations“ and has since been referred to as the father of the public relations industry, which now has a global market value of around US $ 100 billion.
Bernays is occasionally quoted in terms that sound democratic. In truth, however, he was convinced that the people of mass society were incapable of analyzing the interrelationships in business and politics and therefore had to be guided by the wiser minds, preferably without even realizing it. Right at the beginning of his propaganda book, which is still well worth reading, he writes openly: “The conscious and targeted manipulation of the behavior and attitudes of the masses is an essential part of democratic societies. Organizations that work in secret control social processes. They are the actual governments in our country. We are ruled by people whose names we have never heard. “ He calls the intellectual elite of opinion makers in business and politics the „secret government“ and at the same time offers himself to them as a public relations consultant. His success with extremely sales-boosting and groundbreaking innovative measures soon became legend and increased his fee claims to ever new heights. At the height of the economic crisis in 1931, he was already making millions in today’s dollars, and even shortly before his death he could still charge an hourly fee of $ 1,000. In the endless list of his consulting successes, the following three have become legendary.
Lucky Strike cigarettes
Bernays worked for the American Tobacco Company for a full eight years, whose sales stagnated because it was not appropriate for women to smoke in public at the time. The breakthrough came with an ingeniously manipulated action at the 1929 Easter Parade in New York. A group of attractive young women appear smoking on Fifth Avenue and the next day the story appears in all the major newspapers as a scandal. After that, cigarettes are advertised as „freedom torches“ for emancipated women and as a substitute for sweets and slimming products. At the same time, a new ideal of slimness for women is being created through the media and actresses, which is no longer recognizable as a cigarette advertisement and which is precisely why it has an all the more intense effect. The path via the subconscious leads to desires and the decision to fulfill them, psychology and commerce are reconciled. The sales of Lucky Strikes rose sharply and became a gold mine for American Tobacco. Bernays himself did not smoke, however, and criticized his wife’s smoking, but has medical reports drawn up that it is harmless and even healthy and at the same time discredits warnings about the harmful consequences. But when the harmfulness was discussed more intensely in the 1960s, Bernays turned around 180 degrees and started a campaign against cigarette smoking.
Ham and eggs On behalf of a ham company, Bernays succeeded in setting another course of the rather unhealthy kind. While the average American consumer was used to a frugal breakfast with toast and jam, orange juice and coffee, Bernays succeeded, as always with indirect temptation, to establish ham and fried eggs as the typical American national breakfast, with effect until today.
The United Fruit Company and a coup in Guatemala In the early 1940s,
Bernays took on a consulting contract from the United Fruit Company to expand the banana market. This is done initially through clever product placements with advertising photos in hotels and a campaign that bananas are healthy. As is so often the case, he sets up a group of experts called the Middle America Information Bureau, which provides journalists and universities with targeted material on Guatemala and its bananas, including carefully planned journeys for journalists. With his press work as the Cold War began, Bernays made a significant contribution to the warnings against a communist danger in Guatemala that could result in the expropriation of the United Fruit Company. Through his media influence and additional lobbying in Congress, Bernays intervened directly in foreign policy, which ended in 1954 with an artificial coup in Guatemala and the overthrow of the elected president by the CIA.
Successful advertising naturally also advertises itself, which is why politicians quickly became aware of Bernays. In 1924, Bernay’s President Calvin Coolidge was able to help re-election with an image campaign, but in 1932 a broad strategy failed to prevent Herbert Hoover’s defeat by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Feeling part of the „secret government“ and constantly in conversation with the most powerful bosses in American business and top politicians, Bernays repeatedly used these contacts for his consulting business. In the early 1940s, he advised William O’Dwyer, the future mayor of New York City, and designed a voter analysis that was still unusual at the time. His staff interviewed 1,000 voters in each district and Bernays analyzed possible intentions based on previous election results, educational background, religious and ethnic ties, union and similar membership and animosity. As a result, the candidate received a 64-page strategy paper on the psychology of the New York electorate with a selection of key words for his speeches, suggestions about who to be photographed with and the taboo subjects that he should absolutely avoid. This also included the competing candidate’s sore points and the issues that could attack and weaken him. The concept was completely new at the time, William O’Dwyer lost the first election, but won in 1945 and was re-elected in 1949.
In the meantime, a lucrative branch of industry of its own has developed in the field of election campaign advice and seems to have become indispensable in most democracies. Bernays was a gifted self-promoter who liked to present his successes in such a way that they would have been completely impossible without him and he would have created the entire PR industry on his own. This also earned him severe criticism from among his colleagues and fellow campaigners, as well as very skeptical assessments from other observers. The term “Machiavelli of our time” was one of the more harmless labels. Felix Frankfurter, Supreme Court judge, called Bernays and Ivy Lee, the second PR pioneer of this era, in a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, „professional poiseners of the public mind.“ That was the critical point of view of someone who like Bernays was a Vienna born lawyer and co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union on the economic and social upheaval of the first half of the 20th century. The emerging mass society offered previously undreamt-expansion opportunities for the industry, which initially encountered rather frugal groups of buyers. In 1927, before Black Friday of 1929, the banker Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers wrote that America had to move from a culture of needs to a culture of demand. People must be made to buy new things before the old is used up. The American mentality must be changed in such a way that their wishes are always greater than their needs.
And that was ultimately the life’s work and legacy of Edward Bernays, who in an almost ingenious way enriched the old marketing with the skillful generation of artificial needs and only made it possible for the commodity markets to develop into true mass markets. His most important instruments included the psychological analysis of the target groups, the involvement of expert commissions and purchased reports, the use of famous personalities and film stars, the indirect and subtle creation of imitation wishes, if possible below the conscious perception threshold of the consumers, and a targeted launch of these elements in the media. With this set of tools he devised events that were picked up and disseminated by the media, which in turn led to new buying needs.
According to his own statements, his customer list includes all of the big names in American business among 435 companies, as well as individual public figures, musicians, actors and writers, as well as a number of charitable organizations that he advised free of charge. Bernay’s ‘legacy is now a natural part of the repertoire and industry standard, not only in the marketing of bulk goods for personal use, but also in the case of uniquiness or pseudo-uniquiness. While almost everyone owns a number of fashionable accessories or inexpensive watches, sinfully expensive luxury watches are also becoming coveted and downright libidinal collector’s items, which also draws the line back to Sigmund Freund, who uses the term libido for psychology to go far beyond eroticism and sexuality and has expanded him. Exaggerations in product marketing such as sexist advertising, based on the motto “sex sells”, are increasingly discredited, but remain a popular constant in advertising practice. Surreptitious advertising, like propaganda at the time, has been suppressed as a term, with the designation “product placement” the method has been rehabilitated and has become acceptable.
In the area of political advertising and influencing, we have sometimes not entirely gotten rid of Bernays ‘and Goebbels‘ propaganda methods. After the historical personality cult around Hitler, Stalin and Mao, the Kim dynasty in North Korea shows that the masses can be manipulated again and again into an almost religious-libidinal enthusiasm. The Trump years in the USA also demonstrated once again how untruths cannot fail to have their effect on electoral decisions and can decide on majorities, even if they are easy to refute rationally. But also emotionally instrumentalized political messages of salvation, mainly propagated by non-politicians and enriched with scenarios of doom, generate expanding mass movements without sufficiently concrete solutions. Foreign policy theses, such as the warning of China’s rise to world power, are constantly repeated by politicians, disseminated by the media, and internalized by large sections of the population, even without a sufficient economic and political overview. And terrorist movements based on religious teachings have become a characteristic phenomenon of our epoch. Today’s confusion of official and unofficial media and news sources and the chaotic simultaneity of all possible contributions and actors in social media makes Edward Bernays‘ ideas almost attractive again. Is it still possible to influence the public opinion of a country in such a way that a somewhat recognizable consensus emerges from the chaos of information? Can “crystallizing public consent” and “engineering of consent” be assessed as a necessary intervention for a functioning democracy? Is a consensus on basic political decisions of society and civil coexistence still possible or a somewhat binding code of conduct and rules of civilized communication? The fragmentation of German society, like American society, is continuing and appears to be becoming more intense. The increasing fragmentation of the party systems in Europe is one of the warning signs of this. Apart from that, public relations and “spin” in marketing remain indispensable and are used successfully and further developed to promote consumption. The PR industry is one of the most creative and lucrative branches of industry, both in commerce and in politics. Perhaps lucrative right from the start, because Bernays recognized and successfully applied the principle that most customers equate the amount of the required fees with the quality of the advice