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.
With these words, Edward Bernays (1891 - 1995) opened his 1928 book Propaganda. Rather than some conspiracy-toting potboiler, as you might be forgiven for imagining, this book was one of the foundational works for the discipline of Public Relations, and its author one of the more significant figures of his century. Often called "the Father of public relations", Bernays is widely believed to have created that discipline, at least in its modern form; a view which he himself did nothing to discourage.
At the very least he was an outstanding practitioner, who hit the scene at a time when the scale and techniques of PR were changing rapidly. Bernays claimed to have invented methods and attitudes which are landmarks in the evolution of PR, and it's a safe bet that ideas he invented or popularised have been extremely influential for the field, and therefore for the course of the twentieth century, in which Bernays-style PR played such a significant role.
Born in Vienna into the Freud family, Bernays was twice the nephew of his famous uncle Sigmund, since his father, Freud's brother in law through his wife, had married Freud's sister, Bernays' mother. Much is made (sometimes by Bernays himself) of the role in his work of his uncle's theories, but there seems to be little evidence of detailed psychoanalytic knowledge in his published output. The major influence seems to be his explicit recognition that we often make our buying and voting decisions based on irrational urgings situated within an unrevealed personal drama (what Freud would call the subconscious) rather than on sound commercial logic or informed empirical reasoning.
Bernays' picture of Hom Sap was elitist and hierarchical through and through, and his idea of a hidden government (a phrase he employs with sinister regularity) is based on the premise that, mostly, people are reactive dullards, dry sponges whose views will be coloured by their soaking up whatever ink the savvy few choose to squirt at them. Who require, in fact, to be shielded from the complexities of involvement in actual decision-making in the interests of a smoothly running society. He saw the world of public affairs as a sort of puppet show, run by the elite, which guided the pliable minds of the masses down the right paths.
Birth of a vocation
After a mediocre time at school, culminating in a degree in agriculture at Cornell University during 1908-12, he started a career in journalism, having dabbled at school and university. Tiring of the agricultural prose of the National Nurseryman, he spent a few months doing menial office work, in New York and Paris, and was then offered a job by school friend Fred Robinson, helping to edit two medical journals, the Medical Review of Reviews and the Dietetic and Hygienic Gazette. During his term there he embarked on his first foray into what we'd now call "PR".
The two young journalists published a rave review of Damaged Goods, a play highlighting the problem of syphilis and how it was worsened by the public's prudish reluctance to discuss or even acknowledge it. Having sensed an opportunity, Bernays got involved as a backer in a New York production of the play. In a step that was to become characteristic, he created the Medical Review of Reviews Sociological Fund Committee, inviting prominent citizens (reverends, Rothschilds, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers ...) to come together to support the production in the name of "fighting sex-pruriency".
This not only solved the problem of his own lack of any adequate funds to back the play, as the donations rolled in, but was also successful in staving off the unwelcome attention of the city's censors, who were impressed enough with the ringing endorsements flowing from all quarters of the social pantheon and scared enough of appearing to aid the disease by holding back progress that they decided to leave well enough alone.
Predictably, the taboo-challenging debate sparked by the committee's activities was irresistable to the press and its readers, and the resulting publicity guaranteed the success of the production beyond any doubt, though reviewers seemed to agree that despite the overflowing box-office, it lacked any artistic merit.
The use of such ad-hoc committees of the famous and influential, and the hitching together of moral campaigns and commercial publicity to direct the emotions and ethical strivings of the masses into convenient channels, were trademark Bernays gambits and have not lost their appeal even in today's high-powered and very un-naive publicity industry.
The young Bernays went on to handle a series of theatrical publicity campaigns. Acclimatising the American public, who viewed ballet as something little short of a perversion, to Diaghilev's 1915 tour of America was perhaps the most impressive of these, accomplished by a remarkably modern campaign promoting the virtues of the art form and its intimate connection with all that was noble and good in America.
Targetted copy and images were lavished on newpaper editors and correspondents, and a magazine campaign was run, generating coverage in 20 or so publications, as diverse as The American Hebrew, Ladies Home Journal, Physical Culture and Literary Review, each apparently independently finding its own special reason to be interested in the hitherto undiscussed dance.
Along with this rising tide of print, Bernays somehow persuaded manufacturers to produce goods for sale, based on the designs of the ballet's sets and costumes - what we would now call merchandising. Caught up in the national ballet "phenomenon", people rushed to buy, and they were sold in the best Fifth Avenue stores. The well-planned arrival of the troupe, complete with enthusiastic crowds at the harbour, was conveniently photographed and prominently displayed in the Sunday magazines.
The tour was a sell-out, more dates were added, and ballet had been transformed almost overnight from a disreputable and barely discussed oddity to the pinnacle of the arts, and a fine romantic aspiration for your daughter.
And then America joined the War.
Regimenting the public mind
Bernays was apparently keen to join up as a regular soldier but couldn't get through the physical, since he wore glasses and had flat feet. He sought other involvement, and finally got a place in the newly formed Committe on Public Information (CPI), sometimes known as the Creel committee. This was formed in 1917 by Woodrow Wilson to sell the war to the American public and to sell America's version of the war overseas. Since Bernays was later to credit his spell there with some influence on his subsequent career, it's worth examining its methods and scope.
The CPI was a virtual censorship committee, issuing "voluntary guidelines" for journalists (backed up by the threat of exclusion of their publications from official and unofficial briefings), and helping to squash the radical dissenting press, not least by helping to put the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 into law; but that was only a tiny part of its activities.
As a producer of information, CPI operated on an industrial scale, following a threefold strategy:
- saturate the information market
The CPI carefully analysed the routes via which the public absorbed information, and created 19 departments which were charged with the task of saturating each of these with pro-war material.
According to one source, just one of these departments, the Division of News, created over 6,000 separate press releases. These were to provide copy and ideas for up to 20,000 different columns a week. In other departments, orators, filmmakers, essayists, academics, novelists, photographers, cartoonists, illustrators, commercial artists, admen and pamphleteers were employed to lend their talents to the collective effort. Scholarly essays with titles like The German Whisper and Conquest and Kultur abounded. Films like The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin and Wolves of Kultur were the order of the day. It became impossible to participate in the media or engage in society without getting a daily dose of CPI product. Soldiers were assigned duties as "four-minute men", to stand up in movie theatres, public meetings, etc., and give speeches in praise of government policy.
Bernays (1928) wrote:
They not only appealed to the individual by means of every approach, visual, graphic, and auditory to support the national endeavor, but they also secured the cooperation of the key men in every group, persons whose mere word carried authority to hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of followers. They thus automatically gained the support of fraternal, religious,
commercial, patriotic, social and local groups whose members took their opinions from their accustomed leaders and spokesmen, or from the periodical publications which they were accustomed to read and believe.
- use emotional agitation to bypass rational choice
The classic example being a poster showing an exaggeratedly threatening German soldier, and urging the viewer to "Beat Back The Hun With Liberty Bonds." The emotional arousal caused by the image is available for association with the desired action. Vacuous and emotional phrases, such as "Making the world safe for Democracy", framing vague, unarticulated political aspirations in an almost spiritual context, were carefully crafted and disseminated.
- demonize the enemy
At the same time, the manipulators of patriotic opinion made use of the mental clichés and the emotional habits of the public to produce mass reactions against the alleged atrocities, the terror and the tyranny of the enemy.
Bernays, who served as director of the Latin American Division, later admitted that his colleagues in the CPI had invented atrocities by the Germans. Lies from previous wars were recycled, such as the story of a seven year old boy confronting enemy soldiers with his toy gun, and stranger tales (one apparently involved a tub full of eyeballs).
This technique has a sound basis in Freudian theory. The more the public project their inner demons onto the symbols of the enemy, the more, in fact, the enemy itself becomes a symbol for evil, the more emotional energy is available for more specific direction, as above.
Summing this up, in his 1951 Public Relations
, Bernays would write that the CPI
bombarded the public unceasingly with enthusiastic reports of the nation's colossal war effort [...] Dissenting voices were stilled, either by agreement with the press or by the persuasive action of the agents of the Department of Justice.
Intellectual and emotional bombardment aroused Americans to a pitch of enthusiasm. The bombardment came at people from all sides - advertisements, news, volunteer speakers, posters, schools, theaters; millions of homes displayed service flags. The war aims and ideals were continually projected to the eyes and ears of the populace. These high-pressure methods were new at the time, but have become usual since then. [...]
The most fantastic atrocity stories were believed.
Being involved in all this must have considerably affected the young Bernays. In Propaganda he was to write: "It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind. It was only natural, after the war ended, that intelligent persons should ask themselves whether it was not possible to apply a similar technique to the problems of peace."
Bernays set up shop in Madison Avenue
, and in 1923 he was working for Proctor and Gamble
, a relationship that lasted 30 years, performing that cliche of salesmanship and advertising: selling soap, on the Ivory Soap
By creating the National Soap Sculpture Competition in White Soap he sought to harness the creative aspirations of millions of schoolchildren, reconciling these "enemies of soap" to its more positive aspects. Female performers from the Ziegfield Follies and the representatives of the "National Household Service" issued statements of support for pure unscented white soaps. Soap yacht races were held; respected galleries staged exhibitions of winning soap sculptures. In an appeal to civic pride and duty (or to the positive emotions associated with them) use of pure white unscented soap was advised for cleansing important municipal buildings.
The campaign was a great success, and the Soap Sculpture competition became a popular annual event for the next 25 years.
Torches of freedom
1929 was a big year for Bernays. By the end of it he would have helped thousands of women to take up smoking
, and staged what's been called the first global PR event
of the century, and arguably the most successful.
Bernays' relations with American Tobacco and its president George Washington Hill had started in 1928, when he took on the job of promoting the Lucky Strike brand. Hill, spotting a gap in the market, asked Bernays specifically to encourage more women to smoke. Female smoking was bordering on taboo: in 1922, a woman was arrested for smoking in public in New York, and even in 1928 women smokers were generally disapproved, or stigmatized, but the times were changing.
Bernays' first campaign was focused on a supposed health benefit of smoking - with the slogan "Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet", he encouraged women to think of smoking as a way to keep a slim figure. But the market was slow to move.
In 1929, however, he caught the public imagination by hiring young models and debutantes to join the Easter Parades in New York and elsewhere, posing as suffragettes while lighting up cigarettes and wearing banners describing these as "torches of liberty".
Bernays had received advice from A.A. Brill, a psychoanalyst, that women tended to "regard cigarettes as symbols of freedom [...] Smoking is a sublimation of oral eroticism [...] The first women who smoked probably had an excess of masculine components and adopted the habit as a masculine act [...] Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom."
Bernays' piece of street theatre, which was extensively photographed and reported by the ever-cooperative press, who presented it as a straightforward political action by suffragettes, was an ingenious way of reinforcing these associations. Pages were filled with positive images of young fashionable, politically adventurous, freedom-loving, smoking women. It was undoubtedly a turning point in America's acceptance of female smoking. The campaign was successful enough that Bernays' services were retained, and he soon went on to aid American Tobacco in combatting the first stirrings of the anti-smoking health movement, by getting doctors and health workers to issue smoking-friendly pronouncements. In 1934 he devoted 6 months to making green the "in" colour of the fashion season, specifically so that women would buy the green-packeted Lucky Strikes to go with their green dresses, at which he also succeeded.
Light's Golden Jubilee
From May to October, 1929, General Electric
engaged Bernays to mastermind another staged event
. The Golden Jubilee of Light
was set up to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the invention of the lightbulb. Bernays conducted a tightly planned six month campaign, and was rewarded with global attention and massive domestic coverage for the actual event in October.
At the culmination of the campaign, in Dearborn, Michigan, Thomas Edison was drafted in to reenact the discovery in a special ceremony, with such 'luminaries' as Henry Ford and Herbert Hoover in attendance. General electric made a 50lb lightbulb, powered by two elevator generators, for the occcasion. NBC and CBS provided national radio coverage, with Albert Einstein taking part from Germany over a shortwave link. A commemorative postage stamp was issued.
While the ostensible focus was a celebration of Edison's invention, behind the scenes the agenda was set by the giant electrical corporations sponsoring the event - the creation of a new economic sector, no less: electrical consumer goods for the working class. Such luxury goods (as they were then) were not traditionally bought by the lower paid, but the powerful imagery and marketing created for the exhibitions and publicity surrounding the Jubilee were aimed at planting a new economic paradigm in the popular mind. Sleek and futuristic designs, running to Le Corbusier style buildings and electric bubble cars were coupled with the humbler convenience devices actually available, wrapped up in a phantasmogoric vision of a clean electrically powered utopia. If you want to fix a time for the birth of modern consumerism, this is basically it.
By now Bernays was already something of a PR guru, with two books to his name: Crystalizing Public Opinion (1923), and Propaganda (1928). Intriguingly, these each came out one year after books by his colleague and superior at the CPI, Walter Lippmann, namely Public Opinion in 1922 and The Phantom Public in 1927. Where Lippmann coined the phrase manufacturing consent (later to be re-used by Chomsky), Bernays would talk of "engineering consent" to describe how the publicity process interfaced with the business of government.
Further campaigns, for Philco, General Motors, and American Tobacco among others, were run by Bernays' successful and profitable company during the 30's. By 1941, Bernays was a highly sought-after speaker and a national figure, receiving a personal communiquée from Eleanor Roosevelt recognizing his involvement with art and industry. By the time America joined the Second World War, Bernays had had a hand in the creation of a significant portion of its cultural and psychological landscape.
But more than that, it seems Bernays' writings and Bernays-style PR played a large part in defining the realities of Nazi Germany, too: according to Bernays' autobiography Biography of an Idea, he was informed by Hans Weigand, respected foreign correspondent, that Nazi propaganda maestro, Joseph Goebbels "was using my book Crystallizing Public Opinion as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany"; and Bernays' peer in the PR world, Ivey Lee, opted to go to work on the German side, where it seems the techniques employed to demonize Jews in the eyes of German nationals would have been familiar to any CPI alumnus.
Guatemala, 1951 - 1954
"Engineering consent" is as good a phrase as any to describe Bernays' activities in the early 50's, when he was taken on by United Fruit to protect its assets in Guatemala
The giant United Fruit corporation, accustomed to lax regulation, sweet deals and easy pickings in Guatemala, was disturbed to find that the government of Juan Arvelo, elected in Guatemala's freest elections to date, in 1945, was taking an interest in working conditions and the rights of workers. But in 1951, when power passed for the first time in Guatemalan history from one elected government to another, they began to panic. The new president, Jacobo Arbenz, ushered in a program of land reforms, transferring idle land above a certain size, from the 1,059 largest landowners to be given away to peasants in small 8 - 33 acre chunks.
United Fruit were the largest landowner in Guatemala, and they also felt threatened by Arbenz' attempts to break their transport monopoly, by constructing a new railroad parallel to their own (Guatemala's only existing railroad) and a new seaport, next to the one owned by United Fruit (Guatemala's only seaport).
These moderate reforms were unacceptable, and the corporation took on Bernays to lobby the US government for action on the Guatemalan "problem". The strategy was clear: portray the new government as a communist menace and prompt a US action to establish a new government. Journalists were treated to junket tours at company expense, and under company guidance, for "fact finding". "Communist" riots were staged for their benefit. Leader-writers and Washington politicians were wined, dined and "educated". A book, Report on Nicaragua, beginning "A Moscow-directed communist conspiracy in Central America is one of the Soviet Union's most successful operations of infiltration outside of Iron Curtain countries ...", was distributed to every member of congress. Unusually, the book was not credited to any author...
In other words, the usual items in the Bernays PR armoury were brought to bear - manufacturing news events, planting stories apparently from disparate, independent sources, buying off respected public figures, utilization of "hot" areas (the "communist menace") in the public psyche in order to excite opinion and occlude rational decision making, etc. etc.
Under the political pressure generated by this monumental act of lying, the US government was happy to oblige, and a CIA-inspired coup relieved Arbenz of power, and created one of the most unashamedly despotic governments South America has known, which was to murder and repress its own citizenry with gusto for 38 years. The land reforms were undone, the concessions and monopolies of US corporations were honoured and supported. One in 200 Guatemalans were killed in politically inspired violence. The US looked on with approval, and offered financial and military support.
In retrospect, it's quite clear that the Arbenz government was neither communistic nor "Moscow-directed". Arbenz set out his desire to transform Guatemala into a "modern capitalist country" in his own inauguration speech. While the information channels in the US were saturated with accounts of fictitious communist insurgency, the real picture of a nation struggling to free itself from the financial stranglehold of a single large company was almost totally absent.
So: brilliant innovator, moulder of mass minds, tool of faceless corporations and manipulative governments, democratic idealist and evil propagandist; many views of Bernays are possible. The same man who gave solid strategic advice to the NAACP
for their first national convention wrote books that provided the theoretical underpinning of Joseph Goebbels
' demonization of the Jews in Nazi Germany, and helped to create a tyrannical, violent state that subjugated the interests of its own people to those of US corporations. The same man that advised tobacco companies on how to combat publicity on the health risks of smoking later helped to devise a campaign aimed at developing awareness of those same issues.
It seems to me that despite his own self-declared membership of the "invisible government", Bernays was likely more of an operator than an original thinker. A capable man in a particular time and place. Reading between the lines of his story, it seems that he was mostly "railroading when it came railroad time". His prized techniques and methods were obviously well understood by the time of the Creel Committee. What was new was their application in the purely civilian economic interests of corporates, and the scale on which technology was making it possible to apply them.
Though Bernays is thought to have turned down some clients on moral grounds, the manipulative and deceptive practices that were his mainstay are about as morally convincing as Socrates' "lie breathed through silver" in The Republic. A "democracy" which rests on the cynical and consciously deceitful manipulation of the thoughts and perceptions, the sense of reality, of its subjects is a democracy in name only. The whole package of marketing-lead values and culture which Bernays had a hand in creating, and which has grown directly out of the approach to PR which he helped found, is an irreality foisted on millions of people for no better purpose than the preservation of an economic elite. And entailing the many social and human costs, not all of them close to home, that that preservation requires.
Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of progress in communications technology, and perhaps the burden of escaping from its mental shackles should rest on the individual, but it is going too far to claim, with Bernays, that it is desirable or even necessary to construct such gigantic falsities and to use all the weapons of technology and the age-old science of deception to encourage their universal acceptance.
Throughout his career, Bernays was utterly cynical in his manipulation of the masses. In complete disregard of the personal importance of their sincerely held values, aspirations, emotions, and beliefs, he saw them as having no significance beyond their use as tools in the furtherence of whatever the commercial and political ends of his hirers, and this utter lack of respect for his victims, the public, weighs heavily against his claims of moral motivation. We should take an equally cynical view of Bernays' campaign on behalf of himself: where he insists he is working to lead the poor befuddled masses safely through the maze of complex policies we should note that he obfuscated and deceived about the realities that those policies were to address.
Uncomfortably, his story also suggests that we are, en masse, malleable creatures, quite happy to live in imaginary worlds, fashioned from patchworks of images and associations, which can press our interior landscape into service on behalf of the aims of any boardroom or government committee; and that from the last century onwards, there will be technologies in abundance, and people such as Bernays who do not shrink from using them, to 'regiment the public mind'. It is easy to scoff at the German people who bought the Nazi lie, but we should realise that the same, literally the same, techniques that persuaded them see omnipresent use in our "democracies", hard at work selling us the products, lifestyles, and politics which we foolishly call our own.
Bernays, Propaganda, New York, HORACE LIVERIGHT, November, 1928, at
(Yes! Bernays' whole book is available FREE online! Download it now! Learn first-hand the techniques of a master manipulator and social engineer!)
Chapter 1 of PR. A social history of spin by Stuart Ewen, at
A journalist profiles a master of smoke and mirrors, By Stephen Fox,
The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & the Birth of Public Relations by Larry Tye '76 (Crown Publishers) at:
Goebbels and today's mass mind control: Part One, How PR opinion-shapers turn the people against their own interests, Carla Binion, via Online Journal at
The Musuem of Public Relations' entry on Bernays at:
A.A Brill quote:
Smokin'! - How The American Tobacco Industry Employs PR Scum To Continue Its Murderous Assault On Human Lives, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, at:
Light's Golden Jubilee
BBC TV program The Century of the Self, see:
Information on CPI:
Of Fraud and Force Fast Woven: Domestic Propaganda During The First World War, Aaron Delwiche, at:
Chapter 8 of the online version of: Nissani, M. (1992). Lives in the Balance: the Cold War and American Politics, 1945-1991 at
Excerpts from CIABASE at: