Edward Bernays

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Edward Louis Bernays
Edward Bernays.jpg
in the early 1920s
Born November 22, 1891(1891-11-22)
Vienna, Austria
Died March 9, 1995 (age 103)
Cambridge (MA), United States
Occupation Public relations, advertising

Edward Louis Bernays (November 22, 1891 – March 9, 1995) is considered one of the fathers of the field of public relations along with Ivy Lee. As a member of the Creel Committee, he helped U.S. President Woodrow Wilson propagandize in support of allied war aims during World War I. He went on to design PR campaigns for politicians and companies such as General Motors, Procter & Gamble and American Tobacco. Combining the ideas of Gustave Le Bon and Wilfred Trotter on crowd psychology with the psychoanalytical ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, Bernays was one of the first to attempt to manipulate public opinion using the subconscious.

He felt this manipulation was necessary in society, which he regarded as irrational and dangerous as a result of the 'herd instinct' that Trotter had described. Adam Curtis's award-winning 2002 documentary for the BBC, The Century of the Self, pinpoints Bernays as the originator of modern public relations, and Bernays was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life magazine.[1]

Life and Influences

Born 1891 in Vienna to Jewish parents, Bernays was nephew to psychoanalyst pioneer Sigmund Freud. His father was Ely Bernays, brother of Freud's wife Martha Bernays. His mother was Freud's sister, Anna. [2] In 1892 his family moved to New York City. In 1912 he graduated from Cornell University with a degree in agriculture, but chose journalism as his first career. He married Doris E. Fleischman in 1922.

As well as being influenced by his uncle Sigmund's ideas of the Unconscious, Bernays applied the ideas of the French writer Gustave LeBon, the originator of Crowd psychology, and of Wilfred Trotter, who promoted similar ideas to the English speaking world in his famous book, Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. Bernays refers to these two names in his writings. Trotter, who was a head and neck surgeon at University College Hospital, London, read Freud's works, and it was he who introduced Wilfred Bion, with whom he lived and worked, to Freud's ideas. When Freud fled Germany for London at the start of World War II, Trotter became his personal physician, and Bion and Ernest Jones became key members of the Freudian Psychoanalysis movement in England, and would go on to develop the field of Group Dynamics, largely associated with the Tavistock Institute where many of Freud's followers worked. Thus ideas of Group Psychology and Psychoanalysis came together in London around World War II.

Bernays' public relations efforts helped popularize Freud's theories in the United States. Through him, Freud's influence on the fledgling public relations industry was enormous, and that legacy continues today in the most direct familial sense at Freud Communications, a high-powered British PR firm owned by Matthew Freud, Sigmund's great-grandson. In addition to handling celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Hugh Grant and Pamela Anderson, Freud Communications has worked for companies such as Volvo and Pizza Hut, and also handled the PR for the 1995 launch of Pepsi's redesigned soda pop cans.[3]

Bernays also pioneered the PR industry's use of psychology and other social sciences to design its public persuasion campaigns. "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind," he wrote, "is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits." (Propaganda, 2005 ed., p. 71.) He called this scientific technique of opinion-molding the "engineering of consent."

In 1913, Bernays started his career as Press Agent, counseling to theaters, concerts and the ballet. In 1917, American President Woodrow Wilson engaged George Creel and realizing one of his ideas, he founded the "Committee on Public Information." Bernays, Carl Byoir and John Price Jones worked together to influence public opinion towards supporting American participation in World War I.

In 1919, Bernays opened an office as Public Relations Counselor in New York. He held the first Public Relations course at the University of New York in 1923, publishing the first groundbreaking book on public relations entitled Crystallizing Public Opinion that same year.

The Third Party Technique

One of Bernays' favorite techniques for manipulating public opinion was the indirect use of "third party authorities" to plead his clients' causes. "If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway", he said. In order to promote sales of bacon, for example, he conducted a survey of physicians and reported their recommendation that people eat heavy breakfasts. He sent the results of the survey to 5,000 physicians, along with publicity touting bacon and eggs as a hearty breakfast.

"He helped shape public relations by favoring the use of endorsements from opinion leaders, celebrities, doctors and other "experts" to strengthen the arguments his clients wanted to make. In addition, he favored surveys, releasing the results of experiments and polls to make a better case for his clients' positions and products," reported the New York Times.[4]

Bernays also drew upon his uncle Sigmund's psychoanalytic ideas for the benefit of commerce in order to promote products as diverse as cigarettes, soap and books.

Beyond his contributions to these famous and powerful clients, Bernays revolutionized public relations by combining traditional press agentry with the techniques of psychology and sociology to create what one writer has called "the science of ballyhoo."

PR industry historian Scott Cutlip describes Bernays as "perhaps public relations' most fabulous and fascinating individual, a man who was bright, articulate to excess, and most of all, an innovative thinker and philosopher of this vocation that was in its infancy when he opened his office in New York in June 1919."

Philosophy and public relations

Bernays' papers, just recently opened, contain a wealth of information on the founding of the field in the twenties. In fact, The Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of Public Relations Counsel Edward L. Bernays (1965) contains one of the very best overviews of the decade. Many of the essays selected for the Coolidge-Consumerism collection from the Bernays Papers were written as early drafts for The Biography of an Idea.

Bernays defined the profession of "counsel on public relations" as a "practicing social scientist" whose "competence is like that of the industrial engineer, the management engineer, or the investment counselor in their respective fields." To assist clients, PR counselors used "understanding of the behavioral sciences and applying them - sociology, social psychology, anthropology, history, etc."

Bernays, who pursued his calling in New York City 1919-1963, styled himself a "public relations counsel." He had very pronounced views on the differences between what he did and what people in advertising did. A pivotal figure in the orchestration of elaborate corporate advertising campaigns and multi-media consumer spectacles, he nevertheless is among those listed in the acknowledgments section of the seminal government social science study Recent Social Trends in the United States (1933).

On a par with Bernays as the most sought-after public relations counsel of the decade was Ivy Ledbetter Lee, among whose chief clients were John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Bethlehem Steel, Armour & Company, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Lee is represented in the Coolidge-Consumerism collection by "Publicity: Some of the Things It Is and Is Not" (1925).

The belief that propaganda and news were legitimate tools of his business, and Bernays's ability to offer philosophical justifications for these beliefs that ultimately embraced the whole democratic way of life, in Bernays' mind set his work in public relations apart from what ad men did. The Bernays essays A Public Relations Counsel States His Views (1927) and This Business of Propaganda (1928) show that Bernays regarded advertising men as special pleaders, merely paid to persuade people to accept an idea or commodity. The public relations counsel, on the other hand, he saw as an Emersonian-like creator of events that dramatized new concepts and perceptions, and even influenced the actions of leaders and groups in society.

Bernays' vision was of a utopian society in which the dangerous libidinal energies that lurked just below the surface of every individual could be harnessed and channeled by a corporate elite for economic benefit. Through the use of mass production, big business could fulfill constant craving of the inherently irrational and desire driven masses, simultaneously securing the niche of a mass production economy (even in peacetime), as well as sating the dangerous animal urges that threatened to tear society apart if left unquelled.

In Manipulating Public Opinion (1928), Bernays wrote: "This is an age of mass production. In the mass production of materials a broad technique has been developed and applied to their distribution. In this age, too, there must be a technique for the mass distribution of ideas." In This Business of Propaganda (1928), he argued that a public relations counsel "must never accept a retainer or assume a position which puts his duty to the groups he represents above his duty to society." In practice, however, Bernays took on clients such as the tobacco industry whose products he knew were harmful to the public. In later life, he stated publicly that he regretted doing so.[citation needed]


Cover of Bernays' 1928 book, Propaganda.

In Propaganda (1928), his most important book, Bernays argued that the scientific manipulation of public opinion was a necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in society:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democracy 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. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. ... 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 public mind.


Bernays had a particular gift for the marketing strategy called the "tie-up" or "tie-in" -- in which one venue or opportunity or occasion for promoting a consumer product, for example, radio advertising, is linked to another, say, newspaper advertising, and even, at times, to a third, say a department store exhibition salesroom featuring the item, and possibly even a fourth, such as an important holiday, for example Thrift Week.

Bernays' brilliance for promotion in this vein emerges clearly when one reads, in the Bernays Typescript on Publicizing the New Dodge Cars, 1927-1928: "Two Sixes", the story of how he managed to secure newspaper coverage for the radio programs he developed to promote the Dodge Brothers' new six-cylinder cars. The Bernays Typescript on Publicizing the Fashion Industry, 1925-27: "Hats and Stockings" and the Bernays Typescript on Art in the Fashion Industry, 1923-1927, reveal a similar flair for consumer manipulation in the arena of fashion.

In addition to famous corporate clients, such as the Dodge Brothers, Procter & Gamble, the American Tobacco Company, Cartier Inc., Best Foods, CBS, the United Fruit Company, General Electric, Dodge Motors, the fluoridationists of the Public Health Service, Knox-Gelatin, and innumerable other big names, Bernays also worked on behalf of many non-profit institutions and organizations. These included, to name just a few, the Committee on Publicity Methods in Social Work (1926-1927), the Jewish Mental Health Society (1928), the Book Publishers Research Institute (1930-1931), the New York Infirmary for Women and Children (1933), the Committee for Consumer Legislation (1934), the Friends of Danish Freedom and Democracy (1940), the Citywide Citizens' Committee on Harlem (1942), and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society (1954-1961). For the U.S. Government, he worked for the President's Emergency Committee on Employment (1930-1932) and President Calvin Coolidge.

In 1950s Bernays helped create India as the Democratic Republic of Southeast Asia by having the People's Congress of India adapt the Bill of Rights, adding freedom of the press, speech, religion, assembly, and freedom of petition to the country's constitution.

The Bernays Typescript on Public Relations Work and Politics, 1924: "Breakfast with Coolidge" shows that President Coolidge too was among his clients. Bernays was hired to improve Coolidge's image before the 1924 presidential election.

Another selection from his papers, the Typescript on Publicizing the Physical Culture Industry, 1927: "Bernarr Macfadden", reveals Bernays' opinion of the leader of the physical culture movement. Yet another client, department store visionary Edward A. Filene, was the subject of the Typescript on a Boston Department Store Magnate. Bernays' Typescript on the Importance of Samuel Strauss: "1924 - Private Life" shows that the public relations counsel and his wife were fans of consumerism critic Samuel Strauss.

Clients and Campaigns

Bernays's clients included President Calvin Coolidge, Procter & Gamble, CBS, the American Tobacco Company, General Electric and Dodge Motors.

  • In the 1920s, working for the American Tobacco Company, Bernays sent a group of young models to march in the New York City parade. He then told the press that a group of women's rights marchers would light "Torches of Freedom." On his signal, the models lit Lucky Strike cigarettes in front of the eager photographers. The New York Times (1 April 1929) printed a story headlined, "Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of 'Freedom.'" This helped break the taboo against women smoking in public.[5]
  • Bernays handled publicity for the 1920 regional convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Atlanta.[6]
  • Bernays once engineered a "pancake breakfast" with vaudevillians for U.S. President Calvin Coolidge in what is widely considered one of the first overt media acts for a president.
  • Bernays used his uncle Sigmund Freud's ideas to help convince the public, among other things, that bacon and eggs was the true all-American breakfast.[7]
  • In October 1929, Bernays was involved in promoting "Light's Golden Jubilee." The event, which spanned across several major cities in the U.S., was designed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Thomas Edison's invention of the light-bulb. The publicity elements of the Jubilee – included the special issuance of a U.S. postage stamp and Edison's "re-creating" the invention of the light bulb for a nationwide radio audience."
  • Bernays helped the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) and other special interest groups to convince the American public that water fluoridation was safe and beneficial to human health. This was achieved by using the American Dental Association in a highly successful media campaign.
  • In the 1930s, his Dixie Cup campaign was designed to convince consumers that only disposable cups were sanitary.
  • In 1934, Bernays spent $30,000 organizing a "green fashions ball" in the hope that it would stimulate women across the country to color-coordinate with Lucky's green packaging.[8] Bernays worked for six months to make green the fashion color of the year. In addition to organizing the "Green Ball" with socialites, he worked with manufacturers of accessories, dresses and textiles, and sent 6,500 letters and kits to department stores, fashion editors and interior decorators, telling them of the green "trend." At his urging, Harper's Bazaar and Vogue featured green on covers on date of the Green Ball. He also sent press releases with psychologist stories suggesting benefits of the color green, as "color of spring, an emblem of hop, victory (over depression) and plenty."[9] According to the New York Times, "sales figures" proved that the "campaign was a brilliant success."[10] However, the campaign failed to impress George Washington Hill, the president of American Tobacco. He fired Bernays, believing that the money spent on the campaign had been wasted.

Beyond his contributions to these famous and powerful clients, Bernays revolutionized public relations by combining traditional press agentry with the techniques of psychology and sociology to create what one writer has called "the science of ballyhoo."[citation needed]

Used by Fascists

History has shown the flaw in Bernays's claim that "manipulation of the masses" is natural and necessary in a democratic society. The fascist rise to power in Germany demonstrated that propaganda could be used to subvert democracy as easily as it could be used to "resolve conflict."

In his autobiography, titled Biography of an Idea, Bernays recalls a dinner at his home in 1933 where "Karl von Weigand, foreign correspondent of the Hearst newspapers, an old hand at interpreting Europe and just returned from Germany, was telling us about Goebbels and his propaganda plans to consolidate Nazi power. Goebbels had shown Weigand his propaganda library, the best Weigand had ever seen. Goebbels, said Weigand, was using my book Crystallizing Public Opinion as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany. This shocked me. ... Obviously the attack on the Jews of Germany was no emotional outburst of the Nazis, but a deliberate, planned campaign." Bernays is held in high standards even today, and was even named as one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century.[11]

Overthrow of government of Guatemala

On behalf of the United Fruit Company (today's Chiquita Brands International), Bernays orchestrated political propaganda in concert with the U.S. government to facilitate the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Bernays' propaganda (documented in the BBC documentary, The Century of the Self), branded Arbenz as communist and was published in major U.S. media. According to a book review by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton of Larry Tye's biography, "The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays & The Birth of PR",

"the term 'banana republic' actually originated in reference to United Fruit's domination of corrupt governments in Guatemala and other Central American countries. The company brutally exploited virtual slave labor in order to produce cheap bananas for the lucrative U.S. market."


Much of Bernays's reputation today stems from his persistent public relations campaign to build his own reputation as "America's No. 1 Publicist." During his active years, many of his peers in the industry were offended by Bernays's constant self-promotion. According to Cutlip, "Bernays was a brilliant person who had a spectacular career, but, to use an old-fashioned word, he was a braggart."

"When a person would first meet Bernays," Cutlip wrote, "it would not be long until Uncle Sigmund would be brought into the conversation. His relationship with Freud was always in the forefront of his thinking and his counseling." According to Irwin Ross, another writer, "Bernays liked to think of himself as a kind of psychoanalyst to troubled corporations." In the early 1920s, Bernays arranged for the US publication of an English-language translation of Freud's General Introduction to Psychoanalysis. In addition to publicizing Freud's ideas, Bernays used his association with Freud to establish his own reputation as a thinker and theorist—a reputation that was further enhanced when Bernays authored several landmark books of his own, most notably Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923, ISBN 0-87140-975-5), Propaganda (1928, ISBN 0-8046-1511-X) and "The Engineering of Consent" in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (March 1947).

Recognition and criticism

Bernays's celebration of propaganda helped define public relations, but it didn't win the industry many friends. In a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described Bernays and Ivy Lee as "professional poisoners of the public mind, exploiters of foolishness, fanaticism and self-interest." Articles in the journals of opinion, such as the one by Marlen Pew, Edward L. Bernays Critiqued as "Young Machiavelli of Our Time", and the debate between Bernays and Everett Dean Martin in Forum, Are We Victims of Propaganda?, depicted Bernays negatively. He and other publicists were often attacked as propagandists and deceptive manipulators, who represented special interests against the public interest and covertly contrived events that secured coverage as news stories, free of charge, for their clients instead of securing attention for them through paid advertisements. A 2002 BBC documentary, The Century of the Self, also describes Bernays as "undemocratic".

In 2006 a Der Spiegel journalist interviewed the founder of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller, Harold Burson, and asked him about the role of Edward Bernays in shaping the course of modern PR. "Bernays thought that he could control public opinion. His methodology, of course, was fundamental. Most of the things we do today were identified by Bernays 80 years ago. He had brilliant ideas. I met him a few times, but didn’t like him. He was one of the most egocentric people I have ever met," Burson said.[12]

Books by Bernays

  • Edward Bernays, The Broadway Anthology (1917, co-author)
  • Edward Bernays, Crystallizing Public Opinion, Kessinger Publishing, October 2004. ISBN 1417915080 (First published 1923)
  • An Outline of Careers; a practical guide to achievement by thirty-eight eminent Americans (1927)
  • Edward Bernays, A Public Relations Counsel (1927)
  • Verdict of public opinion on propaganda (1927)
  • Edward Bernays, Propaganda, Ig Publishing, September 2004. ISBN 0970312598 (First published 1928 by Horace Liveright, ISBN 978-0804615112).
  • Edward Bernays, This Business of Propaganda (1928)
  • Universities--pathfinders in public opinion (1937)
  • Careers for men; a practical guide to opportunity in business, written by thirty-eight successful Americans (1939)
  • Speak up for democracy; what you can do--a practical plan of action for every American citizen (1940)
  • Future of private enterprise in the post-war world (1942)
  • Democratic leadership in total war (1943)
  • Psychological blueprint for the peace--Canada, U.S.A. (1944)
  • Public relations (1945)
  • Take your place at the peace table (1945)
  • What the British think of us; a study of British hostility to America and Americans and its motivation, with recommendations for improving Anglo-American relations (1950, co-author with his wife Doris Fleischman)
  • Edward Bernays, The Engineering of Consent, University of Oklahoma Press, First edition January 1955. ASIN B0007DOM5E
  • Your future in public relations (1961)
  • Edward Bernays, Biography of an Idea: Memoirs of a Public Relations Counsel, Simon and Schuster, January 1965. ASIN B0007DFE5G
  • Case for Reappraisal of U.S. Overseas Information Policies and Programs (Special Study) (1970), by Edward L. Bernays and Burnet Hershey (editors)
  • Edward Bernays, Emergence of the public relations counsel: Principles and recollections , The President and Follows of Harvard College, January 1971; ASIN B00073BAI6
  • Edward Bernays, The future of public relations, January 1972. ASIN B00073BAH2
  • Edward Bernays, The Later Years: Public Relations Insights 1956-1986, Howard Penn Hudson Associates, June 1986. ISBN 0961764201
  • Edward Bernays, Public Relations, Kessinger Publishing, November 2004. ISBN 1419173383

Books about Bernays & PR

  • Larry Tye, The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations Crown, July 1998. ISBN 0517704358; Paperback reprint Owl Books, September 2002 ISBN 0805067892
  • Scott Cutlip, The Unseen Power: Public Relations: A History, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994. ISBN 0805814647
  • Stuart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin, Basic Books, November 1998. ISBN 0465061796 (Paperback); ISBN 0465061680 (Hardback).
  • John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry

Articles and Resources

Related SourceWatch Articles


  1. PR! A Social History Of Spin -Chapter 1
  2. Edward Bernays
  3. "King of spin", Guardian (UK) (January 16, 2000). 
  4. "Edward Bernays, 'Father of Public Relations' And Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103", New York Times (March 10, 1995). 
  5. Stephen Bender. Karl Rove & the Spectre of Freud’s Nephew, LewRockwell.com, 2005-02-04
  6. NAACP Conference in Atlanta: Civil Rights Action Through the Media. Museum of Public Relations. Retrieved on March 18, 2009.
  7. Alix Spiegel. Freud's Nephew and the Origins of Public Relations, Morning Edition, April 22, 2004.
  8. Sheldon Rampton (Fourth Quarter 1996, Volume 3, No. 4). Book Review: Stuart Ewen's PR! A Social History of Spin. PR Watch.
  9. Error on call to Template:cite web: Parameters url and title must be specified. The History of Advertising Archives, University of British Columbia (August 1987). Retrieved on March 18, 2009.
  10. "Edward Bernays, 'Father of Public Relations' And Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103", New York Times (March 10, 1995). 
  11. Stuart Ewen, PR! A Social History of Spin] (New York, NY: Perseus Books, 1996), p. 6.
  12. Nils Klawitter, "Master of Deception", Der Spiegel, July 31, 2006, p. 72.


  • Prepared by John P. Butler, William Gralka, and Paul D. Ledvina; Revised and expanded by Connie L. Cartledge with the assistance of Patrick Kerwin, Susie H. Moody, and Sherralyn McCoy, "Edward L. Bernays: A Register of His Papers in the Library of Congress", Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., August 2004. (The original version of this register was compile in 1996).

External articles

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